howard_thurmanThe Salem coach who changed the complexion of the game for Wildcat football followers and the only coach to win conference titles in the three major sports, Howard G. Thurman, had a tie-in and, as he said, “a love affair with,” Salem sports that spanned seven decades.

A 1930 graduate of Salem High School during which time he participated in football and track, Coach Thurman installed the split-T formation in 1952 for the first time in Salem. During his seven seasons as football coach, the Wildcats won two North Egypt Conference crowns, finished second five times and ended with a 35-7-2 NEC mark and a 42-19-2 overall record. Thurman-coached teams won the championship in 1952 and again in 1956.

Although they finished second in 1953, losing to Lawrenceville 19-18 in the opener. Salem went on to eight straight wins, capping a record-setting 348-point season with a resounding 55-13 romp over Mt. Vernon in the finale.

Thurman took over as basketball coach following the Salem Invitational Tournament in 1951 and the Wildcats went on to win their North Egypt games in February to win the Conference title. In the next to the last game. Salem won over Lawrenceville by 10 points to assure a tie. They then beat Mt Carmel the next Friday by 20 points to gain the championship. In earlier games that year, Lawrenceville and Mt Carmel had defeated the Wildcats in overtime games.

He took over as head track coach in 1954 and Wildcat teams won Conference title in 1957 and 1958, a sport that had been dominated by Lawrenceville and Bridgeport in prior years. Salem had won back-to- back crowns in 1946 and 1947. Therefore, Thurman-coached teams won five NEC titles in the span of seven years.

In high school he ran the 220 and 440 in track, lettering three years and was the No. 1 sprinter in 1929 and 1930. He lettered as a guard in 1928 and 1929 and was chosen to the All-Conference Football Team in 1929. Mt Vernon and Centralia were conference members then.

Thurman entered SIU in the fall of 1931 and lettered in football in 1932. He left school after two years with a teaching certificate and taught in rural one-room schools for five years.

In 1938, he was hired at Oak Park Grade School where he taught and coached until he was named assistant football coach at SCHS in 1943. After World War II he returned to Oak Park as principal and was called back to SCHS as assistant football and assistant basketball coach in 1951.

His last basketball team at Oak Park, in 1947-48, had a 22-2 record probably still a Salem record. Some of those boys were involved in the NEC championship in 1952.

In addition to installing the split-T formation, he installed the spread punt formation (also in 1952) which allowed a quick release for all linemen and resulted in low punt return yardage. In 1956, the Wildcats under Thurman began using a pro-set offense. Also, while football coach he coached freshman basketball. The Wildcats retired the first Shrine football trophy involving Centralia (a best 3 out of 5 series) with their third win in 1955.