Check out the latest in our feature series, "Making an Impact".
Each week we'll look at a moment, personality, organization or tradition that makes Texas A&M Athletics and those support it and compete for it so special.
Listen to John Thornton on Studio 12 Live (2/19/14):
Appropriately, Dr. John Thornton to be honored by SEC
for a lifetime of service to Texas A&M Athletics
by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
Standing at a crossroads of his coaching career, John Thornton decided in the early 1990s that it was time to either take the next step in the collegiate basketball ranks or to step out of the profession.
He’d already been the head coach in high school and junior college; he’d served as an assistant coach at the Division I level for almost a decade; and he’d even been an interim head coach at Texas A&M for roughly half a year at the conclusion of the 1989-90 season.
Following the end of that season, Thornton took a long look in the mirror and then analyzed his career direction. He essentially gave himself this ultimatum: Move up or move on.
“I was 40-years-old, and I threw my name into the head coaching hat at a couple of schools,” the engaging Thornton recalled. “I made it as a finalist for a couple of jobs at the mid-major level. But ultimately, those didn’t work out. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to be an assistant again. I’d been there, done that. I was in limbo for about five months before I finally decided to go the administrative route.”
Good decision for Thornton. And Texas A&M. The administrative route kept Thornton and his family in Aggieland…where he still is today and where he probably belonged all along.
That’s not to say that Thornton wouldn’t have made an outstanding collegiate head coach. It’s just difficult to imagine Dr. John Thornton making a lasting impact at any Division I school other than Texas A&M.
Thornton, the son of former Yell Leader Bill Thornton (Class of ’50), was born to be an Aggie. He was practically raised on the campus, and he fulfilled a childhood dream by leading the 1974-75 Aggies to the Southwest Conference championship as a senior captain. His first job as a graduate assistant was at A&M
Thornton, now an executive professor and director of the TAMU Coaching Academy, also served A&M as the Sr. Associate A.D./Student-Athlete Development and the interim Director of Athletics. Thornton, who holds three degrees from A&M, is probably as deeply rooted in Aggieland as some of the oak trees on campus.
He has impacted the athletics department at so many levels over the past four decades, and he is truly one of the legends of Aggieland. Appropriately, the Southeastern Conference recently recognized Thornton as Texas A&M’s representative among the 2014 SEC Basketball Legends.
The 14 members of the class of Legends will officially be honored at the SEC men’s basketball tournament set for March 12-16 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The 2014 class includes Eddie Phillips, Alabama; Clint McDaniel, Arkansas; Gerald White, Auburn; Greg Stolt, Florida; D.A. Layne, Georgia; Tony Delk, Kentucky; Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson), LSU; Ansu Sesay, Ole Miss; Erick Dampier, Mississippi State; John Brown, Missouri; Gary Gregor, South Carolina; Dr. Ed Wiener, Tennessee; and Matt Freije, Vanderbilt
“When I heard that, the first thing I thought of was, ‘I can only think of about a dozen people who deserve this honor before me,’” Thornton said. “But I am honored, and I know that it is reflective of my entire body of work. I have many great memories involving my basketball experiences here: Putting on an A&M uniform for the first time; playing in my first game; winning a championship; being an assistant coach and coaching against Duke in the (1987) NCAA Tournament; being part of that team that won the ’87 SWC Tournament after finishing last in the regular season; and even being an interim coach in a tumultuous situation (following the firing of Shelby Metcalf) are all part of my great memories at A&M.
“Then to be able to come back here in an administrative role and to raise my family here—both of our kids went to A&M—has really been very rewarding and gratifying. I am really enjoying my time now with the coaching academy through the Department of Health and Kinesiology, as I help students and student-athletes pursue a career in the coaching profession. Looking back, I definitely made the right decision (in the early 1990s).”
Thornton’s mother and many other relatives were originally from College Station, and John and his older brother, Bill, spent five years of their childhood living in Aggieland. Even when the family moved to San Antonio, they returned to College Station numerous times each year for Aggie football games and holidays.
“My parents would come to football games, and on the really big games they wouldn’t get my brother and me tickets,” he said. “We’d be on our own until halftime when they stopped taking tickets. We were 11 or 12, and we would go to the top of G. Rollie White and look out the windows that the building had back then and look into Kyle Field. We could watch everything that took place on one end of the field, but we couldn’t see a thing on the other end.
“When halftime would roll around, we would run down and get into Kyle Field for the rest of the game. With my grandmother living here, we pretty much grew up on this campus running around when it was small and quaint.”
Thornton eventually blossomed into a standout athlete at San Antonio Holmes, where he was a 6-foot-6 quarterback on the football team and a low post player on the basketball squad. Thanks in large part to efforts of his high school basketball coach, Paul Taylor, Thornton also received favorable media attention in the region, which led to some interest from various universities.
Thornton says he was appreciative of Taylor’s efforts at the time. But he became even more grateful to Taylor when he later learned about all that his coach was dealing with at the time.
“Paul Taylor, who was about 32-years-old at the time, really got me going basketball-wise,” Thornton said. “Nobody knew that this guy was dying of Leukemia. Before my senior year, he had really opened some doors with the media to get me some exposure. He died right before my senior year started, but he set some things in motion to get me some exposure.
“I was recruited by some mid-level Division I schools, and Coach Metcalf was interested in me because of the A&M connections. But he didn’t feel like I was ready for that level yet, so they put me at San Antonio Junior College. It was in the same league with Wharton, San Jacinto and Blinn. We played against the A&M freshmen—the guys I ended up played with when we won the championship—and we split with them. They had Mike Floyd, Jerry Mercer and those guys. We beat them at our place, and they beat us at G. Rollie. I ended up developing, learning how to play facing the basket, and I played in more than 60 games in two years.”
Thornton played well enough at San Antonio Junior College that he became one of Metcalf’s prized recruits. Thornton immediately worked his way into the starting lineup in 1973-74 as a junior, averaging 12.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He was also named the SWC Newcomer of the Year.
The 1973-74 Aggies were good, but they became a great team the following year when a couple of other junior college transfers—forward Barry Davis and guard Sonny Parker—joined Thornton, Floyd and Mercer in the starting lineup. That team not only won the SWC title, but it also became the first squad in school history to win 20 games.
“Growing up on this campus and seeing so many games, it was a dream come true for me to actually play here,” said Thornton, who graduated cum laude in ’75 with an undergraduate degree in physical education. “Then to be the captain of the team that won a championship was unbelievable.”
Thornton was part of another championship at A&M the following year, this time as a graduate assistant. He served two years in that role while earning his master’s in educational administration.
“After two years as a grad assistant, we went to Athens, Texas, where I was the head coach of a 3A high school,” he recalled. “I coached there for one year, then I went to the University of Texas-San Antonio for a year and on to Hill Junior College, so I moved my wife (the former Lanie Holder, Class of ’78) around five times in four years. Then I had an opportunity to come back to A&M as Shelby’s assistant, which I couldn’t pass up.”
Thornton spent the next nine years as an assistant at A&M. After he decided to pursue a role in administration in 1991, he planned on earning his doctorate in philosophy in record-setting time. But then a job within the athletic department opened up and altered his plans.
“My wife was working as a senior lecturer in the Mays School of Business, so I went to work on my PhD, and I initially was going to get it in two and a half years or three years,” he said. “But it ended up taking me seven years because I took a job as an administrative assistant to John David Crow and then an assistant A.D. to Wally Groff. As I had opportunities within the athletic department, it pushed back the PhD, which I finally completed in 1997.”
In his decade-long role as Sr. Associate A.D./Student-Athlete Development, Thornton coordinated or supervised virtually everything that directly affected student-athletes away from the fields or courts, including academic services, strength and conditioning, financial aid, training room and so forth. He also helped implement and advise the student-athlete organization Aggie Athletes Involved (AAI) and the student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC).
Thornton also served on the Professional Sports Counseling Panel, which was a liaison between A&M student-athletes in all sports and professional sports, which advises students on dealing with sports agents, knowing their marketability, etc.
Then in May 2012, former Texas A&M president Dr. R. Bowen Loftin as Thornton to serve as interim Director of Athletics, bridging the gap between Bill Byrne and Eric Hyman. Thornton retired from that position in September 2012, but he didn’t really retire. He agreed to become the inaugural Director of the Texas A&M Coaching Academy, through the Sydney and J.L. Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance.
“I never really retired, but I just have a few less hats now,” Thornton said. “I really enjoy teaching a class and opening doors for students who would to go into the coaching profession. Coaching was a passion of mine, and I love sharing that passion.”
In all of his roles at Texas A&M, Thornton was quite possibly the most relatable administrator on the A&M campus, regardless whether he is talking to student-athletes, faculty or staff. After all, he’s walked in all of their shoes and suited up in their uniforms.
“I’ve been blessed,” Thornton said. “The fact that I was a student-athlete here; the fact I was able to play on a conference championship team; the fact I was a graduate assistant and then a coach here; and the fact I earned a couple of advanced degrees all have helped me in relating to our student-athletes, as well as all of the other students I work with now. I have walked the path they have traveled. I’m not just preaching something; I’ve been there and done that.”
He’s done it exceedingly well with every step he has taken. He’s been a legend in Aggieland, and now the SEC is recognizing his legendary presence and contributions.