Chris Thomsen has spent most of his life in the shadows of sports' biggest stages.
He was a backup tight end stuck behind an All-American at TCU. His minor-league baseball career stalled in the logjam of hard-hitting first basemen under Mark McGwire in Oakland’s system. He has spent more time as an assistant outside of Division I-A (10 years) than in it (nine), and his head-coaching experience is limited to a Division II program that shared its home stadium with two high schools and a 2012 bowl win over 6-7 Minnesota.
That changes Saturday night at No. 12 Miami.
With Florida State coach Mike Norvell out because of a positive coronavirus test, Thomsen will jump from deputy head coach to acting one. Instead of leading the tight ends, the 51-year-old Texan will become only the fourth man to lead the Seminoles against the Hurricanes since the rivalry rose to national prominence in the ’80s. And he’ll do it in primetime, on national television, in the marquee College GameDay matchup.
“I think it’s just an opportunity and a stage that he’s been working for his whole life,” former TCU teammate Kelly Blackwell said.
Some of the work started at TCU. Although Thomsen had the misfortune of signing in the same class as Blackwell (who later played with the Bears and Cowboys), he still made big impacts. He knew the offense well enough to fill in at offensive line and teach receiver Stephen Shipley how to run a route against a certain look.
“As a junior in college, he can read fronts, and he can read coverages, and he can recognize blitzes and all these things that most of us guys didn’t have a clue about,” Shipley said.
Thomsen was also advanced in his maturity — so much so that some considered him a grandfather figure. His receding hairline and recliner for Nintendo games probably didn’t help.
When Shipley told coach Jim Wacker he planned to transfer, Wacker called Thomsen. The team grandpa calmly and logically talked the situation through with Shipley, who stayed and became the Horned Frogs' top receiver.
Thomsen was equally steady in his one season on TCU’s baseball team (1991). During a benches-clearing brawl at the end of a series with Texas A&M, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Thomsen was trying to break things up when an Aggie stood up, ready to throw a punch.
“He sees how big Chris is,” said Britt Shoptaw, then a TCU pitcher. “He stands around like, ‘No, no, we’re not going to do anything. We’re cool. No problem.’”
As intimidating as Thomsen was for opponents, he was beloved by his teammates.
He worked hard. He didn’t complain about playing time. He was patient, funny and fiercely loyal, with the rare ability to connect with everyone, regardless of background.
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“There wasn’t a person in the world that didn’t get along with Chris,” Blackwell said.
That continued when he started his coaching career, after two seasons in of A-ball in Oakland’s farm system and an all-conference season as a tight end for Abilene Christian. While coaching the offensive line at Central Arkansas, his “pure soul” and teaching ability impressed a young receiver there.
“He’s got an unbelievable heart,” Norvell said. “I knew that I wanted him as a part of this staff not only for what he brings (with) Xs and Os but just that leadership in every other area, as well.”
Thomsen showed that leadership during his only prolonged head-coaching experience, from 2005-11 at Abilene Christian.
“To say he energized the program is a bit of a stretch,” said Grant Boone, the school’s long-time play-by-play announcer. “I think they energized it in a way it had never been at Abilene Christian.”
The program Thomsen inherited had never made the Division II playoffs. The Wildcats didn’t even have their own field; the end zones read Cougars and Eagles, for the town’s two big high schools.
But Thomsen made it work. He built the program through his Christian faith, with an emphasis on developing players as men first and athletes second. It’s a similar philosophy to Norvell’s, where service, sacrifice and respect are emphasized on and off the field because how you do anything is how you do everything.
The ability to connect that made him popular in the TCU locker room let him recruit future NFL players like Charcandrick West away from bigger schools. In 2009, his Wildcats had more draft picks (two) than FSU (one).
The Wildcats scored more than 50 points only 21 times in the 801 games before Thomsen took over. They did it 19 times in his 82 games. Thomsen’s team made it to the playoffs in each of his final six seasons and won the Lone Star Conference twice.
“They knew how to recruit,” said Lance Fleming, the school’s sports information director from 1998-2019. “They knew how to treat players. They knew how to coach. We beat the crap out of people.”
Including their rival, West Texas A&M.
A month after beating the Buffaloes by 17 in the 2008 regular season, Abilene Christian had to play them again, with a trip to the national quarterfinals at stake. The rivalry might not be as massive as FSU-Miami, but the build-up was intense.
Thomsen’s team scored on every drive but one in a 93-68 barn burner that’s still the highest scoring game in D-II history.
The most impressive thing about his tenure, however, is what happened after he left. The momentum he created helped the Wildcats jump to I-AA and open an eight-figure, on-campus stadium in 2017.
“Our university’s done a lot of great things,” Fleming said. “... But hiring Chris Thomsen’s one of the best moves that our athletic department has ever made.”
It’s far too early to tell whether Thomsen will work out that way at FSU. Some of it will depend on how he handles the most high-profile test of his life — leading a double-digit underdog on the road against an archrival.
Thomsen doesn’t seem to be approaching this historic matchup any differently than he would Abilene Christian-West Texas A&M. He isn’t trying to imitate Norvell’s energy, either; he’ll stick to a style that’s more monotone than fire and brimstone.
“But the thing that’s the same is the same thought process, the same philosophical ideas in terms of how you want your team to operate,” Thomsen said.
Those same philosophical ideas have already resonated with his position group. Tight end Camren McDonald knew from the first conversation that Thomsen had the knowledge and passion FSU needs.
“It’s contagious for the room,” McDonald said, “and now it’s contagious for the whole team.”
And Saturday night it will finally be on display for the sports world to see.
Florida State (0-1, 0-1 ACC) at No. 12 Miami (2-0, 1-0)
7:30 pm. Saturday, Hard Rock Stadium