The career of one of Georgia’s most remarkable high school coaches is winding down, though the coach himself is not, even at age 88.
His name is Bill Thorn, best known outside of high school athletics as the only man to run in all 49 Peachtree Road Races. He’s signed up for No. 50 and expects no trouble completing the 6.2-mile run again July 4.
Lesser known to many is that Thorn has won 37 state championships as a Georgia high school coach, far more than anyone else.
Thorn will be honored in a ceremony Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. at Landmark Christian, the private school in Fairburn that he founded in 1989.
Thorn’s coaching championships are in track and field and cross country, but he also was the school’s first football coach and stayed on that job for 10 seasons. He was the head baseball coach for the first two years, running baseball and track-and-field practices one after the other in those early years when student-athletes changed in and out of their clothes in their cars until Landmark had a field house of its own.
The school, which started in an old cabinet shop on Jeff Davis Drive in Fayetteville, has won 41 state titles overall and countless region championships in its 30 years of existence.
Thorn first coached high school sports in 1955 – when Fran Tarkenton was still a junior at Athens High. Thorn actually coached against Tarkenton as an assistant football coach and head basketball coach at Georgia Military Academy in College Park. The school changed its name to Woodward Academy in the 1960s.
‘’I don’t like all this accolade stuff; I’m not like that,’’ Thorn said Friday morning, “but if I could tell every one of them [that might mention an accolade during Sunday’s gathering], I’d tell them to say the truth. If you think I’ve been hard or mean, it’s just the way I grew up in Birmingham. It was a hard life. You had to put your nose to the grindstone day in, day out, just to survive. I don’t see that it’s changed. I applied all those principles in coaching to the way people pretty much raised their kids in those days.’’
Mean? Hardly. But Thorn has not wavered in more than 40 years of coaching about the value of dedicated hard work. Thorn grew up in Pratt City, Ala., a coal-mining town at the time. He attended the same high school, Ensley, as Erk Russell.
Thorn ran a Birmingham YMCA program for two years out of college, and that’s where he discovered a love for coaching and working with kids. He got a job Georgia Military Academy, then moved to since-closed Headland High in East Point and was head football coach from 1961 to 1968. Thorn got out of coaching for a time but was persuaded to return in 1980 as head football coach at Colonial Hills Christian, then in East Point, and started a football program at Fayette Christian in 1986.
Those experiences gave him the vision to start a Christian high school of his own. Then as now, Christian schools typically evolved from existing churches and began with a kindergarten and elementary school.
With no school building and almost no funding, Thorn started a high school from scratch.
‘’It was almost an impossible thing,’’ he said. “We didn’t have money or anything, just the tuition and some gifts here and there. The thing that salvaged it was there was need at that time. There was a group of kids that wanted a Christian high school where we taught the Bible and still had all the other things that public schools had. It was really against the odds – they said you’ve got to build a school from kindergarten up. But that wasn’t the need.’’
More than 175 high-school students and their parents attended an exploratory meeting, giving Thorn the confidence to move forward.
After nearly two years, Landmark was able to purchase the old 13-acre Campbell High campus in Fairburn in 1991 for $250,000. Campbell and Palmetto had closed in 1990, and their student bodies were consolidated to form Creekside. Fairburn’s mayor at the time was a big proponent of getting a high school back in the city limits, and his support was pivotal, Thorn said.
Thorn’s coaching success to that point had come in football, but he’d always been into running and keeping fit. He’s maintained a daily hourly workout for the past 50 years. His football teams were known for their conditioning. So coaching track and cross country came naturally to him.
Thorn’s boys cross country team won the school’s first state title in any sport in the fall of 1995, and the boys track-and-field team won state that next spring. In tandem, the two boys sports teams would claim 19 Class A championships, the most recent in 2017.
The girls programs, which he took over 10 years after the school’s opening, have won 18 state titles, seven in track and field, 10 in cross country.
Some of Thorn’s more prominent track-and-field athletes were Matt Day, who went to Georgia after winning state titles in the 800 and 1600 meters with Class A records, and Sierra Hill, who won eight individual state titles and eight more in relays, the most of any track athlete in Georgia history. She held state records in the the 100- and 300-meter hurdles and 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. She’s currently one of Thorn’s assistants at Landmark.
There have been only three academic years since 1995-96 that at least one of Thorn’s teams didn’t win a state title. Thorn’s 30th season might be his fourth without a title, but the boys track team will be a major contender again at the Class A private-school meet May 9-11 in Rome.
Thorn quickly says the student-athletes ultimately win state titles, not their coaches.
‘’My overall philosophy can be summed up like this,’’ he said. “You can have everything going for you. You can have a program you know that works because it’s been proven. You can know everything about your sport. But when it gets down to the very core of any kind of success, you’ve got nothing unless you can get the kids to do it. It’s a simple statement, but I thoroughly believe that. It’s the difference in coaching everywhere. I have the proof that it works.’’
Put more simply, ‘’It’s a selling job,’’ he said. “That’s the underlying factor of it all.’’
Thorn has had a few sayings that his athletes might remember. Among them: “This program is only for those who will do it.’’ … “You have only so many heart beats, so don’t waste a one.’’ … ‘’When it’s hard to run, run hard.’’
But it’s not catchy phrases, he said. It’s goal-setting and persistence. He documents each practice with the workout plan and the times and measurements that show how each athlete is progressing.
“They don’t have to be the most well-known athletes around,’’ he said. “There are many being successful based on how they live their lives and how they have the capability to fight through situations. Sometimes it looks impossible, yet they don’t give up. They just keep going on.’’
That’s the dilemma for Thorn now. He’s made a life out of keeping on going. He’s not eager to stop.
“I’ll just begin to start reflecting, seeing what would be the best situation for me and my age and my family,’’ Thorn said of retirement. ‘’It’s come to an end here at Landmark, and my coaching maybe. I’ll begin a new venture in my life with whatever time I have left. I still have that same type of drive in me.’’
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