If Escambia wasn't the worst team in the state, it was close: it had gone 21 years without breaking .500, and over the previous three seasons it had put together a 3-27 record. The school's teams had been known as the Rebels, but that offended blacks, so they became the Patriots. But that sounded too Yankee, so in 1976 they settled on the Gators. But the school chose as its mascot "a goofy-looking old alligator," Thomas says, "and that's how they played."
Thomas had the alligator redrawn, nastier. And he laid down his three rules for his players: Be where you're supposed to be, doing what you're supposed to be doing, when you're supposed to be doing it. "Sounds simple," he says. "But it's very difficult for a teenager. If they break a rule, I don't run 'em and I don't whip 'em. I just toss 'em—that day. And they know that they're gone, so I can save the other kids. I love 'em enough to chase 'em off."
Thomas began his first practice at Escambia, in '83, with 38 seniors. Four were left at the postseason banquet. "I got called Gestapo, barbarian and all," says Thomas. Still the Gators went 7-3, thanks largely to a freshman running back, who would later become a Florida Gator, named Emmitt Smith. The state titles came the next two seasons, after which, during Smith's senior year, Escambia rode atop the national polls until a 17-10 late-season loss to Pensacola High.
Today the Escambia program is one of the most serious in the Panhandle, where the football monomania of the Bible Belt meets many of Florida's natural advantages. At the start of each season, Thomas sends hundreds of college coaches a brochure highlighting each of his seniors. A schoolwide assembly on national signing day honors every Gator who signs a letter of intent.
Thomas regularly interviews his players, getting them to list their goals and to tell him anything out of their past—"I know which ones have been abused," he says—that might be relevant to their development. Some folks point out that Thomas hasn't yet won at Escambia without Smith, who had such a wonderful freshman season last year in Gainesville that he overshadowed the other Smith over in Tallahassee. Thomas's supporters point out that he still produced five Division I-A signees last year—all of whom qualified academically—as many as any high school coach in the nation.
"Dwight's an unusual person," says Fred Rozelle (no relation to Pete), executive secretary of the Florida High School Activities Association. "There are places he couldn't do what he's doing. But if you're not out for football at Escambia, something's wrong with you. Blow a whistle there and everybody's all lined up."
FHSAA rules permit schools to conduct a summer "weight-training program for football." Thomas doesn't hide the fact that he interprets that to mean a program of total fitness, including cardiovascular training and flexibility exercises. "We're not asking them to hit sleds," he says. "We're just saying that you can't develop a totally fit kid in the weight room alone."
But Thomas wants to develop more. "At that age kids change so quickly physically, hormonally and morally," he says. "I want to know what they're doing. We lose so many kids over the summer who run with the wrong crowd. How we raise these kids affects how they'll raise their kids. It's where discipline and character are taught. Christ strove to teach those qualities, and when His people got them. He stepped back and watched them work. That's what coaches do. We step back on Friday night and watch them work."
Will someone please get the lights?
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]