SMYRNA, Del. "
Serving as a referee can often be like the Rodney Dangerfield of jobs -- no respect. But Ross Thomas of Smyrna recently received the ultimate recognition for his work as a referee when he was inducted into the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Thomas attended the induction ceremony June 25 in Orlando, Florida.
"I was really honored," he said. "There are a lot of big-time guys in the Hall of Fame -- wrestlers, coaches. It's a pretty neat honor. The head official for the AAU is the one who nominated me, Dave Bennetts of Butte, Montana. He worked with me at a lot of AAU tournaments."
Thomas' "day job" is teaching accounting and business education at Polytech near Woodside, where he just finished his 17th year.
His career as a wrestling official, though, spans 30 years, dating back to when he was in college. Thomas was recognized by the Amateur Athletic Union for working about 15 of those years at AAU events such as the Disney Duals and three AAU national tournaments in Detroit, Tulsa, and Des Moines. He was supervisor of officials at the Disney Duals this year and in 2009.
He's served as a referee at all levels of amateur wrestling, including college, high school, and youth tournaments.
"I worked a full college schedule, all over the country," he said.
He was selected to officiate the NCAA Wrestling Tournament four times from 2007 to 2010, the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament five times, and the Big Ten Conference Tournament once.
Thomas is also well known in Delaware high school wrestling circles. He served as a referee for the Beast of the East Tournament in Newark for 17 years including 10 years as head official, and he's officiated at 15 state tournaments.
Now, he's hanging up his whistle.
"I'm not going on the mat anymore," he said. "I took an assigner's job, sending officials out for three conferences: the ACC, the Southern Conference, and the Colonial Athletic Association."
He plans to stay involved in high school wrestling, serving on the Delaware Wrestling Alliance, the committee in charge of Beast of East Tournament that also awards scholarships to wrestlers.
Wrestling for Smyrna High
Thomas wrestled on the varsity team all four years at Smyrna High School, winning two Henlopen Conference titles and placing third in the state tournament in his senior year, 1980.
Ron Eby was the coach of the team during Thomas' freshman year.
"When I went from junior high to high school, I was in awe, because Mr. Eby was a legend," said Thomas. "It's neat to work with him now. We're on the Delaware Wrestling Alliance together now, so I still see him a lot."
"He always pushed the basics, being fundamentally sound," said Thomas. "That's what I remember -- nothing fancy, just solid, fundamental wrestling."
Buddy Lloyd took over as coach when Thomas was a sophomore.
"It was a different relationship because Buddy was so young. I think he was under 30. He'd wrestle us in practice. We'd compete with him, and we knew he had been a state champion," said Thomas.
He fondly remembers his years wrestling at Smyrna High.
"It was just amazing the amount of support we received. I mean, the whole town would show up for the CR and Sussex Central matches. That was fun. You lived for that stuff," he said. "A lot of people would support you at different tournaments far away in the summer, too. The whole town had a hand in it."
High praise from former coach
His former coach, Ron Eby, has followed Thomas' career as an official from the beginning.
"He's excellent. He does a tremendous job," said Eby. "Officials are always criticized, but he's the least-criticized official I've ever seen. He did so well in Delaware, and then he branched out and traveled all over the country weekend after weekend in order to build his credentials. Then he was nominated for the NCAA tournament finals which is the ultimate in wrestling officiating. He's exceptionally good. I don't think I've ever seen an official better at any level than Ross."
As for the AAU Hall of Fame induction, Eby said, "People in Delaware who know wrestling have seen how good he is, and to be selected for the NCAA tournament is tremendous. Now someone else is recognizing him at another level -- the AAU Hall of Fame -- that's some accomplishment."
Eby remembers that at Smyrna High School, he was glad to see Thomas that first day of practice his freshman year.
"He was a big, strong young man that we needed. We never had upper weights," said Eby. "He was a very successful wrestler, and continued to be when Buddy (Lloyd) coached him."
Eby went to the NCAA tournament several times and saw Thomas officiate.
"Of course I may be biased, but I always thought he was in the best 10 and the best 10 are selected for the finals," said Eby. "I remember one year, he was pictured in a big spread in a local newspaper where they were holding the tournament, and we were all so proud of him."
Now, Eby works with Thomas on the Delaware Wrestling Alliance.
"Ross volunteers an awful lot," Eby said. "He gets all the officials for Beast of the East tournament and he's served as treasurer of DWA for many years."
College career included his start as an official
Thomas wrestled at Virginia Tech his first two years in college and finished at Delaware State University.
"I got one match away from qualifying for the NCAA Tournament," he said. "That was tough."
He started refereeing high school junior varsity matches while he was still in college.
"I can remember all my college teammates at Del State used to come heckle me when I was refereeing," he laughed.
Thomas continued in the sport while serving in the U.S. Marines, wrestling on the All-Marine team for two years. Then, when he became a teacher at Polytech High School, he coached the Panthers wrestling team for three years.
Q&A with Ross Thomas
Q Why did you want to become a referee?
A It's a way to stay in the sport. Wrestling's a young man's sport. By the time you're 25, you've exhausted all your competitive opportunities. It's probably the most involved you can be in any sport as an official. You can do a lot to prevent injuries. One of the best compliments I received was from parents who told me they always thought their kid was safe out there when I was officiating.
Q What have been the highlights of your career as an official?
A Getting selected for the NCAA tournament because that's the top 20 referees in the country. I set a goal of being the first from Delaware to be selected for the NCAAs. No one's done that before. I'd also say the Big 10 tournament because that's the premier conference in the country for wrestling, and they only use eight referees. Some say that's harder than being selected for the NCAA tournament.
Q What was the most challenging part on the mat?
A When I was doing the big stuff, the NCAA tournament or the conference tournaments, there was a lot of pressure. You're on TV wearing a microphone, and you've got to watch what you say. In my first NCAA finals, I actually said a cuss word, broadcast live on ESPN. It was because one of the wrestlers was doing a dangerous move. It wasn't too big of a deal. I got scolded a bit, but I was trying to keep a guy from getting hurt."
Q How did you balance your teaching career with your work as a referee?
A I had to burn a few personal days to do that. But a lot of the Big 10 matches are Fridays to Sundays. I did a ton of running to the airport Fridays, then back on Sunday night on the red eye. The travel is the real grind of it.
Q What's the biggest change you've seen in high school wrestling?
A There's so much more knowledge out there now. If you were just a tough kid and started wrestling as a freshman, you could be pretty good by the time you were a senior. Now, everyone starts when they're six years old and they know a lot more by the time they get to high school.
Q What's been the biggest change at the college level?
A The number of colleges that have cut their wrestling program. That's a major concern. I think Division I is down to 83 or 84 programs. It's been more than cut in half over 30 years. When I wrestled, the SEC was big -- Alabama, Auburn, LSU all had it. Now it's all gone. In the ACC, only six out of 12 schools have it. That means there aren't as many opportunities for high school students to go on to compete at the college level.