ENCINO, Calif. – Troy Thomas doesn’t have to prove to himself or anybody else that he’s a “Crespi Man.” Celts alums near and far know Thomas is about the Crespi life.
However, the struggle of trying to prove himself as a “Servite Man” took its toll. Seven Trinity League championships, two PAC-5 titles, and a state bowl championship later, Thomas was still fighting that battle.
“In some ways, I was always doing it as a Crespi guy,” Thomas said. “Some people didn’t like that.”
The bagpipes that intimidated opponents before the Friars stepped on the field? That was a Crespi thing.
Camp Week in which the team spent days together on campus before the start of the season? That was also brought over from Crespi.
Thomas enjoyed and embraced all of the traditions of Servite, but there was always a piece of Crespi that never left him.
Servite became a state power and a topic in national conversations under Thomas’ guidance and yet that battle never went away. Still, it’s not the reason he left the Trinity League school in Anaheim.
The opportunity to return home is sometimes just too sweet to pass up. And for Thomas, the timing was as perfect as any.
It’s early afternoon, early in the week and Thomas has a small break from the day’s activities. He’s letting his hair down. Literally. His, now long, brown hair is about a shade darker than the “Crespi” scripted in light brown across the chest of his light gray t-shirt.
Thomas has taken a pause from the work he was doing in the weight room. He wasn’t lifting – that’ll come later in the day for the coach who’s notorious for getting in the weight room trenches with his players – instead, he was organizing. A set of new racks were delivered to the weight room earlier in the day.
Meetings and weights are scheduled for the team later in the afternoon but at this moment, Thomas is sitting in his office with a huge grin talking about his excitement of being back at Crespi.
“It’s great to be home,” Thomas said through a huge smile. “Right away I felt accepted here like I am a Crespi guy and that was always a battle at Servite – having to prove myself as a Servite guy. Right when I walked in I had teachers coming up to me right away and saying ‘Hey, we’re glad you’re back and we’ll help you in any way we can.’
“A lot of the teachers, either I worked with before or they were actually teachers when I was here as a student, so there’s a lot of connection. A long history. That was definitely comforting coming back.”
Thomas brought his Servite teams out to the Valley a couple of times to take on his alma mater, but that feeling was nothing like this.
Thomas played for Crespi, served as an assistant, and also had a stint as head coach. He led his alma mater to a CIF Southern Section title in 2004 before he left for Servite.
He returns with credentials far superior to the ones he owned when he left the last time.
It wouldn’t be hard to fathom, the Crespi kid leaving to accomplish big things and returning to Encino as an icon or even with rock star status. But not Thomas. At least not in his view of himself. True, he’s a much different coach than the last time he roamed the Crespi sidelines. Some would even say more respected. But more has changed since the last time he was at Crespi than the number of CIF championships on his resume.
“I just have a better perspective now, I think then when I first came back,” he said. “I was so consumed with trying to turn the program around that maybe I didn’t see the picture clearly as far as what’s most important. I think going away to Servite really helped me to see that it’s more than just wins and losses.
“I was more focused on winning on the scoreboard rather than trying to teach these guys the more valuable life lessons that you can learn through football.”
Perhaps, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered for Crespi. For the previous head coach Jon Mack, you could argue, winning simply wasn’t enough. Mack’s teams won a lot on the field but their psyche took a hit. Or two.
Mack resigned earlier this year after going 23-9 in three seasons. However, he only had one playoff appearance to show for it. The Celts missed the playoffs the last two seasons. In 2011, they lost a coin flip. Last season, despite finishing the regular season 8-2, they were left on the outside of the PAC-5 playoffs after not receiving an at-large berth.
The tough luck is no reflection on the talent. There’s plenty of it –10 players from last year’s team signed to play football collegiately – and the cupboard Thomas inherits is far from bare.
However, being talented without being a team caused them to miss the playoffs the last two seasons. There’s an accountability and a responsibility to the program players must have, Thomas believes, and it’s something this group is still learning.
“The best teams I had at Servite and Crespi and any team that I had that’s been really good, they ran themselves,” Thomas said. “The coaches just directed and guided, but the team ran it.
“The biggest thing I see in this team is that they got to become a team.”
It’s being there for your teammate. It’s helping each other academically, spiritually, and socially. Just because you’re the best player doesn’t mean you’re a good teammate. It’s everyone stepping up and doing their part and not just expecting one guy to carry the load, Thomas explained.
Thomas said that aspect is all new to this group of Crespi players and not a natural behavior for them yet. It’s a culture he’s trying to create in a short period of time. There are instructions and examples of how to be a teammate that, ideally, one would learn as a freshman entering the program so by the time they’re a junior or senior it’s second nature.
“It’s like freshman English,” Thomas said. “By the time they get to senior (year) you’re not teaching that basic grammar stuff anymore. You’re going to a whole ‘nother level.”
Thomas will spend the rest of the summer trying to get his team to that level. That’s where he feels his biggest contributions in his return home will be. So far, the group is making strides.
“We’re not close,” he said. “We’re closer.”
Sometimes home may not always be the way you left it.