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Doubting Thomas

UMKC's sports boss makes Kangaroo coaches jumpy.

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Bob Thomas, UMKC's second-year athletic director, is seeking counsel from a higher source. He's taken so much heat from the local media that he consulted Carl Peterson last summer about how to handle the smack. "I told Carl to do something with the Chiefs so the media would quit [criticizing] UMKC basketball," Thomas says.

The latest media assault comes with word that Thomas' rookie coach, Dean Demopoulos, has pursued job openings at Drexel and St. Bonaventure the past few weeks, after spending fewer than ten months on the job. Demopoulos took the Kangaroos' top job after Thomas fired his popular predecessor -- Bob Sundvold.

Thomas strongly disagrees with the idea that his basketball program is a fiasco or that the UMKC men's head coaching position is now the worst job in Division I basketball. "There's no way this job's the worst in Division I," says Thomas. "It's the most exciting job in Division I because we are on the right track." Sure. Right behind Wile E. Coyote.

The local media's criticism has reached a crescendo, fueled by Jason Whitlock's morning radio show on WHB 810 and Jeffrey Flanagan's column in The Kansas City Star. Thomas offered this defense to the Pitch: "KU goes through this every year with Roy Williams. There are still people in North Carolina who believe he will eventually be the head coach there. But no one is criticizing Roy for entertaining other job offers. Why is Dean under attack?"

Comparing Demopoulos' nine-month reign and 14-16 career record at UMKC with Williams' thirteen years in Lawrence and his 355-89 slate, seven Big 8/12 conference titles, twelve consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and two Final Four teams is a bigger stretch than Whitlock puts his Jockey briefs through every morning.

Thomas is adamant that neither Whitlock nor Flanagan has any right to criticize the Roos' program because neither columnist has spent much time following the team's progress ... or lack of it. "People who didn't come to our games before and don't come now are forming their opinions of us on assumptions," says Thomas. "It's frustrating that members of the media want to see us fail."

After his Roos lost the season opener to lightly regarded Morris Brown (that's a college in Atlanta, not a rap star), Demopoulos told The Kansas City Star, "I kept thinking, 'There are, like, a hundred flights a day to Philadelphia -- I could just hop on a plane and go home.' It was awfully tempting. Awfully tempting." Demopoulos then bolted from the UMKC campus following his 14-16 campaign to interview at two schools close to home. Thomas has a ready explanation for Demopoulos' wandering eye. "It's flattering to our program that other schools see what we have going here at UMKC. The bottom line is that Dean is good and we're not the only ones that know that."

When Thomas fired Sundvold, he alienated the area high school coaches whose players feed the recruiting process for the Roos. Raytown South's Bud Lathrop, who has coached high school basketball in the area for 43 years, organized a rally in support of Sundvold that was attended by many disgruntled high school coaches. When asked to discuss the relationship UMKC has with area high school coaches, Thomas spoke like a politician. "A lot of [high school coaches] got on us publicly, but privately they didn't," says Thomas.

Thomas compares his basketball program with the Kansas State football teams of the mid '80s, when Sports Illustrated called K-State the worst football team in the country. "No one thought Bill Snyder's K-State teams would ever be challenging for national championships every season. We want to dream those same dreams and work to make them a reality," says Thomas.

While talking to Thomas, one can easily root for him because the guy is so adamant that he will build a winner. Bobby Kennedy's famous words are Thomas' team's new slogan: "Some men see things as they are and ask 'why?' I dream things that never were and ask 'why not?' Why not UMKC?"

It sounds great. But miracles like Snyder's at K-State happen only slightly more often than never. Which is when Demopoulos' Roos will be considered legit.

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