It doesn’t take a lengthy conversation with USC Aiken head baseball coach Kenny Thomas to know that he’s a gifted and willing storyteller, even if some of the tales might be a bit tall in nature.
Left-handed relief pitcher and team co-captain Tyler Stephan has his favorites.
“You know, he’s got so many of them,” Stephan said before choosing one in which Thomas, as a pitcher at Trevecca Nazerene, was facing an opposing batter who was approaching a home run milestone. Thomas initially agreed to throw him an easy pitch, but plans changed.
“Kenny changed his mind halfway through it and decided to run and catch it, so he robbed him of a home run from the pitcher’s mound,” Stephan said. “I always thought that was a pretty good one.”
While the accuracy of that story can’t be completely verified, before much longer, Thomas will be able to tell about the time he won his 1,000th game as a head coach, and that story will be completely true.
Entering the season with 987 career victories, the sixth-ranked Pacers’ 10-2 start to the 2013 campaign leaves Thomas with a 997-502 career record, for a winning percentage of .665. That includes 12 years at Volunteer State Community College before his time at USCA, where in 13-plus seasons, he’s amassed a 477-279 record for a .631 winning percentage.
Thomas said that it’s the winning percentage, even over the approaching win achievement, that he feels best about.
“Well, you know, that’s kind of hard to believe when you stop to think about it,” he said. “I’m probably, in the whole scheme of things, I’m probably a little more proud of the percentage than I am the number.”
Ranking Thomas, the Pacers’ all-time winningest coach, among the list of coaches with 1,000 wins is tough because 520 of them came a Volunteer State, a community college in Tennessee. Junior college records aren’t counted in NCAA coaching numbers when it comes to all-time rankings.
His Division II winning percentage of .628 coming into his 14th season at USCA had him at 28th among active coaches, though, and the 500-win mark at the D-II level would put him in a group of only 40 coaches all-time. He’s only 23 wins away from that.
Still, USCA athletic director Randy Warrick, a former Pacer baseball coach, didn’t want to downplay the simple statistic of 1,000 head coaching wins, regardless of the level. He pointed out that even winning 50 games a year – a remarkable number Thomas achieved in each of his last two seasons at Volunteer State – a coach would still need 20 seasons to hit the 1,000-win milestone.
“To me, winning 1,000 games says that you’ve obviously had a successful career,” Warrick said.
Stephan, a fifth-year senior, said that Thomas hadn’t been focusing on the upcoming big win, at least around the players. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been on their minds, especially the more tenured Pacers.
“As players, I think a lot of us older players are aware of it,” he said. “After playing for him for five years, I’d like to do that for him.”
Stephan also pointed out that Thomas’ history of success, even his years at the junior college level, are a real asset to the team in recruiting. He said that the season win totals and career numbers that Thomas has amassed allow him to “really have some substance behind his name,” something that made the Pacer program stand out to Stephan as a high school player.
“When I was being recruited, it was a big deal to me,” he said.
The lefty added that Thomas’ winning ways as a skipper likely helped bring in quality assistant coaches, including pitching coach DJ King and head assistant head coach Jason Walck, both of whom have experience at the Division I level. Another assistant, Josh Eachues, played professionally in both affiliated and independent organizations.
The ability to bring in quality assistants was also something Warrick highlighted from Thomas’ skill set, as was fundraising.
Thomas organizes, among other things, yearly rodeos that bring important money into the program.
“I think he brings a successful strategy to the program that’s obviously worked,” Warrick said. “I think he’s a great fundraiser. The fundraising he does with the rodeo allows our baseball team to some things they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do.”
Thomas said bringing in quality players through both the high school ranks and transfers from other schools has been as big a key to his success as anything. Naturally, to illustrate how important quality players are to a coach’s success, Thomas had a metaphor related to horse racing.
“The players is what it’s all about. You know, I mean, I like to say all the time, ‘You can’t take a mule to the Kentucky Derby,’” he said. “If you feed that mule whatever you want to feed him 30 days before the Kentucky Derby, when you open those gates he’s still a mule. And so you’ve got to have players, and I feel like I’ve had some great players all the way through, for all these years. … Good players make good coaches, and that’s one thing for sure, and so it’s a credit to all the players that’s ever played for me that I could get to this milestone.”
To extend the metaphor, the players Thomas has brought into Aiken have been far from mules. Since he took over the program in 2000, a total of 15 Pacers have signed professional contracts, including Stephen Carmon. The shortstop was named to multiple all-region and all-conference teams in his time as a Pacer and was selected in the 10th round of last year’s draft by the San Diego Padres.
Carmon said that Thomas’ obvious commitment to quality baseball was part of what drew the Camden native to USCA.
“When you talk to Coach Thomas, you can tell he’s all about winning,” he said.
In a total of 52 games last season at two levels of the Padres’ system, Carmon hit .272 with a home run, 10 RBIs, six doubles and four triples. He also stole nine bases in 12 attempts and only struck out 23 times in 173 at-bats. Carmon said when he arrived at USCA, he already had the athletic ability he would later need, but Thomas helped him work on the intangible parts of the game, like staying patient and not getting frustrated.
“He helped me tremendously, mostly in the mental part of the game,” Carmon said. “That is basically what helped me get to the (pro level).”
While Carmon, who won’t know until later this month where he’ll play this season, acknowledged that Thomas’ pending milestone is a testament to longevity, he wouldn’t concede Thomas’ notion that it means the Pacer skipper is “getting old.”
“He’s a young old,” Carmon said. “Coach Thomas is young at heart.”
A strong personality is required in both fundraising and recruiting. As shown in his storytelling and youthful demeanor, Thomas certainly has that.
Warrick said his baseball coach’s ability to lighten the mood keeps the athletic director on his toes in staff meetings.
“I can say this, he’s very unique,” Warrick said of Thomas. “He’s a jokester. When we go in a meeting, there’s no telling what he’s going to say.”
Part of Thomas’ tall-tale persona is a down-home Tennessee accent and manner of speaking that could lead to a misconception about the longtime Pacer coach, though, Warrick said.
“I think sometimes (Thomas) acts like he’s this country type of person, but I think Coach Thomas is a smart man,” he said. “You can’t be dumb and win 1,000 ballgames.”
Thomas would love to prove his intelligence this weekend by getting to the millennium mark. Because he needs three wins to get there, that would require a sweep of the series against Flagler that begins today at 4 p.m. The set concludes with a doubleheader scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The Pacer skipper said that because a sweep of a PBC foe is required to get there this week, doing so would make the win even sweeter.
“For me, I want to win it (this) weekend because that means we would sweep (this) weekend, and that’s what’s important,” he said. “If we get it (this) weekend, that mean’s we swept Flagler, and that’s what’s the bottom-line importance right here.”
While Thomas said he’d take the sweep and the milestone in any fashion, he wouldn’t be upset if the deciding game wasn’t a nailbiter.
“I’d like to be relaxed; I’d like to be up 10 or 12 runs,” he said.
There’s another benchmark that Thomas will certainly hit this weekend, regardless of how close the games are or even if the Pacers win. Tonight’s game will be the 1,500th of his head-coaching career, just another sign he’s been in the business a long time, the coach said.
“That’s little bit shocking to me. That’s a lot of games. They add up quick, don’t they?” he said. “No wonder I’m half-crazy, huh?”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
By the numbers
USC Aiken head baseball coach
26 – Seasons as head coach
1,499 – Games coached
997 – Career wins
502 – Career losses
.665 – Career winning percentage
14 – Seasons at USCA
477 – Wins at USCA
279 – Losses at USCA
.631 – USCA winning percentage
1 – PBC Championships (2009)
1 – PBC Coach of the Year (2009)
5 – NCAA Tournament appearances (2005-2009)
15 – Players to sign professionally
WHO: No. 6 USC Aiken (10-2, 2-1 PBC) vs. Flagler (9-7, 2-4 PBC)
WHEN: Today at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 1/4 p.m.
WHERE: Roberto Hernandez Stadium
TODAY: Ryan Milewski (1-1, 0.39 ERA) vs. Justin Ratte (1-2, 8.27 ERA)
SATURDAY GAME 1: Derek Beasley (1-0, 2.79 ERA) vs. Danny Brown (1-1, 5.40 ERA)
SATURDAY GAME 2: Wyatt Brown (1-0, 0.41) vs. Jake Brandenberger (4-0, 3.97