Stephen Cox distinctly remembers the day he interviewed for the Thomas men’s basketball coaching job.
Cox was fulfilling his third assistant coaching gig at Georgia Southwestern, and looking for an opportunity to run his own ship. But Cox was particularly picky of the prospect. He didn’t want to fall into a pit of a position and constantly struggle to recruit and win.
That scenario seemed to rear when he trekked to Thomasville to see what Thomas University had to offer.
Cox shared an indirect tie with Thomas athletic director Mike Lee in the form of Mike Leeder, Cox’s mentor at Georgia Southwestern and the man who hired Lee 16 years ago when he was the Thomas AD.
Leeder founded the Night Hawks’ men’s basketball program in 1995 and coached them until his departure in 1998.
When Leeder left, so did TU basketball.
Lee salvaged as much as he could, but coaching a baseball team and launching a college athletic program is no walk in the park.
Intricate measures – such as developing facilities, hiring a staff and mapping a five-year framework – had to be taken.
Once everything was in place, Lee started making phone calls. Cox among those who answered.
When Cox arrived for the interview, he walked into an office that bulged a smorgasboard of clutter and coaches.
“There were like three or four guys sharing the office and there were old boxes and things all over the place,” Cox said.
After some basketball banter, Lee took Cox to the now re-done West campus, which Thomas had just bought from the county at the time. Pigeon droppings, bushgrass and other unappealing land aspects still loomed.
“I told myself right then that there was no way I’m taking this job,” Cox said. “Absolutely no way.”
Then Lee showed Cox the blueprints – not just the revamped basketball gym, weight room and athletic offices, but also the diagram for which to build team character and success amid and away from the game.
Cox left that day at odds. If Thomas offered, he’d be hard pressed to turn down his first college head coaching gig. But the challenge wouldn’t just be gameplans and scouting reports. He’d be starting from scratch.
So Cox took some time to soul search and spent a weekend in Atlanta. He received a call from Lee while attending a Braves-Phillies game at Turner Field. The hard-nosed, mustached Lee wanted Cox to join the TU family.
Cox accepted the next day.
Just under a year and a half later – amid a slew of recruiting transfers and a proverbial team redshirt year to get the team up to speed – Cox was prowling the sidelines as his first game as a college head coach.
The Night Hawks won their season and home opener, 82-71, against Florida National, and Thomas went on to 7-3 through the first month of the season.
Then came the skid.
The Night Hawks dropped seven of their next eight, and sandwiched a sour Christmas break in between.
“We had some lows there along the way, and it certainly wasn’t easy,” Cox said. “There were times where I know I did a bad job in preparation.”
Thomas needed a statement win to resurge the season.
That came in a Feb. 4 thumping of then No. 6 Embry-Riddle at home.
The victory catapulted Thomas to a strong finish, where the Night Hawks won four of their final seven. Two of those losses were decided by less than two points, which Cox attributed to help the team.
“It was certainly tough, especially blowing a 20 point lead on senior night [against Northwood],” Cox said. “After the game, I just told the guys that we’ve still got a championship to play for.”
Not many penciled Thomas in to the Sun Conference Tournament when the season started, but can you blame them?
New program, new coach, new regime – all unproven.
Cox and company proved with a 17-13 outing – which, had a few things gone the other way, could’ve been even better – and a semfinal appearance in the conference tournament that Thomas is here to compete.
“He’s energetic and passionate about what he does,” Lee said. “It’s obviously going to be hard to replace guys like Justyn [Watkins] but you’ve got guys coming back that did a lot of good things. I expect similar things for years to come.”
Cox plays the Bill Belichik card when asked about the future. He’s meek, yet focused on the now.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to learn to separate the years,” Cox said. “It’s going to be a new year and new team. The schedule will be different, the season will be different, the opposing coaches and players will be different. We can’t rely on this year’s success for next year.
All very true.
But with an innovative and vibrant coach who is so passionate about his players and program, determination will trump all.