“When the students come here, you have to expect greatness. You have to expect nothing less," Thomas Wilcher says. David Guralnick, Detroit News
Detroit — Young people had a different city when Thomas Wilcher was coming up.
They could run and play in the mid-1970s in ways so organized that by age 12, Wilcher, one of eight children of his single mom and living in poverty, set national records in track.
Three brilliant years at Detroit Central as an All-American tailback, a record-setting hurdler, a four-time All-American in track and an All-City swimmer led to Wilcher carrying the ball for Bo Schembechler in Ann Arbor on Saturday afternoons and winning the 1986 NCAA indoor 55-meter hurdles championship.
As head football coach at Cass Tech, Wilcher has three state championships and a few “almosts,” while qualifying for the state playoffs in 10 of his 20 years, including 18 winning seasons.
And he has shaped a bevy of football players who became something he says he loves and esteems — a student-athlete. Some have played in the NFL.
Many are men they would not have been without him.
At its core, Wilcher’s coaching philosophy is to provide young men an opportunity. Something like he once had, in a city now gone.
“All I try to do here is reinforce positive structure,” Wilcher said. “Because positive structure will give you positive output, which will make me excel in the program.
“So, I really believe that trying to base all your senses, everything you do — how you exude yourself, how you really contribute — everything you do has to honor by what you want in life, which is to be successful.
“Honoring that,” Wilcher said. “You’re going to achieve that.”
What structured life for Wilcher 40 years ago was the vibrant community centered on the intersection of Dexter and Joy, on the West Side.
His mom, Ella Harville, could not provide much, and Wilcher said as boy he sometimes had to provide for himself.
And he seized and made his own what the city and the community provided.
“Looking back growing up in Detroit, there were a lot of recreation departments that Detroit Parks and Rec had,” Wilcher said. “That inspired us. That made us want to get out there and go have fun.”
The Swim-Mobile, a big pool on a truck chassis, would stop by. There was a Boys & Girls Club right nearby, too.
Right across the street from his home, the McCabe Pool provided for laps in the morning and a swim team.
“So, that’s just how the activities were. It was intense. It was challenging and competitive,” he said. “I swam in swim meets when I was like 5 and 6 years old.”
A track club, the Detroit Striders, drew students from his elementary school, and a physical education teacher, John Charles, helped shape him.
“He kept encouraging me to come out for track,” Wilcher said. “He told me I’d be a great runner, and I was.
“From there, it just took off.”
Not more than 20 yards from his house was the Westside Cubs football field. One of the first integrated youth football teams in the city, established in 1957, the Cubs continue to produce a stream of college and NFL players.
“And so, every day, when I walked across the field they’d say, ‘Hey, come play football. Come play football,’” Wilcher said.
“When I was about 11, 12 years old, they heard how fast I was. I went out there one day, and it stuck.”
Life in the city provided opportunities, and Wilcher progressed.
“It just kept going and kept going and kept going. Everything just kept going in the right direction,” he said.
“There never was a point at which sports and athletics wasn’t surrounding me.
“And it made me push, made me go the right way.
“But I think the most important thing about athletics and sports was it helped me focus on school. It helped me focus and being a student-athlete.”
When he was discovered skipping school, his mother pulled him off the track team.
Wilcher’s desire to compete trumped his apathy towards classes.
“And therefore, I just got into it,” he said. “I kept going.”
Certainly, 40 years later, similar opportunities still exist in the country’s poorest major city. But they are less frequent, and far more inconvenient than in the neighborhoods that once existed.
“You had a lot of activities in our neighborhood. You had recreation buildings up and down Dexter Avenue. A lot of things to keep the kids off the streets.
It concerns him, and it drives him.
Opportunity may be sparse, but they have a football team at Cass Tech. They have a track team, too, and fine facilities for other sports.
They also have a coach and teacher dedicated to providing young people with the opportunity, and encouraging discipline.
And the students are quite clear about who Thomas Wilcher is.
Among other things, it is best not to be on an elevator or in a corridor near him at Cass without a pass if one is required.
It can bring a conversation to a halt.
And then there’s the Wilcher stare. Wise to avoid that, too.
Of course, if the pass is actually on the student but not displayed, some joking around is permitted.
Coach is into that, too.
“The one thing I remember about discipline and sports is trying to make sure you maintain your grades,” he said. “I remember studying at night and trying to balance things out. I just kept going, and tried to motivate me and keep me going.”
Wilcher attributes his success at Cass Tech to the administration, including a succession of three principals: Dave Snead, George Cohen and Lisa Phillips.
Wilcher said they each bought into his intentions, and brought ideas and resources of their own.
And he credits the students.
“I attribute it really to the discipline of the kids, the kids we try to bring here,” Wilcher said of the exam school that requires recommendations and involves heightened evaluation before admission.
“When the students come here you have to expect greatness. And you have to want them to exude greatness. And you have to accept nothing less. And, if they give you less, you’ve got to start reinforcing what greatness is.”
Look no further than the gridiron.
In Wilcher’s 20 seasons, 18 of them winning seasons, Cass has churned out a fairly steady stream of college and NFL stars under Wilcher.
Among others, Joe Barksdale, Jayru Campbell, William Campbell, Boubacar Cissoko, David Dawson, Vernon Gholston, Delano Hill, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Jourdan Lewis, Dior Mathis, DaQuan Pace, DeJuan Rogers, Demetric Vance, Mike Weber, Damon Webb and Clarence Williams all played for the Technicians and Wilcher.
In the last five seasons, Cass Tech is 62-6.
“There’s too many to talk about. There’s too many to name,” he said, fearing omitting anyone. “But I would say what makes me the most proud of the athletes who came to Cass Tech is that they all wanted to be winners.
“The ones who went on to be great players, they all wanted to be great. They always did it great, with so much poise and so much discipline, it was always great to be around them.”
Some things have gone wrong. Jayru Campbell pleaded guilty to aggravated assault after an incident with a security guard at Cass. After starting his career at Michigan, Cissoko’s convictions included assault with intent to rob, three counts of larceny and one of assaulting a prison employee.
Vance is charged with third-degree sexual assault and is no longer on the team at Michigan State. His lawyer said he is innocent.
“I think when players have problems, coming from me, a high school coach, I don’t take into consideration the situation, the problem that occurred,” Wilcher said. “I take into consideration that he is young, he has an opportunity to correct himself.
“Because, right now, society really doesn’t want them to correct themselves. Society is just saying this is who you are. This is the behavior you’re going to have.
“And that’s not true.
“I think about all the stuff I did growing up,” Wilcher said, laughing. “No! People don’t really know.
“Growing up, I was just a banger. I fought a lot. You know, I did a lot of mischievous stuff. A lot. Because, you know, I was one of eight kids in our family
“I did stuff to survive,” he said. “My mother didn’t have anything, so I did stuff to survive.
“And so, you have to protect the person. And protecting him means protecting that interest of him wanting to go on and be a man, who can be a contributor to society.
“If you can’t protect those interests, than we fail as a people.
“We don’t know who a kid’s going to be. That’s why you give kids choices. That’s why you teach them.”
Wilcher worries that with the proliferation of fatherless homes, boys sometimes are held too close and not allowed to experience enough of the world to encounter early boundaries on the smaller issues.
“That’s why you let kids make mistakes as they grow up, and you let them go out there and become somebody,” Wilcher said.
“You never know what’s going to happen.”