A coach on the hot seat was never the case at Buena High School in Sierra Vista because for a seat to be hot, a program can’t be in the freezer.
When Joe Thomas took over as the Colts’ head coach in 2015, Buena was as cold as the tops of the nearby Huachuca Mountains in December. Four head coaches preceded him in a span of six years, all leaving on their own for something they thought was better.
“We’re not going to fire you for losing,” Buena athletic director Greg Duce told Thomas, an unproven coach who had an 11-19 record in three years at his alma mater Tombstone with each year there getting worse (5-5 in 2012 to 4-6 in 2013 to 2-8 in 2014) because of the lack of athletes and resources at the Class 2A school.
The state of Buena’s program was such (28-35 in that six-year stretch before the arrival of Thomas) that every coach was perceived to be the next sacrificial lamb, especially in a town where students come and go as military brats with Fort Huachuca there.
Buena equated to no stability and Thomas was handed the keys to the program as if he was a valet.
“When I got here I had some seniors in which I was their fourth head coach,” Thomas remembered. “When you are able to have stability and stay with these kids, the kids start to trust you.”
Thomas, only 34, recalls those long restless nights in the midst of a 22-game losing streak that stretched over four different seasons from 2014 to 2017.
“I didn’t like losing but I trusted the process,” said Thomas, who added that he knew “we would take our lumps” when he took over a program that had 12 different coaches in 18 years.
Buena had a pair of 0-10 seasons in Thomas’ first years. The 2015 season, his first, included three shutout losses and getting outscored 506 to 108. The 2016 season showed slight improvement with only one shutout loss and the opposition having a scoring edge of 498-144.
His third season (last year) started with a 29-12 loss at home to Tucson. That would be the end of Buena’s 22-game losing streak as the Colts went on a four-game winning streak before finishing 6-4 and only three ranking spots out of the Class 5A playoffs.
The Colts have started this season with a 4-2 record, including a significant win at Marana last week to open 5A Southern Region play. Behind one of the top quarterbacks in Southern Arizona, junior Jovoni Borbon, Buena hosts Cienega (5-1, 1-0) tonight in one of the Colts’ biggest games ever played in Sierra Vista.
R O A D T R I P
— #TheBoysInVail (@cienegafootball) October 1, 2018
“From where we were to where we are now, we’re a lot stronger,” Thomas said. “Our mentality is different. We’ve been down in the dumps. … This is my first graduating class. These guys have been with me four years.
“The expectation has been set. They’re meeting those expectations. They’re hungry. When you have these guys who’ve been in the program, they have the experience, you get tired of losing and you fight back.”
Thomas’ four-year tenure at Buena matches Mike Vezzosi (2004 to 2007) for the longest at the school.
Thomas learned about resiliency growing up in a military family of nine. He was a three-sport (football, basketball and track and field) standout at the small school of Tombstone. After graduating from there in 2002, he went on to Pima Community College to play football under Jeff Scurran and run track.
After that, he went on to compete in track at NAU until 2006.
Thomas turned to coaching by going back to Tombstone and learning under one of his mentors, Mike Hayhurst. He continues to feed off two other coaches he learned from while at Tombstone — longtime basketball coach Robert Bristow and his brother Roger, the track coach.
All the while, Thomas kept an eye, literally, on what it would be like to coach at a bigger school in Arizona.
Score of the Night: Buena 41 Marana 28. Colts go on the road and take advantage of multiple Tiger turnovers resulting in 28 points. The rest of the 6A and 5A scores (including that missing Desert View/Rincon one): https://t.co/2WCQSjR6ur pic.twitter.com/HNXggWVywT
— Gridiron Arizona (@gridironarizona) September 29, 2018
“I started watching the big boys play football when I was interviewing for the job (at Buena),” Thomas said. “I went to Cienega’s games well before I was at Buena. I was scouting. I went to the state playoffs and watched many of the teams that were in the 5A, just seeing how would I match up against these teams, looking at the speed 2A to 5A.
“I was confident that if I had some time I could put in some work at Buena and enjoy it. When I took the job, I said, ‘Am I going to be one and done? What’s the deal here? Mr. Duce, the athletic director, said, ‘We’re not going to fire you for losing.’ With that, I was able to establish my program. We were able to get rid of some people who didn’t want to be here. We were able to raise the bar and set those expectations.”
Thomas told Duce that by Year Three (last season) he would see where Thomas wanted to take the program. Year Three featured a winning record but a win short of making the playoffs.
“We were kind of upset about that. We talked about having unfinished business going into this year,” said Thomas, who had that slogan — “Unfinished Business” — printed on shirts that the coaching staff wears.
How times have changed in a matter of 13 months since Buena snapped that 22-game losing streak last September.
Buena’s football program has gone from out of business, practically, to having unfinished business under Thomas.
Borbon’s leadership is an important factor. Thomas allows the three-year player the responsibility of calling some plays for the offense.
Borbon called the game-winning play at Sahuaro on Aug. 25 in which he faked the hand off to Timothy Jones and completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jose Cheno on a fourth-and-goal play with 57 seconds left in the 16-15 victory. The play capped a masterful 15-play, 97-yard drive engineered by Borbon, who completed six straight passes in that stretch.
“We trust each other,” Thomas said. “It’s nice to have a kid like that who is smart. He is academically smart. I’ve known him since he’s been in third grade. It’s good to have that relationship with him. We talk all the time.
“He can make plays with his feet (5-foot-10 and 170 pounds) and extend drives with his arm. If he calls a play, I run it. I don’t want to take his confidence away. … If he calls a play and it fails, I trust it still because I know he went into the play with confidence and gave it all he has. I’m not going to be mad at him.”
Thomas then laughed saying that he would become mad at Borbon and his team if they “mess up a play I call.”
That’s the state of Buena’s program — once the laughingstock to now the coach doing the laughing.
The Colts go into tonight’s showdown ranked 14th with Cienega 10th. A victory over the traditionally strong Bobcats could catapult Thomas’ program to Top 10 status and a realistic shot at the playoffs.
The anguish of that 22-game losing streak would become a distant memory.
“The important thing is the administration has supported me. They let me do what I had to do to get to this point,” Thomas said. “I’m here and the kids know that I’m here. We’re changing that culture of Buena having a coach for one or two years and they’re out.
“We’re trying to change the attitude and the mentality by making it so we can compete with anybody that we play. We’re not there yet but we’re headed in the right direction.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.