J-Bob Thomas was an assistant coach at Howard (Texas) JC making $15,000 a year and sleeping on a couch in the baseball office in June 2012 when newly promoted Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock called to offer him a job on his staff. Thomas quickly accepted, packed a catcher's bag full of his stuff and was in Lubbock two hours later.
Thomas threw himself into his new job, hitting the recruiting trail hard to help Tadlock turn around a Red Raiders program that hadn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and had never been to the College World Series. He had been working at Texas Tech for a month before he sat down with Tadlock and a representative from human resources to square away all the necessary paperwork. The trio was nearly done when the HR representative asked what Thomas' salary was.
Thomas didn't know. He had never asked. As he explained to the exasperated HR representative, it was never about the money.
"(Tadlock) gave me an opportunity," Thomas said. "I was an assistant coach at a junior college in the middle of nowhere. We'd had a lot of success, we won a national championship, we had been No. 1 in country in the preseason the last four years I was there. But he could have hired anyone he wanted to be to be his assistant, but he believed in me. It's not about the money."
As he enters his sixth season as recruiting coordinator at Texas Tech, Thomas, 35, has not lost that feeling. And the Red Raiders have turned into one of the Big 12 Conference's powerhouses, advancing to Omaha in 2014 and 2016. This spring, they won their second straight Big 12 title, the first time in program history they won back-to-back conference championships. Texas Tech had never had a recruiting class ranked in the Top 25 before Thomas was hired. He has spearheaded the efforts to land a pair of Top 25 classes in the last four years, including the 25th-ranked class this year. For those reasons and more, Thomas is the 2017 Baseball America/American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year.
Tadlock and Thomas have known each other since Thomas's prep playing days in Duncanville, Texas, when Tadlock was the coach at Grayson County (Texas) JC. Their relationship grew during Thomas' seven years at Howard. Tadlock was often recruiting players from Howard, such as Zach Neal and Burch Smith. By the time Tadlock got the Texas Tech job, he and Thomas were talking every day and he had become convinced that Thomas could succeed as a recruiter at a four-year school.
"I wanted to give him an opportunity to do it at this level," Tadlock said. "It was just the right thing to do. When a guy's working as hard as he was working, doing it for 5-6 years - if you can win in Big Spring, Texas, in that region, you're doing something right. That's as tough a junior college region as there is in the country."
Tadlock is grateful that athletic director Kirby Hocutt let him hire who he wanted for his staff, rather than insisting he find someone with a high-profile name or a beefy resume. It has taken a group effort to build the program, with Tadlock playing the leading role, supported by Hocutt, who has provided critical administrative and financial support, Ray Hayward, who was pitching coach for five years before moving to a special assistant role after this spring, and Joe Hughes, director of operations.
Through it all, Thomas has been there, coaching Texas Tech's catchers, serving as third base coach, monitoring pitchers' workloads and checking on the Red Raiders' academic progress. And, of course, recruiting.
Thomas met his wife on a plane while recruiting soon after moving to Texas Tech and estimated he spends close to 100 days on the road. Recruiting to Lubbock, a relatively small city that springs from the barren landscape of West Texas, is not easy. But he has been preparing for is his whole life.
Thomas' grandparents were sales representatives for Katmai Lodge, a fishing lodge in Alaska, and they sold trips to the lodge at boat and sports shows. When he was growing up, Thomas would often join them and it was at those shows that he developed his passion for recruiting. He learned not only his grandparents' pitch, but also that of their booth neighbor, who sold boat chamois, so well that he could fill in when necessary. Thomas also saw the importance his grandparents put on the personal touch, even bringing serious prospects back to their house for dinner.
Thomas, whose parents were both coaches, brings that personal touch to his recruiting. He believes in the power of relationships when recruiting and to cultivate meaningful relationships, he knows he has to meet players and their families in person.
"I'm going to go out and see the kid," he said. "I could easily talk on the phone about Texas Tech, but he's going to see me in person and that family is going to know there's a priority on him coming to that school."
Sophomore third baseman Josh Jung, one of Texas Tech's two All-Freshmen honorees last spring, said he felt that personal touch was important during his recruitment. Not only did Thomas get out to see him, they also spoke on the phone almost every Sunday.
"Not even so much about baseball, but about life," Jung said. "He gets really involved with families and tries to establish a good connection there. For me, the biggest deal is how he connected with everyone, not just me."
Thomas' time on the road not only helps him build personal connections with recruits, it also helps him find under-the-radar players who turn into stars. He also has shown the Red Raiders can compete for high-level recruits, as three of their signees have been drafted in the top 15 picks in the last three years.
Many around Texas Tech talk about Lubbock having a small-town feel, and Thomas has done his best to help cultivate that in the baseball program. He bought a house last year on the same street from Tadlock's house, and he often heads down the street to talk.
Theirs is a somewhat unlikely partnership, but it has proved to be fruitful for Texas Tech. Thomas is grateful Tadlock gave him an opportunity and is still working tirelessly to find the players that will help the Red Raiders reach the next level and win the first national championship in program history.
"I'd done nothing but coach and recruit junior college players," Thomas said. "But as soon as I got here, it was, 'I trust you.' It's a fun dynamic. He knows I'll give him everything I've got every day."