A former player under legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, Francis William Thomas (1898-1954) was a winning head coach of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Between 1931 and 1946, his teams won 115 games and lost only 24, with 7 ties. Thomas's Alabama teams won two national championships and four Southeastern Conference titles.
Frank Thomas was born in Muncie, Indiana, in 1898 to James and Elizabeth Williams Thomas, who had both emigrated from Cardiff, Wales, six years earlier. The youngest of six children, Thomas was an outstanding high school football player in Chicago, where his family had moved. After playing football and baseball for two seasons at Kalamazoo College, Thomas was heavily recommended to second-year Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, who gave him a spot on the team. At Notre Dame Thomas had as a roommate All-American player George Gipp, who developed a throat infection in 1920 and tragically died a few weeks later. While playing at Notre Dame from 1920 to 1922, Frank Thomas and his teammates won 27 games against two losses and one tie. Thomas married Frances Rowe in 1928; they would have three children, a daughter and two sons.
As head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the 1920s, Thomas won 29 games, lost 9, and tied two in four seasons. In 1931, Wallace Wade, who had established Alabama as a football power by winning the Crimson Tide's first three national championships, resigned as head coach. Wade tapped Thomas to be his successor. Alabama had won the national title in Wade's last year, but 10 of the 11 starters on that team since had graduated, so Thomas's first team was not expected to contend for championships. Despite this, the team finished with nine wins and one loss and scored 370 points, allowing only 57 for the opposition. In 1932, Alabama won eight games and lost two, and in 1933 won seven, lost one, and tied one. In 1934, the team was undefeated at 10 and 0, capped by a win over Stanford University in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. After his first four years, Thomas had won 34 games and lost only four and tied one.
Among his players on the 1934 championship team was Paul "Bear" Bryant, later to become Alabama's most successful coach. Thomas hired Bryant as an assistant coach for the 1936 season, and Bryant would always admire Thomas.
Frank Thomas led Alabama to another national title in 1941, capping the season with a victory over Texas A&M University in the Cotton Bowl by a score of 29-21. Alabama did not field a team in 1943 because of World War II. In 1944, Thomas had a team comprised mostly of freshmen and military rejects. Led by quarterback Harry Gilmer, this team, called the "War Babies" by Thomas, won five, lost two, and tied two. The season included a 29-26 loss to Duke University in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama improved in 1945, finishing undefeated with 10 wins. The Crimson Tide routed the University of Southern California 34-14 in the Rose Bowl to cap a perfect season, yet finishing second in the polls to Army.
After the 1946 season, Thomas resigned as head coach of Alabama as a result of health complications from a heart condition and high blood pressure. Although he was only 48 years old, his health was such that he had to conduct most of the team's practices in 1946 while riding in a trailer because he could not stand for long periods of time.
In 1951, Thomas was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1954 in Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa.
Stowe, Naylor. Coach Tommy of the Crimson Tide. Birmingham: Vulcan Press, 1954.
Published February 26, 2009
Last updated August 18, 2010