There were two things that mattered most to Maryland high school coaching legend Al Thomas: family and football. In his later years, as his health declined, his time spent out of the house was at his grandsons’ sports games or area football practices.
“He was always a football coach,” said his son, Marc Thomas. “He really didn’t have much else in his life aside from being a football coach and a father.”
Al Thomas won a record eight state championships in his more than four decades on the sideline. He posted an all-time record of 242-47, 10th best in state history. He was inducted into the Maryland football hall of fame more than 20 years before he coached his final game.
He died Friday evening in hospice care in his sleep, his son said. The cause was cancer. He was 76.
“Al made coaching fun,” said Terry Changuris, a close friend and longtime assistant. “He treated every player as if he was his own son.”
Thomas began coaching in 1964 as an assistant to legendary Gaithersburg coach John Harvill. He became the first football coach at newly opened Seneca Valley 10 years later and won five state titles with the Screamin’ Eagles; his 1977 team went undefeated, won a state title and gave up only six points all year.
The opposing score came on special teams. Thomas’s defense blocked the ensuing extra point.
“People call him a defensive specialist,” said Quince Orchard offensive line coach Chuck Oswald, another longtime assistant. “The truth is, he knew everything about football. A guy like him with eight state championships, he would go to all these coaching clinics and always learn. And he knew everything.”
Thomas went to Damascus in 1987 and won two more titles. In 1997, he was inducted into the Maryland Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
His final head coaching job at Sherwood began in 2004 at age 64 a year after his cancer diagnosis. He’d already been passed up for jobs at Seneca Valley and Quince Orchard that offseason.
“I guess some people thought I was too old,” Thomas said at the time. “I’m younger than Joe Gibbs.”
He led the Warriors to four straight 10-win seasons. His final season in 2008 ended with an undefeated state title run. Family begged him to leave coaching after the year as the job and sickness sapped his energy.
“He just thought he was too sick, he didn’t have the energy to keep doing it,” said Damascus Coach Eric Wallich, who played for Thomas and later coached alongside him. “He still loved coaching. He always did.”
A year after leaving the Sandy Spring school, he joined Wallich’s staff at Damascus as the defensive coordinator, a position he left two years later as his illness progressed.
Thomas was still never far from the area’s football establishment. In April, he was inducted into the D.C. Touchdown Club’s “Circle of Legends.”
Thomas was an only child born in Johnstown, Pa., in 1940. His father was a veterinarian and his mother was homemaker. He was a three-sport athlete — football, basketball and baseball — at Southmont High School and attended Fork Union Military Academy for a year before attending both Slippery Rock and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he was a tight end and defensive lineman.
He joked with players that if it took him seven years to graduate college, they surely could go to college themselves, Oswald said. He used it to make fun of himself when he’d leave his keys on the roof of his car in the school parking lot.
Before graduating college, he went to a job fair on campus where he met recruiters from Montgomery County who offered him a job as a math teacher at Gaithersburg High School.
“They opened up this farm school in Germantown 10 years later, and the rest is history,” Marc Thomas said.
Al Thomas is survived by his wife of 51 years, Sally, daughter Andi Bernat, son Marc Thomas, daughter-in-law Christi Thomas, and four grandchildren ages 7, 8, 10 and 11. Funeral arrangements are pending.