That teenage Terry Connolly who played basketball for Thomas Johnson coach Tom Dickman during the 1980s is long gone.
Connolly grew up and started a family. And like Dickman, he became a high school basketball coach who guided young players.
Nonetheless, one thing hasn’t changed since Connolly last suited up for the Patriots in 1986.
“I’m 52 [years old], going to be 53, and I can’t call him Tom,” Connolly said. “It’s Coach or Coach Dickman.”
Connolly might never address Dickman by his full name, but he’d sure love to see it on TJ’s basketball court.
Connolly and many others who played for Dickman at TJ wrote letters to Frederick County’s board of education to support an effort, spearheaded by Patriots basketball alum Blaine Young, to honor Dickman by having his name put on the floor of Thomas Johnson’s basketball court and a plaque with his coaching achievements hung in the school’s gym or gym lobby.
Those letters, many of them detailing how Dickman made a huge impact on the lives of those who played for him at some point during his 29 years as TJ’s boys basketball coach, were just one part of the process Frederick County Public Schools requires for considering naming any part of its facilities after a person.
Young also had to submit an application to the board of education, TJ officials need to weigh in and members from the public will be notified of the request. Young said a decision on whether to approve such an honor typically takes between 60 and 120 days.
Young rattled off the basketball accomplishments that made Dickman a candidate for such an honor. Guiding the Patriots from 1974 to 2003, Dickman won seven MPSSAA state titles, made 11 appearances in state championship games, won 14 regional titles and piled up 592 wins.
But like others interviewed for this article, Young thought the coach’s ability to touch countless lives off the court as well as on it was what really made Dickman worthy of having the floor he spent countless hours on named after him.
“He was very impactful in my life in terms of how he helped me during some difficult times, growing up in a home that was a broken home at the time, and looking to [channel] my energies towards somewhere that was more regimented with discipline,” Young said.
Connolly echoed that sentiment, fondly recalling how Dickman recognized the young player had “a little bit of talent as an eighth grader.”
“He showed an interest in me, and that was huge for me,” said Connolly, who went on to star at the University of Richmond before starting successful boys basketball programs at Urbana and Oakdale.
“I’m the person I am today because of Coach Dickman. I’m a family man, the coach I was, the person, I could go all the way down the list,” Connolly said. “You can either thank Coach Dickman for that or blame him, [depending on] what camp you’re in when it comes to me, but that’s got his stamp all over it. It’s hard to put into words.”
But like others, Connolly tried to put such thoughts into words, writing a letter in support of honoring the influential coach.
Letter writers included with Young’s application to the board spanned the gamut of Dickman’s tenure at TJ, everyone from Dwayne Jenkins and Tim Summers, members of TJ’s 1982 state championship team, to Terence Morris and Chris Williams, stars of Dickman’s final two state championship teams in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
Letters also came from assistants who worked with Dickman, including Jenkins, Bruce Zimmerman and Tim Abercrombie, Dickman’s lifelong friend from their hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. Young included about 30 letters with the application, and some others later trickled in.
“When I first submitted the application, I said there will be more letters coming,” he said. “And once I got to 30-something, I said, ‘Look, if you need me to keep asking for letters, I will. Or do I have enough, does this suffice to show the impact and support?’ And they said, ‘No, this is fine.’”
Getting help from former TJ players was no problem for Young. For the past few years, about 50 to 70 of Dickman’s players attended a get-together in Young’s backyard (not this year, though, because of the coronavirus pandemic).
In fact, the bond between those players helped plant the seed to honor Dickman. Some of those former Patriots saw how Middletown High School named the floor on its basketball court after the late Ron Engle. Just like Dickman, Engle was a legendary basketball coach and athletic director at the school where he coached and touched countless lives for decades.
“We saw what they did for Coach Engle in Middletown, which was obviously much deserved,” Young said. “And we talked about — ‘Well, why couldn’t that be done for Coach Dickman?’”
Young’s brother Brad is on the Frederick County Board of Education, serving as its president at the time Blaine began this process to get Dickman’s name on TJ’s gym. And Blaine Young also knew Jay Mason, who recently took over as board president.
“Both of them went to Thomas Johnson High School, and they’re aware of who Coach Tom Dickman is,” Blaine Young said. “If you are aware of sports in Frederick County, whether it be basketball, football, baseball, swimming, soccer, track and field, you know who Coach Tom Dickman is, you know the significance he played and the impact he had, again, not only on our players but the community of Frederick and Thomas Johnson.
“Thomas Johnson was somewhat kind of viewed as the DeMatha of public high schools,” said Young, referring to the basketball powerhouse from Hyattsville that the Dickman-coached Patriots often faced and occasionally defeated.
Eventually, Dickman got wind of his former players’ effort to honor him.
“Obviously it makes me feel really good,” he said. “I’m a little embarrassed of all this stuff, to be honest with.”
And then, as he did so often as TJ’s coach, Dickman shifted the attention to his players, even though their playing days at TJ ended years ago.
“It just goes to show what kind of kids — well, they’re not kids anymore — but the kind of people we had at TJ during all those years,” he said. “They’re just good people, and I think they just kind of reconnect with each other, and I think this might be a way to kind of unite them as they get 10 years, 20 years, 30 years out of high school.”
The passing years haven’t diminished memories of what it was like to play for Dickman. Jenkins recalled how TJ got off to a shaky start during the 1981-82 season, barely playing above .500 early on. And after one of those early losses, Dickman had some words for the team’s captains, Jenkins, Earl Lee and Tim Summers.
“He said, ‘You three guys, you seniors, our captains, you’re leading us right down the toilet,’” Jenkins said. “And that stuck, and then we turned it around.”
By the end of that season, TJ had won the program’s second state crown, finishing with a 23-4 record.
No doubt, Dickman’s Xs and Os ability was essential.
“He was a perfectionist,” Jenkins said. “From the time when I played, he used to carry these index cards for practice. From the moment we stepped on the court, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He went by his index cards, what he was planning to do, and he stuck to those things.”
But just as importantly, if not more so, Dickman’s players said he fostered an essential environment of interdependence.
“It was being part of a program, learning discipline, the value of family and what it meant to be on a team where people counted on you and you could count on them,” Connolly said. “I think that’s probably his biggest legacy.”
While TJ teams had plenty of stars over the years, role players were also more than welcome, as they are in any successful program.
“He treated everybody the same, whether he was the first man or the 15th man, he literally treated everybody the same,” Jenkins said. “He was stern and respected.”
Jenkins said Dickman cared about his players on and off the court. And the coach’s interest in his players hardly waned after they graduated. Connolly found that out during his collegiate basketball days.
He initially played at Shepherd College for coach Bob Starkey, who coached Dickman at that very same school. But when Starkey left Shepherd, Connolly looked to transfer. He said Dickman helped him transfer to Division I Richmond — Connolly figured Division I coaches weren’t exactly drooling over a “slow” 6-foot-4½ post player like him.
“They just took his word for it. He knew one of the assistant coaches at Richmond,” said Connolly, adding that Dickman had credibility because he didn’t try to oversell players to colleges, refusing to recommend a player to a Division I school if he wasn’t capable of playing at that level.
As the 1991 NCAA tournament showed, Connolly proved worthy of Dickman’s endorsement. The TJ grad helped the Spiders become the first No. 15 seed to ever knock off a No. 2 seed at the tournament, battling taller players to finish with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Richmond’s 73-69 win over Syracuse.
Dickman ended up on the other end of the college recruiting process, leaving TJ to start Hood College’s men’s basketball program in 2003. Fittingly, the Blazers played many of their home games at Thomas Johnson’s gym during the early years of Dickman’s tenure at the Division III school.
TJ already bestowed one honor on Dickman, putting up a banner with his name and coaching achievements in the gym.
Now, former players are waiting to see if they can honor Dickman by getting the floor named after him. If approved, Young said all money needed for the project would be raised by private donation.
“Sometimes we wait until someone passes to give them these types of honors,” Young said. “My philosophy’s always been, why don’t we do it while they’re here so they can enjoy it, realize the contribution they made to the community in people’s lives?”