Legendary Maryland football coach, Al Thomas, has died at the age of 76.
Al Thomas started the football program at Seneca Valley High School. Over the course of his coaching career, he won eight Maryland State titles, mentored thousands of young men, was inducted into the Maryland football coaches Hall of Fame, spawned a coaching tree of protégés who would continue his winning ways, and was greatly responsible for putting the small farming town of Germantown on the map.
Coach Thomas died Friday, December 23 after a long battle with cancer. He was in hospice care.
“He changed football in the State of Maryland,” said Terry Changuris, longtime friend and legendary Seneca Valley football coach. “He elevated everybody's game, or he would have won every year. He was my best friend back then. We were always together. And he taught me all he knew. And when I thought I knew enough. He let me know I wasn't even close. And I needed to work even harder.”
He began his coaching career in 1964 as an assistant to Gaithersburg coach John Harvill. A decade later in 1974, he started the football program at the newly opened Seneca Valley High School in Germantown. During his four decades of coaching, Al Thomas lost just 47 games as a head coach, while winning 242 games, a win total that ranks 10th on Maryland’s all-time list. His eight state titles are tied for most all-time with Bob Milloy.
In his first season coaching football at Seneca Valley, the school only went up to 10th grade, and his team played a JV schedule and went undefeated. The following year the school went to 11th grade, and the team moved to a full varsity schedule. “We went 6-and-4 without a senior in the school,” Coach Thomas told the Germantown Pulse in an interview in October for the story about the last football game to be played at the Seneca Valley field. That 6-4 season in 1975 was the worst record an Al Thomas coached Seneca Valley team recorded. “I thought that first season was pretty awesome. I knew we were going to be pretty good and the next two senior classes went undefeated.”
Coach Thomas’ 1977 “Pride of the Valley” team went undefeated, won a state title and gave up only six points all year, and those came on a turnover as a fumble was returned for a touchdown in a game against Gaithersburg. The defense blocked the extra point. The team would win 12 games with 11 shutout victories.
Coach Thomas changed many aspects of high school football in the state of Maryland. He was the first coach in Montgomery County to start summer football camps for players. It was Coach Thomas who was instrumental in getting lights at the Seneca Valley football field, which began the tradition of Friday night football in Germantown. “High school football was meant for Friday night,” said Coach Thomas in October.
Al Thomas won five Maryland State Championships with Seneca Valley in 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, and 1987. After leaving Seneca Valley, he went on to take the Head Coach spot at Damascus where he coached his son Marc Thomas in 1991. At Damascus, Coach Thomas would win two more state titles in 1992 and 1993.
According to a 2003 Gazette article, when Marc Thomas moved on to play college football at Salisbury State, Al Thomas took a position as vice principal and offensive coordinator at Cambridge-South Dorchester to be closer to his son. While at Cambridge-South Dorchester he helped that team to the state title game in 1995.
He ended his head coaching career with Sherwood, where he led the Warriors to the state title in 2008. It was his eighth Maryland State title. In April, he was inducted into the D.C. Touchdown Club’s “Circle of Legends.”
Beyond Xs and Os, Thomas taught boys to become men. It was his heart that made so special. “He would do most anything for his players and friends,” said Changuris. “He took many homeless kids into his family.”
Seneca Valley Athletic Director Jesse Irvin said Coach Thomas’ impact on his players’ lives is long lasting. “Former players come back and talk to me about their playing days,” said current. “These guys don’t come back and talk about that 60-yard touchdown or that win or this win, they come back and talk about how they became men on that field under the coaching of Coach Thomas.”
Thomas changed high school football through his hard work and dedication, and by inspiring his players and coaches to love the game. Nowhere is the more in evidence as when you look at the number of successful high school coaches who were either players or members of Coach Al Thomas’ staff. The list is a who’s who of Maryland County coaches, including current back-to-back 3A champion Coach Eric Wallich at Damascus; former Damascus Coach Dan Makosy who won three titles; current Coach Fred Kim at Seneca Valley; two-time state champion Coach Mike Neubeiser at Northwest; Coach Dave Carruthers who won six state titles with Linganore and Urbana; former Damascus Coach Todd Tunnell; Coach Mike Bonavia, who coached at Richard Montgomery and Sherwood; Coach John Kelley at Quince Orchard; Coach Mike Nesmith at Paint Branch; and Coach Kreg Kephart at Gaithersburg.
Of course that list includes Changuris, who succeeded Thomas and Seneca Valley and went on to win seven state titles. “My life changed for the best the day Al Thomas hired me to coach football in the fall of 1976. It was the luckiest break I could have ever had,” said Changuris. “He loved Seneca Valley with all his heart.”
Top: Coach Al Thomas during the early days of Seneca Valley Football. Photo courtesy Terrry Changuris.
Next: Al Thomas in 2003. Photo by J. Adam Fenster/The Gazette