Jay Thomas had to cope with two hurricanes in taking Nicholls State to the Division I-AA playoffs.
A former Southeast Missouri State assistant football coach and his team overcame some long odds to reach the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
Jay Thomas, in his second season as the head coach at Nicholls State, not only had to battle the effects of two hurricanes but also the fact his squad was expected to finish near the bottom of the Southland Conference.
"It is quite a story," said Thomas, Southeast's defensive line coach from 1993 to 1998. "We have overcome so much adversity."
Nicholls State, located in Thibodaux, La., will carry a 6-3 record into Saturday's first-round playoff game at Furman (9-2). The Colonels finished tied for the Southland Conference title and earned the league's automatic playoff berth.
Not bad for a squad that was picked to finish sixth among seven teams in the Southland Conference preseason poll and had not made the playoffs since 1996.
In addition, the Colonels had their season opener at Utah State canceled by Hurricane Katrina and their fourth game against Western Carolina canceled by Hurricane Rita.
"We were right in the middle of both hurricanes. We got hit from both sides," Thomas said. "We have so many kids from New Orleans and down south in Louisiana, we had kids where parents lost everything.
"We had people who didn't even know where their loves ones were. Everyone turned out safe, so that part of it all worked out. Then, do you play or do you not play? We felt like it was best for the healing process to play games."
The Colonels learned three days before they were to play at Indiana on Sept. 10 that they would actually be traveling to Bloomington, Ind.
In what turned out to be the Colonels' opener, they nearly upset the Hoosiers, who rallied for a 35-31 victory.
Nicholls State started the season 1-3 but has won five straight, including Saturday's 39-26 victory over McNeese State that clinched the playoff berth.
"We missed two games and a total of 15 practices. For us to be where we are right now, it's a blessing," Thomas said. "It took us a while to get in stride, but our guys just kept believing and working."
Thomas, 45, had been an assistant at Nicholls State for three years before coming to Southeast in 1993. He worked under head coach John Mumford (now an assistant at Army) for six seasons and had a part in the 7-5 record in 1994 that stands as one of just two winning seasons at Southeast in 15 years of Division I-AA football.
"My family and I loved it in Cape and we still keep in touch with people," Thomas said. "It's a great community, kind of like where we're at now."
Thomas left Southeast and returned to his native Louisiana to become an assistant at Nicholls State. He took over the program two years ago when the Colonels' head coach was fired for academic fraud.
"A lot has happened here in the last two years," Thomas said, laughing. "But it was a good situation for me. I'm from a town about an hour and a half from here and it's nice to be back home."