Hall of Fame Feature: Tommy Joe Eagles
Sept. 18, 2017
Tommy Joe Eagles will be inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 29. He joins Denny Duron, Pam Gant, Dale Holman, Luke McCown, Keith Prince and Pat Tilley in the 2017 Hall of Fame Class. This is the third of a series of seven feature stories on this year's inductees. The HOF event is sold out. However, the inductees will be recognized at halftime of the Sept. 30 home game against South Alabama.
By Kane McGuire
RUSTON -- In the mid-1960's in a tucked-away small town of Doyline, Louisiana, a young man named Tommy Joe Eagles possessed a very strong faith and a pretty good jump shot.
His brilliance on the basketball court showed up both in the box score (2,744 career points) and in the win column. Tommy Joe led Doyline High School to the '67 Louisiana state title, the last time the Panthers held up THE trophy.
An even bigger victory in Tommy Joe's life at the time was winning the heart of Connie Thomas.
The two started dating as juniors. Connie planned to attend Louisiana Tech, a modern-day drive of roughly 45 minutes east down Interstate 20. On the other hand, Tommy Joe -- the Louisiana State Player of the Year -- had basketball scholarship offers galore.
He ultimately chose to be a Bulldog.
"I think because I came here, that's the reason he came," Connie chuckled.
Another reason was his love for someone else ... Louisiana Tech head coach Scotty Robertson.
According to old media guides, Scotty described Tommy Joe, whose son Jamie will speak on his behalf at the Sept. 29 LA Tech Athletics Hall of Fame ceremony, as your small-town basketball player who dedicated so much to the game of basketball. According to Connie, Tommy Joe described Scotty as an amazing man and coach.
After being a consistent contributor off the bench for three seasons, Robertson named Tommy Joe and George Corley as co-captains for the 1970-71 team.
Although a knee injury and ultimately surgery before that senior year cut down on Tommy Joe's playing time (he averaged 1.4 points per game), by no means did it cut down on his ability to lead.
"His fierce competitiveness, leadership and his ethics and morals went way above the rest of us," said Corley, an opponent in high school but a fellow Bulldog for four years. "If we were doing something wrong, Tommy Joe was the one that got us back in line.
"He was the guy at halftime, if he felt like you weren't doing your job, he knew how to come and talk to you. He didn't sit in the corner. (Coach Robertson) leaned on him if we had a problem on the team. He was the kind of guy that would get it done in the dressing room and on the court."
Fellow LA Tech Hall of Fame Class of 2017 inductee Keith Prince was in his second year as the sports information director at the time. He recalled what a vital role Tommy Joe played, even though he never started.
"The three things I remember about him most were how intense he was, how competitive he was and then how much of a leader he was," Prince said. "He had that fire. He wanted to win. He would not accept losing. You could see it in him as a young guy, as a player."
That 1970-71 team ran through their opponents like a `Running of the Bull'-dogs. They would earn the No. 1 national ranking in the AP Top 20 poll (the first such honor ever for a LA Tech athletic team) after a 104-93 victory over then No. 1 Southwestern Louisiana inside a jam-packed Memorial Gym.
They would also end the season with a 19-point win over No. 1-ranked LSU of New Orleans in the NCAA Regional Tournament to bring their overall record to 23-5, which fit nicely with a second straight GSC Championship.
Becoming a Bulldog Again
On Tommy Joe's student-athlete questionnaire, he wrote "college basketball coach" as his answer to career ambition.
To be more specific, it was his lifelong goal to be a college basketball coach at Louisiana Tech. That career path began at Simsboro High School.
"We both graduated from Tech in '71," Connie said. "We both did our student teaching at Simsboro. It just worked out. I did mine in the third grade and as it so happened, the teacher I did mine under she was transferred to a school in Ruston so I got her job. Then Tommy Joe was hired as the basketball coach. We did our student teaching in the spring and started working there in the fall."
Three years, 94 wins and a state finals appearance later, Tommy Joe came back to Ruston to be head coach at Cedar Creek High School. There he had even more success: five years, 130-37 record, and three state championships with the Cougars.
Then came a call in 1979 from newly-named LA Tech head coach Andy Russo who asked him to be part of the Bulldogs program. His career ambition had come true. Tommy Joe (joined by his wife and two children, Jamie and Katie) would join Steve Welch as assistant coaches, and the trio would begin constructing a basketball powerhouse.
To become a powerhouse, talented players were essential. And the state of Louisiana was crawling with them. It was one of Tommy Joe's main responsibilities to recruit them to Ruston, something he proved quite good at doing says Dave Nitz.
"He and Steve Welch were very good recruiters," said Nitz, the voice of the Bulldogs for the past 44 years. "They went out and found them. Tommy Joe was great at that. His personality lent to it. He had that knack for making you feel comfortable when you were around him. His personality was just infectious."
He went to New Orleans and came away with 6-foot-11-inch "Big" Willie Simmons. He went to Summerfield and landed a 6-foot-9-inch forward by the name of Karl Malone. He also went to Shreveport and found a point guard named Wayne Smith who started every single game of his collegiate career as a Bulldog, all 127 of them.
"Tommy Joe started recruiting me in 1980 when I was a sophomore at Trinity Heights," said Smith, a 1,000-point scorer and passer extraordinaire with 712 career assists, second most in program history. "Just the passion and quality that I got to experience for the next two years being recruited by him. There was a bond there from the start.
"I visited other schools, but in the end it came down to the person that recruited me. That was the tiebreaker. He invested so much time and energy. The relationship was so strong. It was an easy decision."
Tommy Joe was suddenly part of Bulldog Basketball greatness again, this time as an assistant coach and in a new 8,000-seat home named the Thomas Assembly Center.
Smith, Malone and Simmons formed a foundation that helped produce hands-down the greatest season in program history. In 1984-85, the team went 29-3, was ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament before dropping a heartbreaking 86-84 overtime loss to No. 1 seed Oklahoma.
A Birthday to Remember
Days after the infamous Wayman Tisdale shot that rattled around the rim for an eternity before defying the laws of physics and giving OU a win over LA Tech, Russo headed northwest to be the head man at the University of Washington.
On April 3, 1985, then LA Tech Athletics Director Bob Vanatta passed on the Bulldog reigns to Tommy Joe. It just so happened to be his 36th birthday, and what a birthday it was.
"Everything I have done since playing here has been directed at someday becoming the head basketball coach at Louisiana Tech," said Tommy Joe at the press conference, birthday cake included. "It is the job I had always hoped for, and it is every bit as exciting as I felt it would be. I don't think it is any secret how much I love Louisiana Tech. This is one of the happiest days of my life."
His dream fulfilled, it was time to get to work. Or as Tommy Joe would say many, many times, "Do as I say. Exactly as I say. Do not deviate and we will be successful."
It was the idea of buying in, staying within the team philosophy, so that he could get the most out of his players. That was something that did not come easy in that first year.
"I remember him taking a basketball and kicking it all the way up (in the seats) in the Thomas Assembly Center. He knew we were better than what we were putting on the floor," said Smith, whose team fell to 16-13 after a one-point loss to then-Northeast Louisiana in the Southland Conference Tournament.
"It was almost like things changed at Northeast. I remember coach getting in my face and this big NCAA ring up against my leg. It seemed like maybe that was the catalyst that we can still have a good season."
Salvaging the 1985-86 season began in Flagstaff, Arizona, with a six-point win over Northern Arizona in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Then there was a home win over McNeese State, followed by a one-point victory at Providence. Next thing Tech fans knew, the Bulldogs were headed to the Big Apple for the Final Four.
Despite losing to Ohio State, the `Dogs defeated Florida for third place in the consolation game. The basketball powerhouse at LA Tech was alive and well.
"I don't think our fans realize that in the `80s, we were the Gonzaga of today," said Dwayne Woodard, a 1990 graduate of Tech and long-time basketball season ticket holder. "We were a perennial Top 35 team. Tommy Joe was a huge reason for that.
"He went to the students to get them to come and we did. We would have to get there an hour before ball games to get down near the floor. We would have 2,000 students at a ball game for when Lamar, USL, Arkansas State and UNO rolled in. He was a first-class, family-oriented individual, a spiritual man, a man who did things right."
In the spring of 1989, Tommy Joe left Louisiana Tech to take the head coaching position at the University of Auburn. To many Bulldog fans, it was a shock to see him go because of his love for the University and the community.
Absolute shock hit the Louisiana Tech family, the Ruston community, all of north Louisiana and more on July 30, 1994, when news spread that Tommy Joe had suddenly and tragically passed away. He was in Utah visiting Robertson at an NBA rookie camp. While there he couldn't resist helping out.
Tommy Joe collapsed on the basketball floor while making a pass to a former Auburn player. Paramedics were unable to revive him. He was only 45 years old.
"He was the type of guy who you thought would live to be a 120," said Corley. "It shocked me to the end. It was devastating, one of the biggest blows for me. Tommy Joe and I were really close. My wife and his wife were extremely close. It was a big loss for us all."
An estimated 1,500 people attended the memorial service for Tommy Joe held inside the Thomas Assembly Center, a place that was silent for one of the very few times.
Medical reports said that he had an enlarged heart, literally and figuratively in many ways. He was a long-time basketball coach by occupation, but he was so much more to so many.
"I just think God has his hand on Tommy Joe," Connie said. "He would go on basketball trips and he would get in late on a Saturday night and he'd be teaching a Sunday school class on Sunday morning. He was a really good father as well. My children were blessed. When you are in that position, you are away from your kids a lot.
"I got a lot of letters from his players after he passed away. One was even from a kid I never laid eyes on who was an athlete from Alabama. We were at a conference meeting and the kid got an award. He wrote that when he was being presented the award, he could see Tommy Joe really paying attention. Tommy Joe went up to him afterwards and congratulated him. He wanted me to know how much that meant to him."
That is the kind of person Tommy Joe was. He was a devoted man of God, a devoted husband, a devoted father. And he was Louisiana Tech, through and through.
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