FLOWERY BRANCH - Emmitt Thomas waited a long time to serve as head coach of an NFL team.
He never could have imagined his opportunity would come this way.
One day after Bobby Petrino's unexpected resignation, Thomas inherited an Atlanta Falcons team eager for new leadership.
Thomas, 64, was promoted Wednesday to interim head coach for the final three games of the season. Petrino resigned to become coach at Arkansas - and left behind Atlanta players who feel betrayed that he quit after 13 games, and furious he left word in a brief note placed at the players' lockers.
The Falcons were 3-10 under Petrino, and players who had nothing good to say about the departed coach were eager to embrace Thomas, who has worked with the team's defensive backs for three head coaches since 2002.
'I respect Emmitt the utmost,' said center Todd McClure. 'He's been a player. He has a ton of experience. I know he's going to lead us in the right direction. I think everybody in this locker room is looking forward to playing for him.'
Thomas said he challenged the players who offered congratulations.
'Like I told them, play well and then I'll really know how you feel about the situation,' Thomas said.
The Falcons visit Tampa Bay on Sunday.
'I'm honored and excited and nervous and happy to have the opportunity,' Thomas said. 'It's an opportunity for myself and the other coaches and coordinators to try to rally these guys and get them going to play competitive football the rest of the season.'
Thomas is the first black head coach in the team's history.
The only assistant coach who was not with the team Wednesday was Petrino's brother, wide receivers coach Paul Petrino, who also resigned.
Falcons general manager Rich McKay said he had not started to compile a list of candidates to replace Petrino on a full-time basis. He can't talk to candidates now coaching in the NFL until their seasons end.
Thomas did not lobby to be considered for the full-time position.
'Let's don't take this any further than this day and this game-to-game situation,' he said. 'I'll be 65 in June and all the years I've been here have been good to me, and I'm just happy I can give some back.'
Petrino didn't last one year, and his first news conference late Tuesday night at Arkansas caused a stir among Falcons players watching on TV.
'When we saw him doing his press conference at Arkansas, that's what I think brought up the anger to have him talk about family, about team and about commitment, and then to come in here and have a form letter at your locker,' said quarterback Joey Harrington. 'That's not how a man acts. That's how a coward acts.'
Harrington twice lost his starting job to Byron Leftwich and then Chris Redman started Petrino's last game, a 34-14 home loss to New Orleans on Monday night.
Thomas said Redman will start against Tampa Bay. After a visit to Arizona on Dec. 23, the Falcons close the season in Atlanta against Seattle on Dec. 30.
Thomas has no previous experience as a head coach, but has 28 years in coaching. Thomas has worked under head coaches Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Petrino in Atlanta. He has coached for six NFL teams and served as defensive coordinator for Philadelphia, Green Bay and Minnesota.
He said he had 'about four interviews' for head coaching jobs, including openings with the Giants and Rams when he worked in Philadelphia and was regarded as one of the top minority candidates in the league.
'It didn't pan out,' Thomas said.
Thomas' loyalty and tenure with the Falcons could easily be contrasted with Petrino's 13-game term, but Thomas wouldn't join the long list of critics of the former Falcons coach.
'We've got to take the high road,' Thomas said. 'We don't know what made him choose to go to Arkansas. He's got to do the best for his situation.
'We talk about finishing and talk about commitment, but something went wrong and he didn't feel right and I'm going to take the high road on that. He couldn't come back, probably, and meet with everybody personal and he chose to do it that way.
'I wish him good luck.'
Thomas was selected to the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1986 after a 13-year career that included a team-record 58 interceptions. In August, the seniors committee added Thomas to the list of semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's class of 2008. The inductees will be decided the day before the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, 2008.
He began his coaching career in 1979 as defensive coordinator at Central Missouri State. His first job as an NFL assistant came in 1981 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was an assistant with the Redskins from 1986-94, where he coached wide receivers and then defensive backs for teams that won two Super Bowls.
Thomas also won a Super Bowl ring as a player with Kansas City.
He played quarterback at Bishop College before joining the Chiefs as an undrafted player. He led the league in interceptions twice.
Thomas' son, Derek Thomas, is in his fifth year as the basketball coach at Western Illinois.