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.
How else to explain a kid from humble beginnings in rural Mississippi ascending to the upper levels of college athletic administration and one of the 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.
"I'm told I've been banned in several states," Thomas deadpanned.
It was Thomas who oversaw the Southern Cal case involving Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo and resulted in major penalties for the football program. It was Thomas who, as acting chair, detailed the penalties handed down against Florida State that ultimately vacated wins by football coach Bobby Bowden.
Those cases, among others, filled his inboxes with messages that ranged from the amusing to the vile.
"I didn't expect that, to be honest," he said. "I should have, but I didn't. I didn't expect some of the e-mails, I didn't expect some of the phone calls."
Thomas appreciates the passion fans have for their schools and the very American right to express one's opinion.
Though he does not discuss individual cases or their details, he does say that the committee nearly always has more information at its disposal than fans, and that anyone who believes that the committee acts arbitrarily or has an agenda is mistaken.
"The reputations of institutions and the reputations of individuals are often at stake," Thomas said. "The committee takes its work very seriously."
One other certainty: No amount of criticism or praise will change him.
"Dennis has a very straight moral code," said longtime friend and CAA commissioner Tom Yeager, a former infractions committee chairman himself. "He knows the deal, he really does. I think he's got a good grasp of the big picture, and yet believes people ought to behave correctly, and if they don't, they're held accountable."
Thomas is a man confident in his experiences and comfortable with himself.
"The most important thing is that I haven't strayed from being Dennis," he said. "Every time I stick to that, it's served me well.
"When I deviate from that," he said, working up one of his belly laughs, "I get punched in the nose, so to speak."
Thomas grew up in the small town of Heidelberg, Miss., about 30 minutes from Hattiesburg. His mother was an elementary school teacher, his father a skilled laborer. They instilled in him the two primary components that have guided his life: education and effort.
"My mother and father always told us that you don't have to have talent to work hard," said Thomas, one of five children. "You don't have to have talent to respect others. I didn't understand it at the time, but it resonated with me as I grew older."
Thomas graduated from high school at age 16 and was on campus at Alcorn State before he turned 17. He was a standout center who remains the only lineman in Southwestern Athletic Conference history to be named the league's Offensive Player of the Year – playing at the same time as Jackson State star and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
Thomas finished college at age 20. He earned a master's degree at 21 and a Ph.D. at 29. He became a college head coach, at South Carolina State, at 32.
At every professional turn, whether it was an assistant coach's opening, a doctoral academic consultation, or a conference commissioner's job, the only thing Thomas ever asked was to be given a chance.
He said that when he interviewed with Hampton U. president William Harvey for the athletic director's job, he told Harvey: "All I want is an opportunity. If I can't cut it, you won't have to fire me because I'll know I can't do the job and I'll leave on my own."
Thomas shepherded Hampton's move from Division II to Division I. As MEAC commissioner, he has tirelessly cultivated corporate partnerships and was the driving force behind the league purchasing the building that now serves as its headquarters.
It gnaws at Thomas that his NCAA infractions committee work cuts into his duties with MEAC member schools.
The tradeoffs, however, are that the NCAA work gives Thomas hands-on, real-time experience in the areas of compliance and enforcement that he can take back to his schools. His position as chairman also raises the visibility of the conference, no small factor for a non-BCS Division I league.
Thomas is well aware that the visibility invites scrutiny, so he often chooses his words carefully and is rarely unprepared, whether he's in a room full of lawyers and academics or having a casual conversation.
"You have to be on your game from the moment you step into the room," he said. "That's because everybody is prepared. Schools have lawyers arguing their case. They're prepared. If a coach is part of a case, he probably has a lawyer with him, and you know they're prepared. If you aren't prepared, you're doing a disservice to the people in the room and the entire process."
Thomas knows that there are challenging times ahead, vast amounts of reading material and, at the end of the day, more colorful reaction from all directions once decisions are rendered.
"It's not the kind of job you take to win popularity contests," Howard said. "Dennis has to suffer the slings and arrows, but that's why you want an intelligent, confident communicator up there. That's why you want him up there. That's what he gives to us."