Photo by University of Illinois Photo Services
Edwardsville High grad Daryl Thomas celebrates after winning a wrestling match during his solid career for the University of Illinois. (Below) Thomas is pictured in March after being named the head wrestling coach at Lincoln College. It marks the first head coaching job of Thomas’ young career.
Wrestling has been good to Daryl Thomas.
The 2008 Edwardsville High grad recently secured his first head coaching job at Lincoln College, a junior college in Lincoln. He won’t even turn 26 until August.
It’s par for the rapid course Thomas has taken through the sport of wrestling. His resumé is plump and impressive. He didn’t even start wrestling until the eighth grade, but he took to it like a fish to water.
“I came from a family of six other siblings and I was the oldest and I was just trying to find my way, find my niche,” Thomas said. “I was really small, but once I started wrestling hard work was just a second nature to me and the sport kind of came natural to me. Having a guy like coach (Ryan) Followell who is extremely hard on you, I think he saw something in me right away. When I really took to it and knew I was pretty good at the sport is when I qualified for the IKWF state tournament as a first-year wrestler. I didn’t do too well there, but going into that offseason I was addicted and I wanted to get better because I found something I was good at.”
He went on to become a three-time state qualifier for the Tigers during his prep career and parlayed that into a solid collegiate career at the University of Illinois, where he was ranked as high as seventh at 133 pounds his senior year. That year he qualified for the NCAA Championships.
During his final year with the Illini, he defeated two-time All-American Chris Dardenes of Minnesota 17-8, the same opponent who ended his EHS senior year in an 11-6 decision at state.
It’s that grit and determination that have fueled Thomas’ quick ascension as a coach. He only has three years of experience: one back at Edwardsville as an assistant and two years as an assistant at Northern Illinois.
“It was kind of surreal at first,” Thomas said. “I’m only three years removed from college. It’s not like I was out looking; some people close to me reached out and asked if I knew the job was opening up and I didn’t. One thing led to another and now here I am.”
Edwardsville head coach Jon Wagner isn’t surprised to see his former grappler finding success.
“Daryl is a very energetic coach,” Wagner said. “He did a great job for us and it’s not surprising that he carried that to the next level. He had a chance to go to Northern Illinois and get some college coaching under his belt and along the way you meet good people and he got some high references by doing a good job and that’s how he landed at Lincoln.
“I think this is a great position for him,” he said. “He gets to take over the program and he has great ideas, he’s got a lot of energy and it puts him a little closer to home.”
Thomas has been like a sponge with every coaching mind he’s come in contact with during his short career. He knows without those mentors he wouldn’t be where he is now.
Guys like Followell and Wagner in Edwardsville and then Jim Heffernan, Carl Perry, Jeremy Hunter and Mark Perry at U of I have molded him. He does like to take a little of the credit for his success, though.
“I’ve been able to be around some great people and coaches,” Thomas said. “Also I’ve got to give myself a little credit for just the perseverance and hard work. It was just a testament to keeping your head down and working and good things will happen when you do things the right way as much as you possibly can.”
One of the first things Thomas did at Lincoln was conduct a camp for the Edwardsville wrestling program, an idea of Wagner’s. It was a chance to give back to the program where it all started and let Wagner see first hand how one of his prize pupils was doing.
“We still have a great relationship to this day,” Thomas said of Wagner. “Having that camp, initially he reached out and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ It didn’t really hit me until everybody got here. I was like, ‘Wow, this is all coming full circle.’ He’s a huge part of my success. We still talk all of the time now and I know I’ll be reaching out to him throughout the season.”
Wagner thinks it’s good for his current crop of Tiger mat-men to see one of their own enjoying the fruits of his labors. Thomas is a tremendous role model for the up-and-comers.
“I’m very proud of him, but in regards to the kids on the team being able to see the success he’s had and he was standing in the same position they were and they can see where wrestling took him,” Wagner said. “We don’t see wrestling in the pros and guys making millions of dollars, but there is a lot of pride in wrestling and it’s good for the kids to see he’s made a great life for himself, or at least a good start to one by using the sport of wrestling.”
Wagner admitted he’s not only proud of Thomas but a lot of his other EHS wrestling alums who have given back to their sport and the place where it all started for them.
“It’s been a real success story here as of late, Daryl being one, but also we’ve had tons of my former alumni come back and help out with our kids program and high school program,” Wagner said. “It’s been really outstanding. It makes me proud to know these kids, who are young men now, have learned enough through the sport of wrestling and hopefully through me and my assistant coaches that they want to share and give back.”
Thomas definitely won’t forget his roots and the program that started it all for him. He’s ready to dig his heels in and have the same lasting impression on his wrestlers at Lincoln that Wagner and other coaches had on him at Edwardsville.
“There has just been so much support from Edwardsville throughout my whole career,” he said. “I can never thank them enough for continuing to follow me and continuing to support me through everything. That’s something that can’t be replaced. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without Edwardsville wrestling.”
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