The Perfect Fit: Austin Thomas’ talent is assembling talented pieces

By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor

Austin Thomas doesn’t need an alarm clock.

He doesn’t sleep much, as it is. Nights in the office often run past midnight – he counts four in the last week – and even when he does make it home, his head is often a swirling kaleidoscope of interlocking pieces in perpetual motion, preventing the static state of mind rest requires.

He has a puzzle to solve.

And, before the sun rises, he has calls to take.

“My phone will usually ring between 5 and 6 with somebody asking for something regarding a high school or a prospect or a coach’s name or something of that nature,” says Thomas, who is entering his third year as LSU’s director of player personnel, a job that entails managing LSU’s extensive recruiting empire. “That’s usually my alarm clock. I don’t typically have to set one.”

Thomas’ name might not ring a bell with most LSU fans, but when a Tiger coach is on the road recruiting and needs a bit of information – any bit of information – he typically goes to Thomas, first.

Thomas, 30, is a lifelong recruitnik who watches film on 2,500 prospects per cycle and, together with recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, maintains and manages LSU’s extensive recruiting database. He organizes recruiting events and visits and crunches scholarship numbers. He administers multimedia recruiting tools like LesMiles.net, the Miles Method iPad app, and LSU’s digital recruiting board. He culls and collects the pieces for Les Miles and his staff and helps assemble them into highly-rated classes that will one day compete for national championships

“It’s always been a lot fun to me to help structure a program and help the head coach achieve his vision,” he says. “It’s like a puzzle. That’s what makes it fun. It’s always been of interest to me.”

Sometimes, that requires late nights watching film. Other times, it requires early mornings, answering 5 a.m. phone calls from coaches needing any bit of information that could spell the difference in signing a star and losing their job.

That’s what Austin Thomas does. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Early Education

The recruiting cycle is accelerating every year, a reality Thomas faces daily while watching film of prospects who won’t graduate high school until 2019.

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“The way it is these days, coaches are getting scholarship offers out there earlier and earlier,” he says. “Prospects have to be identified earlier and earlier.”

To say with surety that a 13-year-old will someday shine at the college level takes a keen eye. The signs of stardom are often subtle at such a young age.

In Thomas’ case, however, harbingers of his future professional prospects were clear by the time he hit middle school.

“I remember being in 6th and 7th grade and getting sent home from school on Signing Day because I was on the computer looking at who the top recruiting classes were instead of doing my schoolwork,” he recalls, laughing.

“I didn’t know it then – and my parents weren’t happy at the time – but it was my calling.”

As a kid, the Franklin, Tenn., native would spend hours on BorderWars.com, then the go-to site for college football recruiting. Most of his family were Tennessee alums, so Thomas grew up a Volunteer fan as the program was at its summit under Phillip Fulmer, bringing in the best prospects in the nation every year.

Even the strictest of school discipline couldn’t stop Thomas from tuning in come the first Wednesday in February, a fact his parents eventually accepted as inevitable.

“From that point on,” he recalls with an ear-to-ear grin, “my mom let me skip school every Signing Day.”

Gettin’ In, Fittin’ In

A child’s obsession and a mother’s concession paved a path to where Thomas is today as one of college football’s elite personnel directors. That path that took him, first, to the University of Tennessee, where he enrolled as an undergrad and served as a student assistant in the football program.

A unique family situation led Thomas to transfer back home to Lipscomb University in Nashville, where he earned his undergrad degree, and shortly after, Thomas followed his heart back to Knoxville, enrolling in Tennessee’s Sports Management master’s program in 2008 and working as a recruiting intern in Fulmer’s final season. When Fulmer stepped down in 2008, in came Lane Kiffin and his staff, who decided to retain the talented Thomas.

“They just kept me around,” he says. “Coach Kiffin came in, and it became by default, for a while, that I ran that office. I wasn’t prepared for the job, but I knew at that point that was what I wanted to do. I never really had much interest in being a coach. I just enjoyed recruiting and personnel.”

For several months, Thomas ran the recruiting offices, all while trying to get his master’s, putting in long hours in the office and in the classroom, and hoping that the position that had become his by default would soon become his by deed.

“It was the best time of my life and the hardest time of my life,” he says.

Eventually, however, Tennessee filled the position with an external hire, a move Thomas didn’t want but understood. But the Kiffin regime wasn’t ready to let Thomas walk, especially after he’d flashed four months of serious potential. The day after they hired someone for the spot he coveted, Lane and his father, Monte – Tennessee’s defensive coordinator and a longtime NFL defensive coordinator – made him an offer he couldn’t refuse as a defensive assistant.

Well, I want to do personnel, Thomas thought. I want to be a general manager.

“But nobody in their right mind turns down Monte Kiffin coming from Tampa Bay,” he says.

Thomas worked under the Kiffins at Tennessee for a year, where he met Frank Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator who was then coaching wide receivers at Tennessee. When Lane accepted the USC job, Thomas followed his bosses west for another gig coaching defense – even if his heart still favored personnel and evaluation.

“My first year there I kind of did the defensive assistant thing again, knowing – and with them knowing – that I didn’t want to be a coach, but just kind of getting in where you fit in,” he says. “The second year, I transitioned into personnel and operations and just went up from there.”

Maxing Out

Thomas worked his way up the chain in Los Angeles, impressing his peers with his relentless work ethic.

“Myself and Monte Kiffin loved him to death,” Ed Orgeron – former USC recruiting coordinator – told 104.5 ESPN’s Culotta and the Prince in December, before he was hired as LSU’s defensive line coach in January. “He was a very, very smart young man, very bright, self-starter. At USC, he was actually doing about four people’s jobs. While we were sleeping, he’d stay in the office until 1 o’clock in the morning, be back there at 5 o’clock. He did things from A to Z really sharp.”

[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]”It’s always been a lot fun to me to help structure a program and help the head coach achieve his vision. It’s like a puzzle. That’s what makes it fun. It’s always been of interest to me.” [/su_pullquote]

Thomas eventually earned the title of assistant director of operations/recruiting in April 2012, but after a few years of west coast sunsets, Thomas saw change on the horizons.

“I was there for three and a half years, and in 2013, it was time to move, time to expand my capacity,” he says. “I felt like I had maxed myself out there.”

So in March 2013, Thomas accepted an offer from Dave Clawson at Bowling Green to serve as their personnel director, a title he had long desired at a location just an hour from home.

Two weeks later, however, Thomas once again got an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I was there for about two weeks, and then the personnel job opened at LSU,” he recalls. “It was God’s blessings – and knowing Frank. Coach Miles called me and asked if I wanted to come interview. I didn’t think I’d get it, but I wound up getting the job.”

The good news left the conscientious Thomas in a personal bind. On one hand, he was thrilled to take the position at LSU, but on the other, he felt like he was leaving Bowling Green in a bind.

“I didn’t want to leave Bowling Green that way,” he says, “but it was just one of those opportunities. I would have never chosen for it to fall that way, because I think that put them in a bad position. They had to go back through the hiring process two weeks later. When I talked to Coach Clawson and the rest of the staff there, they were wonderful. That’s an opportunity you can’t turn down, and really the majority of them – if not all – would have done the same thing if presented with that opportunity.”

“Brilliant Beyond Words”

At LSU, Thomas has thrived. In his first full recruiting cycle, he helped LSU secure the No. 2 class in the country, including the nation’s top-ranked player, Leonard Fournette. That work earned Thomas a nomination as FootballScoop’s Director of Player Personnel of the Year.

Not a bad debut.

“Austin’s really made an impact,” said Jimmy Smith, NOLA.com’s high school football recruiting analyst who has years of experience in the scouting business. “And it’s behind the scenes. You don’t get to hear about him too much, because not many people know what goes on behind the scenes, and Austin Thomas is one of the key pieces to keeping everything together for LSU.”

‘Keeping things together’ is an apt description of Thomas’ job. He looks at recruiting like a puzzle. Les Miles directs the vision of what that puzzle will look like – the big picture – leaving it up to Thomas and his team to help find the right pieces.

“It starts and ends with Coach Miles,” says Thomas. “It’s his vision. What he does is give – through Coach Wilson and on down – us a chance to create that vision. It’s nice, because you feel like you have a great hand in what he’s trying to achieve in the program.”

Creating that vision begins with research and film – lots and lots of film. After using a slew of databases and conducting extensive research on young prospects, Thomas helps spearhead the film collection effort, finding quality film of quality talent and uploading it to LSU’s digital database with the help of his staff of students and assistants.

“The last time I checked we had over 2,500 guys for this past cycle,” Thomas says. “You add up the ones we watch that didn’t quite make that list, it’s a big time volume of film. I can’t even put an hour amount on it because it’s way up there.”

Adding to that workload is the fact that every recruiting cycle is an 18-month job. Classes overlap, meaning Thomas is often working on multiple puzzles at once.

“His eyes are often the first ones to see the tape on these kids,” said Smith. “He watches probably more film than anyone in the state. He plays a key role in who they identify and who they recruit.

“He just gets it all done, and he never seems overworked.”

The goal, Thomas says, is to make recruiting as easy as possible for LSU’s coaches, so that theyaren’t overworked. He tries to match their grind, pointing them in the right direction, so they can bring home the bacon.

“The more I can do to alleviate them from having to spend their time recruiting, the better,” Thomas says. “We try to be as efficient as possible, as thorough as possible in gathering research and getting the right guys to the coaches so they’re not wasting time and at the end of the day all they have to do is say, ‘Let’s go get them.’ They have to develop that relationship and go get them, but really it’s – from Sharon Lewis and her girls at the end of the hall that handle a lot of visits and mailings to Justin to myself – it’s really about identifying those guys and putting together the vision Coach Miles has for the program.”

A Piece of the Puzzle

Ed Orgeron knows NFL talent.

In nearly three decades of coaching at the college and professional franks, Orgeron has groomed NFL stars like Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy, seeing firsthand what it takes to make it at the next level.

While working with Thomas first at Tennessee and then at USC, Coach O saw the makings of a future front office star.

“He’s a guy I think one day will be a general manager in the NFL,” Orgeron told Culotta & The Prince. “He has a bright future ahead of him.”

However bright that future may be, Thomas isn’t looking at it right now. He loves the job he has now, a position Miles has allowed him to model as a GM of sorts.

“Coach Miles has done a great job of almost making it that way here,” Thomas says. “He’s given me all the tools and freedom to help him create his vision. When you lay in bed at night and you’re a kid growing up, that’s the ultimate goal – to be an NFL GM. But I’m happy here. I enjoy it here. My wife enjoys it here. We love the staff, we love the administration. It’s a great team effort. I really have enjoyed being here and learning from some of the best in the business.”

He raves about the men he works with. He calls himself “blessed to have the opportunities Coach Miles has given” him, referring to LSU’s head coach as “a great man, a great leader” and “one of the best coaches in football.”

He calls Wilson “the ultimate professional,” a brother whom he trusts with his life. And he beams when asked about the newly hired Orgeron, whom he considers “a father figure.”

“Coach O was the first guy to really believe in me and tell me that I could do this,” he says.

Coach O’s beliefs have proven true. Wilson, in Thomas’ FootballScoop nomination, said “there is no one better at this.”

“He is brilliant beyond words,” Wilson said.

But Thomas’ brilliance would be wasted without the necessary tools to implement it. He’s a team player who takes any opportunity to express gratitude for the people around him, citing everyone from assistant ADs Sam Nader and Sharon Lewis to assistant director of football operations Dean Dingman and assistant director of player personnel Justin Vincent as critical to his success.

In the puzzle that is the LSU football program, Thomas insists he is but a small piece.

“Recruiting is a total group effort,” he says. “It really starts at the top with Coach Miles, and even across the street with Joe Alleva and Verge Ausberry on down, through Coach Wilson and the staff. They’ve given us the resources and tools and everything we need to be successful. They leave no stone unturned.”

Chasing Dreams

Tuesday night will bring even less sleep than normal for Thomas.

In a Signing Day Eve tradition, the coaches and staff will gather for a stay over at the Football Operations Building. While most make phone calls and gear up for the big Wednesday ahead, Thomas will be working on yet another puzzle.

“For me, a lot of that time will be spent watching 2016s and ‘17s,” he said, adding that he hopes to finish his top 200 for 2017 by the summer.

After little shuteye, Wednesday will bring the excitement of seeing the final picture finally assembled. The staff will wait anxiously by the fax machine, checking each letter of intent as it comes in before finally moving players from the ‘committed’ board to what Thomas calls the ‘signed, sealed, and delivered’ board and enjoying a celebration per signing.

“It’s the culmination of 18 months of work and really an exciting day for us,” he says. “There’s no better feeling than when you get those guys to send their letter of intent and you know they’re actually part of that puzzle.”

After all the pieces finally fall into place, Thomas will head home Wednesday a little earlier than his usual midnight departure, enjoying an evening with his wife, Brittney, another person he’s quick to credit for his success.

“She’s special because she grew up in football,” he says. “She knows. You can’t do it without special people. If you want to do this, you better have a special person behind you, because if you don’t, you’d be miserable. She’s awesome. She allows me to do what I want to do and chase my dreams.”

Dreams usually come with sleep, and on Wednesday, after LSU puts a bow on another highly-ranked recruiting class, Thomas may even get a full eight hours. But on Thursday, normally a day off, it’s back to the grind: Junior Day is coming up, a weekend earlier than in years past.

“I’ll try to take Wednesday night and sleep well, and then be right back up planning the logistics and finalized lists for our staff meeting on Thursday or Friday for that Junior Day,” Thomas says.

“No rest for the weary.”

And that’s just fine by Thomas. He seems to prefer it that way, actually. The dreams he has, they don’t necessarily require sleep. They’re coming together, puzzle pieces in a perfect fit, and Thomas is wide awake, watching his dreams come true.

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