NORFOLK—Dennis Thomas couldn't have known it 20, 10 or maybe even five years ago. But as his hair and beard have become flecked with gray, and the former offensive lineman is now eligible for AARP benefits, he understands.
Where he is and what he does are the products of a lifetime of experience, both personal and professional.
NCAA's most important, and visible, positions?
"I believe that God's gift to man is his ability," Thomas said, "and man's gift to God should be his achievement."
Thomas, 57, has been a prominent figure within Historically Black College and University athletics for years, first as athletic director at Hampton University and now, nine years into his tenure as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Thomas' national profile increased markedly last September when he began a two-year stint as chairman of the NCAA's powerful Committee on Infractions, often viewed as the judge, jury and executioner of college athletics.
"I have enjoyed it immensely and I am enjoying it immensely," Thomas said recently, sitting in his office at the MEAC's Norfolk headquarters. "Sometimes you're involved in things and you don't get a sense that you're making a difference, particularly in committee work. But giving people their say and letting integrity be the guiding light — that's fulfilling when you're in this field."
Thomas' duties with the COI might be viewed as the culmination of a life's work. He has been a student-athlete, an assistant coach, a head coach, a faculty member, an athletic director and a conference commissioner. He has served on NCAA committees large and small.
"I reasonably know what goes on in the college environment," he said. "Having had these different types of professional experiences has helped me tremendously as a committee member and as chairman. You have a data base of experiences to draw from."
Thomas is a bear of a man with a firm handshake, a gregarious nature, a quick and focused mind, and a hearty laugh that comes easily and often, all of which serve him well in his present position.
"Dennis is extremely effective and probably one of the more assertive chairs of the committee," said Shep Cooper, the NCAA's director of the Committee on Infractions since 1998 and a man who's worked at the NCAA for 21 years.
"He takes charge," Cooper said, "and that's not surprising, considering the fact that he's a conference commissioner, he's been an athletic director and he was a coach. He's had a lot of experience in leadership positions. That's certainly reflected in the excellent job he does as chair."
The infractions committee is a 10-member group comprised of seven representatives from college academic and athletic circles and three "public" members – usually lawyers, judges or others with real-world legal expertise not affiliated with a particular school or conference.
Thomas has been a committee member for six years, but the chairman's position is an entirely different animal.
The chair is as much facilitator as judge. He conducts hearings and steers deliberations. He makes sure that schools and individuals whose cases come before the committee receive a fair hearing. He attempts to reach consensus with a group that, while exceptionally bright and collegial, doesn't always agree.
"I think one of the things people like about him is that he's got almost a king's voice, if you will," said fellow committee member Roscoe Howard, a former U.S. attorney now with the Washington D.C. law firm of Andrews Kurth. "He's very firm. He really commands respect, which is important because we don't have a lot of rules, where certain people have well-defined duties.
"Frankly, when he makes a decision, it is respected because, from my standpoint, not only is it the right one, but he explains it so well."
The chairman is also the most visible member of the committee. While hearings and deliberations are private, and COI members mostly anonymous, the chair is the sole face and voice of the committee. He announces findings and penalties. He holds teleconferences with reporters.
The visibility makes Thomas, and all who hold the position, the target for those unhappy with the committee's rulings.