NATCHITOCHES, La. – After five seasons, Jay Thomas will coach the Northwestern State football team for the last time Saturday afternoon when the Demons host Stephen F. Austin in a 3 p.m. Southland Conference contest in Turpin Stadium.
Thomas told his players Friday evening that the SFA game will be his final one as their coach. His contract expires after the season and will not be renewed, said NSU athletics director Greg Burke.
“Coaching transition is never easy and that is especially the case when it involves a first-class person like Jay Thomas. I am certain that many others share my appreciation for how well Jay has represented Demon football, NSU Athletics, Natchitoches and NSU throughout his five-year tenure,” said Burke. “I wish him and his family all the best going forward.
“The foundation of Demon football has been enhanced under Jay’s leadership on many levels. Most notably, the academic profile of our football program – as evidenced by NCAA Academic Progress Rate numbers and related honors – has improved significantly and to the point that the multi-year score is well above the minimum benchmark and keeps NSU well-positioned to be eligible for postseason competition,” said Burke, who also pointed to Thomas’ involvement and visibility in the community and the Coaches Cabinet Association fundraising group Thomas established as positives.
Thomas and his staff organized and hosted one of the largest one-day, on-campus summer camps in the region this summer, with over 500 high school competitors visiting Turpin Stadium and NSU’s practice facilities for expert instruction.
The NSU football program had the best APR score, 975 of a possible 1,000, among the 11 Southland Conference football teams for 2015-16. The program’s four-year APR under Thomas is 957.
An impressive total of 91 players have earned undergraduate degrees since the end of the 2014 season and over a dozen of the 17 seniors playing their final home game Saturday will graduate this year or have already graduated.
As he prepared to give his players the news Friday evening, Thomas said he was completely focused on the 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon home game against Stephen F. Austin.
“I think these guys will take it the right way, rally up and we’ll be ready to play. We have game tomorrow, that’s the most important thing. We’re playing for our 17 seniors and we’re playing for Chief Caddo, the biggest trophy in sports,” he said.
“I’d like to thank the administration for the opportunity to be the head coach here at Northwestern State. It’s been a pleasure and an honor,” said Thomas. “This is a great university with a lot of great things going on. (New president Chris) Dr. Maggio is going to do a fantastic job, and there are bigger and better things to come here.
“To the fans and the alumni, and the student body, I want to say thank you for all of the support. Now is the time for everyone to rally together. It’s not just about the football program, it’s about the entire university. That’s what I would like to see, the Demon family have success. I’m always going to be a Demons fan. I’m going to be one of the biggest supporters.
“I want to thank our players, past and present, for all their hard work and dedication. We didn’t win all our battles out there, but we gave everything we had. I’m very proud of the way they represented the university on and off the field for five years,” he said. “And I can’t wait to go out there at Turpin Stadium one more time with them.”
Thomas, 57, has a 20-36 record with the Demons, 14-27 in Southland Conference play. Adding in six seasons (2004-09) as head coach at Nicholls, he has a 47-71 career mark in 11 seasons.
The Demons opened with a pair of 6-6 seasons under Thomas in 2013 and 2014, including a 2014 victory at Heart of Dallas Bowl champion Louisiana Tech, two blowout wins over in-state rival Southern, and a 2014 homecoming win over highly-ranked Southland Conference power Sam Houston State. But NSU dipped to 4-7 in 2015 and 1-10 in 2016, and stands 3-7 overall heading into Saturday’s season finale.
Since Thomas took over, the Demons have suffered 11 losses decided in the closing minutes, seven in the past two seasons, including bitter defeats this year to a pair of nationally-ranked Southland Conference opponents, Nicholls and Sam Houston State, in which they led nearly the entire contests.
“There have been so many close losses over the past two to three seasons that have resulted in the program’s win-loss record not being at a desirable level,” said Burke. “Thus, the decision has been made to move in a different direction with the program leadership in hopes of providing for our fans, former players and supporters more success that ultimately leads to championships and postseason appearances.”
Burke said Saturday’s NSU-SFA contest is the sole focus for him now, but consideration of options for choosing a new head coach is underway and will intensify Sunday.