The Demons (1-0) kick off their home season Saturday night at 6 in Turpin Stadium against Southern's Jaguars (0-1). It's the 11th meeting in the series and the first since 2002.
"It's a good thing. It's very positive. As the week goes along, the excitement around the game steadily builds up," said Thomas, who grew up in Baker, near Southern's Baton Rouge campus. "It's an in-state battle. We recruit against each other. We know each other as players, as coaches, as administrators, as alumni and fans. Some of our players were high school teammates with their guys, or played against them, or grew up in the same city."
Southern director of athletics Dr. William Broussard played in this rivalry, as an All-America center for the Demons, in the late 1990s. Both of Southern's head basketball coaches, Roman Banks and Sandy Pugh, were star players at NSU. The institutions are two of the three oldest public universities in Louisiana and each features a renowned marching band.
"It's a lot more fun because of the history in the series, and especially, the relationships. We're one-week enemies, so to speak, then we play the game, shake hands after, and we're partners again until the next time," said Thomas. "Our message to our guys is let's just enjoy it, focus on handling all the clutter and cutting it out along the way, so that we're ready to play the kind of focused football we have to play to succeed Saturday night."
As for that "clutter," it is far-ranging.
"It's family members and friends calling wanting tickets. It's text messages, social media contacts, phone calls, and our fans and fellow students who are excited and interested and supporting our guys," said Thomas. "Handling that, keeping it in perspective, is really big for our players. By Thursday they need to be focused on the football side of it."
The head coach is hardly exempt, but he does have an advantage that few of his players have - a spouse.
"I've got family coming in from everywhere, which is fun, but I don't know how I would handle it without my wife, who is my personal secretary. Jan does a wonderful job getting the tickets, getting everybody straight. She keeps us straight 52 weeks a year, but it is really, really helpful on a week like this," said Thomas.
While the Demons had Monday off after a light Sunday evening workout, their coaches were honing the game plan for the Jaguars. Installation of that strategy begins Tuesday with a 3:30 practice and continues each afternoon until Saturday.
Thomas was pleased with how his first Northwestern team handled its business on the road last week. The logistics of travel didn't get in the way of a good performance. This week, with his players on campus attending classes all week, he's hopeful of maintaining the focus the Demons displayed at Missouri State.
"How we handle Friday night is very critical. It's a home game, magnified because it's the first home game and it's against an in-state team. Families coming into town want to visit with their sons, and that's fine, but we need to be sure we're getting rest and maintaining focus," he said. "It takes a lot of self-discipline to accomplish that when you're not tucked away in a hotel."