As part of their 50th anniversary celebration, the University of Calgary Dinos athletic department trusted me to write profiles about each inductee into the Dinos Hall of Fame, Class of 2017. I’ll post the profiles I wrote as they get released over the next two weeks. It was a pleasure to work with the university. I am very thankful for their trust.
One day, when the University of Calgary Dinos men’s basketball program hoists the W.P McGee trophy for the first time after winning the national championship, Wayne Thomas should be the first one to give it a kiss.
He is the oldest University of Calgary Dino to be inducted in 2017 and one of the most instrumental in developing the basketball program into the national contender it is today.
“There isn’t a better suited Hall of Fame candidate than Wayne Thomas,” said current Dinos men’s basketball head coach Dan Vanhooren. “His legacy goes way past his exceptional playing career. What he has accomplished as a head coach, a coach in the community and his work in communications, is unbelievable.”
PIONEER ASSOCIATED WITH UCALGARY FOR 50 YEARS
Connected to the university for more than a half century, Thomas has seen it all.
He is one of the few athletes still involved with the University of Calgary that can fully grasp the enormity of the institution’s journey over the past half-century.
“He has contributed to the basketball community forever. He has always been involved with the local scene and the university level,” said Sixth Man Club chair of fundraising Geoff Thompson. “He has been carrying the load in the local community and on the Dinos front for more than 20 years now.”
Thomas predates the University of Calgary itself. He made his debut for the then University of Alberta at Calgary in 1964, on the basketball team. He was a combo guard on the 1965-66 Dinosaurs squad that captured the first Canada West title in school history.
He also played one year as a wide out on the football team and half a season on the soccer team as a goalkeeper.
Thomas left the basketball program in 1967 to begin his career as a banker. Quickly realizing banking wasn’t for him, Thomas returned to the team for the 1969-70 season and entered the education program.
While studying education, he also began his career as a coach, taking the junior varsity program under his wing. Little did he know that it would spawn a coaching career that would stretch more than three decades.
“He links generations at the University. There is a fraternity of coaches now that have either worked with him or played for him at some point, that have gone on to coach their own team or run their own program. His level of commitment throughout the years has been incredible,” said Sixth Man Club chair of alumni relations Sandor Kiss.
LONG CAREER AS AN EDUCATOR
Once again, Thomas parted ways with the University to blaze his own trail in the city as a coach and a teacher.
Working with four high schools in more than 30 years, Thomas never broke his connection with the university.
“I always kept in touch with the coaches throughout the years,” said Thomas.
He was at the forefront on breaking the ground of the alumni program. Along with the help from guys like Ted Hellard and Steve Sparks, the Dinos Basketball Foundation was born in the early 1980s. It was an initial scholarship program that aimed towards raising funds for the program.
Once his teaching career in the community was solidified, Thomas began to get more involved and looked to expand the program in the 90s.
“I wanted to start an ambitious alumni support program. To help attract recruits, you need scholarships,” said Thomas.
When Vanhooren joined the Dinos in 2000, he and Thomas connected immediately. The two put their heads together to form the Sixth Man Club, a non-profit association of alumni and program supporters backing the men’s program.
“I wanted to get things organized for this program. I’m obsessed with basketball and wanted a supportive program for the team,” said Thomas, who took the role as the club’s first president.
“There were about 10 years where Wayne and Dan were the only ones doing the work for the Sixth Man Club. If Wayne didn’t keep it going during those dry years, there wouldn’t be a Sixth Man Club. He was able to keep it going until guys like Tom Bishop (current Sixth Man Club president) and myself were able to step in and help him out,” said Thompson, who first connected with Thomas back in 1978, when Thomas was coaching at Crescent Heights High School.
During the dry period, Thomas ran the show. He handled the fundraising, alumni relations, mentorship and employment, marketing and community outreach, the finance and compliance programs – n incredibly burdensome group of tasks that is now split up among several others.
“People don’t realize all the behind the scenes work he puts in. He’s always around, doing communications work, making connections with alumni and fan support groups. He is like a father figure – no, a grandfather figure – for this basketball program,” said Kiss.
These days, the Club is more reformed and more active. Specific roles delegated, which frees up Vanhooren to run his team and not have to worry about the alumni group.
“Bringing everyone in has been a huge change and I am very happy to see it. Guys that have played for Dan have came back and made contributions to the program. We have great connections that have allowed us to expand to include detailed player support, fundraising beyond our goals and excelled activity in supportive roles that has taken some of the pressure off Dan and I,” said Thomas.
Thanks to the club, the Dinos are able to travel across Canada to take on the best competition that the country has to offer and keep an assistant coach on full time.
“The Sixth Man Club was able to raise more than $300,000 for scholarships this year, putting us right up there with Carleton for scholarship funds,” said Thompson, who suited up for the Dinosaurs from 1977-80.
ALUMNI SUPPORT FOUNDATIONAL TO TEAM’S SUCCESS
After 16 years, the club is still going strong, even though Thomas has stepped down as president, into a communications role. As the communications director, Thomas writes an alumni newsletter and organizes alumni events.
Thomas still sits on the board for the Club, but also finds the time to write a Canada West Basketball blog. Writing up to four articles a week, Thomas is dialed into the basketball season, as the Dinos just concluded another successful season, but missed out on bringing home a national championship.
The program is getting close. They are fresh off their second-straight trip to the U SPORTS Final 8 and have won the Canada West title four times since the birth of the Club.
“Winning a national championship is an elusive goal, not a lot of programs actually win one,” Thomas said. “The program has the strength and determination to make it happen now. When it does, we will all be absolutely thrilled. I don’t doubt that it will happen sooner, rather than later.”
Photos courtesy of the University of Calgary athletic department.