Laddie Lawrence’s first memory of Thom Jacobs is from a track meet. A very passionate Jacobs was riled up about something.
“I turned to him at the meet and said something to the effect of, ‘Just think, there’s billions of people in China who don’t even know we have a meet today. Don’t worry about it,’” said Lawrence, the long-time track and field and cross country coach at Staples. “And he goes, ‘What?’ And I’m not even sure I knew what that meant.”
Those off-beat, enthusiastic and intense tales are what many recall most about the Amity coach.
In June, after 30-plus years of coaching outdoor track and field, Jacobs resigned to spend more time with his family.
He wants to see his step-daughter play her final year of softball at Cheshire.
But he also doesn’t want to be the guy who fades. Like everything that he does, he wants to be able to do it 100 percent.
“I respect what he’s doing,” said Danbury assistant coach Marty Ogden. “He could go on 10, 20 more years and just kind of milk it out. But nope, he’s like, ‘No. This is all I’ve got right now.’ Maybe he’ll come back. I hope he does.”
Jacobs will still be on the trails this fall as an assistant with the Amity cross country team, alongside head coach Bob Orgovan. The two have been coaching together since 1986. He’ll also still be involved with his timing company, Paynes Corner Timing. He says he isn’t quite ready to leave running — a sport which provided him a compass for life nearly 35 years ago.
“That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so attached to the sport,” Jacobs said. “And I don’t think right now I’d want to leave the sport entirely.”
A reason to run
It was the fall of 1979 when Jacobs first started to run. He was a frustrated baseball player at Amity when Orgovan suggested he join the cross country team. That squad didn’t make cuts.
“I was like, ‘I am going to do this because someone isn’t going to say no to me,’” Jacobs said.
But running turned into much more than an after-school activity. It provided him with an outlet.
“Being involved in running at 15 years old literally saved my life,” Jacobs said. “I was a confused kid. I was lost and I needed something where I could direct my energies.”
In his four years at Amity he served as captain of the cross country and track teams, focusing on the distance events.
He worked at Woodbridge Recreation where he developed his love for kids and coaching. When he graduated in 1982, he attended Southern Connecticut State with plans on becoming a teacher. He ran on the Owls’ cross country squad for Wil Wright and Jack Maloney.
It was in college that his coaching career started. His first two years he was a volunteer assistant with the Amity outdoor team and graduated to a paid-assistant position his final two years.
“I noticed his passion for coaching right from his first year as a volunteer,” Orgovan said. “He came every day and stayed until the end of every practice.”
Athletic director Paul Mengold gave Jacobs his first coaching break.
Jacobs, who was teaching science and chemistry at St. Mary’s in New Haven, was hired as the head outdoor coach for the 1987 season, his first year out of college.
“I was scared to death,” Jacobs said.
Learning to coach
Ask almost any coach in the state and they’ll start with an anecdote about Jacobs’ screaming. But that passion-filled, booming voice heard from every corner of the track began because he didn’t know any other way to coach.
“I spent the first five years coaching just screaming, because I figured that was the only way kids were going to listen to me,” he said.
The screaming and yelling never stopped, but his techniques evolved. The coach with the distance background made it a goal to learn one track and field event per year.
Jacobs immersed himself in a thick, blue book called the Track & Field Omnibook by Ken Doherty and the Sports Illustrated Guide to Track and Field. Frustrated over the text, Jacobs went to Colorado Springs, Colorado. That trip played a pivotal role in his career.
“It was a week immersion into the vault, high jump, long and triple … that opened my eyes,” Jacobs said. “That was the best educational moment in my track and field career. That was when I learned how to train people other than distance runners.”
After about 10 years Jacobs said he felt comfortable with all the events and filled in wherever the team needed him most each season. Aside from the technical aspect, his personal side of coaching morphed along the way.
“Every kid needs to be treated equitably,” Jacobs said. “The greatest change was really to try and deal with each kid on an individual basis. The personal development had to be unique.”
Said Ogden: “When he yells, it’s because he expects more of his kids. He feels like the real world is going to treat you hard and he’s preparing them for that. When he tells you something, it’s meaningful.”
Jacobs’ first piece of hardware as a head coach came at age 24. Amity won the Housatonic League title in his second year at the helm. He says the win was validation, not only for himself but for Mengold hiring him at such a young age.
“I felt a lot of pressure that I had to prove his trust in me,” Jacobs said. “It was a really good feeling at 24 years old.”
Many more wins and championships followed, including outdoor state titles in 2000, 2009 and 2010 and nine Southern Connecticut Conference outdoor titles since 2000.
But the culture of consistency Jacobs created is what most people now associate with Amity. One of the more impressive feats is the Spartans not losing an outdoor dual meet since 2004, a winning streak of over 100 meets that is still intact.
“It’s incredibly hard because the success comes from the top, the leadership,” Ogden said. “Amity’s in the mix, the top three or four almost all the time. … He’s never had a period of bad apples.”
One of Jacobs’ best memories happened in 2000.
“We were fighting for Class LL and beat Trumbull by one point,” he said. “That’s a day that’s very vivid.”
One of his regrets is never being able to win an outdoor State Open title. Amity finished runner-up twice.
“2010 really hurt,” says Jacobs, hinting that the pain has yet to subside. “We lost to Notre Dame-West Haven by four points.”
Along with the wins and losses come those rare and unique athletes. David Karabinos, who now competes for Cornell, was one of those.
“He was so natural and good at everything,” Jacobs said. “He made me broaden my expectations.”
Karabinos won a state-record three consecutive CIAC decathlon titles, scoring a school-record 6,178 points. In 2013, the senior rallied from sixth place to win the title.
“David being able to do that was a reflection of his outstanding work,” Jacobs said. “The way he fought his way back … it was a fantastic day.”
A few years ago during the indoor season, one of Jacobs’ student-athletes was late arriving to stretch with the rest of the team before practice. He was also carrying a can of soda.
“Jake took one look at him and right there in the main hallway of the school you could see fire in his eyes and smoke coming from his ears,” Amity girls cross country and indoor track coach Sean Mahon said.
Mahon said Jacobs approached the athlete with a rage he had never seen before.
“(He) grabbed the can … and exploded the can into the wall of the school,” Mahon said. “The coaches didn’t know whether to laugh or be silent, and the student-athletes didn’t know if they should sit still or run for their lives.”
That fiery passion is the main characteristic people identify in Jacobs. But it’s also what people love to hate about him. Or hate to love. Orgovan said that’s the real secret to Jacobs’ success.
“His athletes love the discipline because they know what is expected and all athletes must adhere to it,” Orgovan said.
“Thom is seen not as a strict disciplinarian, but as an adult who truly cares about them and wants to make them into quality young men.”
Branford coach Kevin Connell said Jacobs provided a voice of reason for the sport and a sense of direction. Connell said working with him at the SCC cross country championships, Jacobs always wanted it to be the best meet — from his timing company on down.
“His passion … he wanted things to work properly, he cared about it, he wanted it to be the best,” Connell said. “And I think he put all his efforts into making it that.”
Jacobs also coached indoor track from 1987-2011 and said the competitive nature was a major factor in staying involved. But in the end, it’s stories like his own, at age 15, which have mattered most.
“A lot of track athletes you get haven’t been able to find success in the mainstream sports,” Jacobs said. “To find a kid that wants to be an athlete, and gets to be an athlete, I really enjoy that.”
Jacobs said his relationship with Orgovan evolved so gradually that he never really noticed when it went from student to co-worker to friend.
“I was 37 years old and viewed Thom as a former athlete,” Orgovan said. “I was very much the head coach and Thom simply carried out my practice plans with an occasional question or suggestion. Gradually, over the years, we realized each other’s strengths and weaknesses as coaches and found the best way to coach was on a truly equal basis. There was never any competition between us.”
Orgovan says he now serves the role of the “old master” of cross country. Jacobs plans all the workouts and is the lead coach at practice. But if Jacobs resigns from cross country, Orgovan will follow.
“He is my best friend, although I know that I am not his best friend — I think I am too old for that,” Orgovan said. “We enjoy each other’s company at practice. It is the best time of the day for both of us.”
Jacobs says it’s still too soon to tell how much he’ll miss coaching track and field in the springtime.
“Ask me 12 months from now.”