After 28 seasons with the Owl’s cross country and track and field team former coach Pete Thomas had produced over 70 All-American athletes. Thomas has also earned NCAA Northeast Regional coach of the year five times, LEC coach of the year four times and men’s top cross country coach twice.
Not to mention 14 consecutive LEC wins for the women’s cross country team and 13 out of 17 LEC wins for the men’s team, along with two NCAA Division III second place finishes.
“There’s no doubt about it that the program he created is the most successful program for athletics,” alumnus cross country runner Maggie Fitter said.
Fitter recently graduated from KSC in 2013 and said she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do when she graduated, but Thomas guided her to where she is now. Fitter lives in Texas and is coaching as a graduate assistant at West Texas A&M University.
“He [Thomas] was definitely that person who is that father away from home which I think is something every college student needs, especially when we’re running as much as we do and running in high pressure meets — having Pete there to go to, for you know personal issues or issues with running — his door was always open for anyone who wanted to come see him, “ Fitter said. Like other alumni Fitter has used her Facebook profile as a way to show support for Thomas.
Around the time of the cross country team’s first meet in September, Fitter posted a picture with a hashtag that read #PeteThomasNation.
When asked why she did this she responded with, “At the beginning of the season there’s an alumni cross country meet in September and Pete usually hosts a barbecue for the alumni and gets everyone together and so it was obviously the first time that he wasn’t there and I was just thinking of him.”
When asked why she thought other alumni were taking their support for Thomas to Facebook she said, “Alumni are very proud of the program and being part of it and running under Pete and that’s where that came from … It’s a sensitive and unfortunate situation and unfortunate that the opinion of a few overshadowed the opinion of most of his former and current athletes.”
Like Fritter, Thomas is to thank for other post-grad job opportunities.
Tim Pipp, who graduated in 2011, said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help and support of Pete Thomas.
Pipp is a Keene resident and owns a popular screen printing shop on Main Street called Beeze Tee’s Screen Printing.
“The whole business I have now is based on Pete Thomas saying — I remember the conversation now, when I was in college and he said, ‘Hey, Tim, you would be really good at this, this is a great business and with your background and personality you would be great for it,’ so I learned a little about it from him and took it from there,” Pipp said.
He continued, “Pete owned screen printing business around twenty years ago until he took the job as a full time coach at Keene then it was more like something he did on the side. He always kept saying this is great business — he kept saying how great it was to me and I kind of took it to heart, like, Pete thinks I would be good at it this, it’s a good business and works with my major and I was actually really interested in it beforehand, so why not?”
Over the years Thomas and Pipp have maintained great communication.
“There would be days when I ran into a problem or had an issue and I’d call him up and be like ‘Pete what do I do?’ or he calls me up like, ‘Hey have you tried this?’ He’s still there as a mentor,” Pipp said.
Pipp continued, “He stopped by to see the new place (Beeze Tee’s) and his eyes lit up and gave me a hug and said he was proud of me, so that means a lot to hear that coming from him.”
When Pipp was a first-year student he said he was nothing special to the cross country team — just a first-year, but had a really good work ethic, which was something Pipp said Thomas could see.
“If you had good work ethic then he was willing to work with you. I think he saw that in me and I ended up making varsity indoor track my freshman year and was on varsity from then on. He really caters to his athletes. For me I wasn’t the best at working out but I was a strong runner and racer, so he could push me in certain ways where I would fare better in a race. He really understands athletes and really cares,” Pipp said.
When asked why he thought so many alumni were taking their support to social media he said, “We all had a choice on where we wanted to go to college and we all got to choose the person we wanted to be our mentor. “
Along with Pipp, a current student athlete who asked to remain unnamed said that Thomas also saw the potential in her.
“My experience has been awesome. I didn’t run in high school, but I ran in middle school and was very competitive. So, when I decided to come to Keene State I contacted Pete and asked him if i could possibly train with the team and he looked into my time and said yeah.”
She continued to describe her relationship with Thomas, “For me, it’s a little more complicated. I’m coming from a place where I’ve never really had a coach before, so he’s my first experience with a coach,” she continued,
“However, my experience with him has been positive for the most
part and I think he has an
amazing ability to see a person’s potential and he kind of sees a person who would never expect themselves to be something — but he can see it before they can and he pushes you towards that and that’s what I found with him.”
The student-athlete continued to say that the current cross country team originally thought the investigation was going to be over in two weeks and they would have a quick verdict.
Yet as three weeks turned into four weeks and now months later, the team started to get the feeling the outcome was not going to be good.
“We also all know that in these types of decisions we aren’t even aware of why they are made, we just assume that they were made for the good of the school and the good of the team and the well-being of everyone who’s in the program and who will be in the program. So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m assuming that the people who are deciding he can’t come back are probably qualified to say so and are doing their job. And if that was the verdict that was reached then I’m going to trust it,” she said.
However, she continued to say, “I think really what’s at the heart of the matter with Coach Thomas and Charlie Beach [former softball coach] is that these are people who have been coaching for a long, long time and I think that sometimes when a person has been in a position for too long the line gets blurred on what’s okay and what’s not okay. I think coach Thomas is a really great person. He’s not a bad person at all and the reasons for his dismissal, I don’t know all of them, but it’s not because he is a danger to society or anything like that.”
“You know, people start to get these ideas that are way more extreme than they really are and Pete was an awesome coach and person and it’s tough because it’s so complicated — it’s just complicated and there’s no other way to describe it,” she said.
When asked if she heard rumors that Thomas’s dismissal was fallout from the Eugene “Gino” Vallente case that happened last year, she said, “Gino got dismissed and Pete got dismissed so people put the two together, but they are two different things.”
She continued, “I think there’s something to be said about our system and what has changed about what is an acceptable relationship between a student and teacher and what’s an okay relationship between a coach and student-athlete — it becomes so strict. You know, you make one bad call and you put your hand on their shoulder and that can be misconstrued. Yes, he has been a father figure for lots of people on the team — is that a bad thing? Who’s to judge that?”
In the recent year, along with adding a new section in the student athlete handbook, an addition to the coach evaluation sheet has added asking student athletes to comment on whether or not a coach maintained professional boundaries throughout the season.
When asked what exactly is an acceptable coach-to-athlete relationship, Director of Athletics John Ratliff said, “I think a relationship built on respect both ways is probably the bottom line … Coaches have to maintain professional boundaries and I don’t know if you can teach that, but I think they should know what that is and we added that into our student athlete evaluation sheet, which we didn’t have, and that’s ‘does the coach maintain professional boundaries?’ so that we can get an idea, because that was never part of our evaluation process before.”
Ratliff continued, “It is up to a coach to know what that boundary is and if a student athlete feels like something has happened they have a place to go, but you hope you’ve hired coaches that know what that professional boundary is.”
Another Class of 2013 alumni Janel Haggerty said, “He (Thomas) played a really big role in all of our lives. In any sport a coach is one of the biggest support systems that you have and especially in college when your family isn’t with you 24/7. He was a great coach and had a really positive impact on all of us, he was always going to support us and push us. So I’m just thankful I had an opportunity to be trained by him and to work with him.”
Kendall Pope can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org