Track and Field: Exclusive interview with new head coach Althea Thomas

Following four seasons as an assistant coach at SEC powerhouse Georgia, Althea Thomas will look to capitalize on Vanderbilt’s unique value proposition.

Former+Georgia+assistant+coach+Althea+Thomas+will+take+over+Vanderbilt%27s+running+program.+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.

Former Georgia assistant coach Althea Thomas will take over Vanderbilt’s running program. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

On Thursday, Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Storey Lee announced that Althea Thomas will be taking over the Vanderbilt cross-country and track and field programs as their new director. After 15 years at the helm, former head coach Steve Keith announced his retirement in June. He will be succeeded by Thomas, who will look to revitalize a program that has never sat atop the SEC standings.

“I’m really excited with the opportunity to help the program grow,” Thomas told The Hustler in an exclusive interview. “I really have always viewed Vanderbilt, especially as I started coaching, as one of the best-kept secrets in the SEC.”

Thomas has lived and breathed the SEC for over ten years and now, she will take on what is no doubt her biggest challenge yet: directing two varsity sports that have never won SEC championships in the toughest conference in the country.

But the Birmingham, Alabama, native is well equipped to help bring the Commodores to new heights. One of the hallmarks of Lee’s tenure as Vanderbilt’s athletic director has been bringing in head coaches who were accomplished athletes in their own right—and Thomas fits that bill. 

She was a member of two NCAA outdoor championships in 2000 and 2003 and was a national qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles in 2003 while at her alma mater LSU. After Lee brought in former student-athletes Clark Lea and Shea Ralph, she has once again turned to someone who lived the student-athlete experience—just as she did—to help rejuvenate a program with plenty of potential.

“[From being a student-athlete] I learned that track and field is not like other sports. It’s not like other team sports where you’re part of a team and you have wins and losses,” Thomas says. “But what I learned at LSU is that you can still have a team and you can still rely on each other as teammates, and that was very important. And that’s the reason why when I was in school, we were able to do a lot of the things that we did.”

Not only did the former LSU Tiger have a distinguished personal running career, but upon immediately entering coaching after graduation, she emerged as one of the top assistant coaches in the country at various stops. Before four standout years as an assistant at Georgia, Thomas spent time at Purdue, Clemson, Kentucky and LSU. While with the Bulldogs, she cemented herself as one of the nation’s most distinguished assistants, proven by her winning of the 2021 USTFCCCA South Region Men’s Assistant Coach of the Year award.

“[As a coach] I’ve learned how to have a balanced approach to guiding student athletes to be elite: having a very high goal, letting the sky be the limit, but also just remaining cool and calm,” Thomas said. “There’s always someone who wants to beat you and it’s just about you being the best you and being able to focus that way.”

The sky certainly has been the limit for nearly every runner Thomas has mentored throughout her coaching journey. She has now personally coached two individual national champions and 30 All-Americans during her substantial coaching career. 

She will inherit a Vanderbilt squad with plenty of upside. Notable returnees include national championship qualifier and honorable mention All-American Taiya Shelby and a record-setting 4×100 relay team led by rising sophomore Haley Bishop.

“I see where there’s potential. We saw it in the track and field world in the last two weeks of the season in Taiya Shelby and what she was able to do,” Thomas explained. “I do know that there are some really talented young ladies on the roster. What I’m looking forward to doing for Vanderbilt is to find an identity.”

Shaping that identity will no doubt be ground zero for the new Commodore head coach. But she joins the Vanderbilt athletics family at a time of terrific change—both on West End and in college athletics—that will only help her build a successful program. The recently announced Vandy UnitedFund will flood athletics with $300 million worth of investments that are sure to impact each and every sport. That was just one of many selling points for the accomplished assistant coach.

“Oh, it’s absolutely probably one of the most exciting things about coming into Nashville and coming to Vanderbilt,” Thomas said. “It shows a commitment from the athletic department and I’m just excited that I’ll be on the receiving end of it and it’ll be here really soon.”

With a new positive outlook and powerful support from her athletic department, the groundwork is set for Thomas and the Commodores to grow a successful program in the nation’s most talented running conference. Alongside these building blocks comes the ever-present backdrop of one of the nation’s most appealing academic institutions, and Thomas intends to maximize each and every bit of Vanderbilt’s unique value proposition.

“We had a saying at Georgia, ‘find your greatness.’ And when we focused on that, we really became great,” Thomas said. “Set lofty goals, let the sky be the limit.”

Thomas will look to help Vanderbilt find its greatness beginning with this fall’s cross-country season, which opens in September.