WEST VALLEY CITY — What would lure a coach who left a highly ranked high school program for a college position back into the prep ranks?

For a former Cottonwood High coach, it's the chance to build something special.

"I saw a great opportunity," said Cecil Thomas, who left his job as a Weber State assistant to become Granger High School's third coach in three seasons. "Coach (Alex) Gerke did a great job; he laid a good foundation with the kids, with the structure and changing the culture here."

He said knowing he'd have plenty of community support and that of most of the assistant coaches, many of whom worked with him at Cottonwood, made the decision easy.

"It was a no-brainer for me to put in for the job," he said. "I think this program is on the rise. I think it's ready to rip wide open."

Thomas was hired last week and has spent a couple of days working with his new players. He said everything Gerke told him was true, and he's thrilled to be working with teenage student athletes again.

While he enjoyed coaching college players, he said working with high school players is a unique challenge for a coach. At WSU he was responsible only for offensive lineman, but at the prep level, he'll have to bring an entire team together if they hope to accomplish something significant.

"To me, football is football," he said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity, and I think this is a good fit all the way around. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we've got a chance to make some noise and keep building this in the right direction."

Gerke is a friend of Thomas' and he called Thomas and told him he was leaving to take a job at Southern Methodist University. It's a tough time to be changing coaches as most teams have already been practicing and preparing for the beginning of the 2012 season.

Under Gerke, the Lancers enjoyed their best start in 12 seasons with a 4-0 run. They finished 6-4.

Gerke was hired to be the program's strength and conditioning coach and said he quickly realized why the program had been struggling.

"The first day I walked in here, there were 18 kids in a supposed football weight-training class," Gerke told the Deseret News last fall. "Eighteen. And the class was supposed to have 44. I looked around and said, 'Where are all the players?' "

He was told that's just what he could expect.

"I cruised around, spent countless hours on the phone talking to parents. Two days later, I ended up having 40-some-odd kids in class," he said.

When asked how he sold hard work to teenagers, he laughed.

"You don't sell it," he said. "You say, 'This is what you're going to do.' "

Thomas believes the discipline and expectations Gerke laid out will serve the team well this season.

"Everyone's been real supportive," he said. "I think we have the chance to do something special. Who knows what can happen by the end of December?"

Thomas coached at Cottonwood for three seasons (2007-09) and posted a 31-7 record. His 2007 squad played for the 4A state title and was a contender every season. Before that, he was an assistant at Cottonwood for four years.

Thomas played for the University of Utah under coach Ron McBride and graduated in 1992. He will teach weight training, as well as coaching the football team.