HONOLULU — Dick Tomey had a special, enduring connection to the Hawaiian islands.
He took a job few wanted in 1977 and turned the University of Hawaii football team into a program that demanded national respect. He also made Hawaii his home. This was no temp job.
“People figured he’d be here two, three years,” Tomey’s son, Rich, told the Star. “He ended up staying for 10 years.”
Those 10 years were some of the best in UH history; Tomey left as the school’s all-time leader in victories. Tomey then became the coach at Arizona, spending 14 seasons in Tucson and becoming the Wildcats’ all-time winningest coach.
So it was wholly appropriate that Tomey, who passed away in May at the age of 80, was honored before the season opener here between the two schools he used to coach.
“It’s very surreal,” said Rich Tomey, who served as an honorary captain along with his wife, his sister and Dick Tomey’s widow, Nanci. “It’s somewhat eerie, the way it’s all happened. Who could have scripted it? He made such an impact at both schools, and here we are, Hawaii and Arizona playing the first game of the year.”
Dick Tomey was acknowledged during a brief ceremony before kickoff Saturday. About three dozen of his former players were on hand, lining up along the south goal line. The presidents and athletic directors of both schools participated, as did Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference. When Tomey’s name was announced, the crowd at Aloha Stadium applauded warmly. At halftime, one of Tomey’s favorite artists, Henry Kapono, performed his song “Friends” with the Hawaii marching band.
Rich Tomey lives in Phoenix, where he serves as the executive director of the Arizona and Hawaii chapters of the Positive Coaching Alliance. He was thrilled to make another trip to Oahu, where he lived from ages 7-17.
“It’s always going to feel like home for me,” Rich Tomey said, “and it still does feel that way.”
It didn’t feel that way at first. Dick Tomey was from the mainland. He had to win over the locals.
“It’s hard for someone who’s from the mainland to come in and make those relationships,” Rich Tomey said.
“But if you talk to a lot of the local players, he really embraced the culture, the people. He’s just such a genuine person.”
The way Tomey interacted with people was revealed in a video tribute produced by the Hawaii football program. The video, posted Wednesday on Twitter, had been viewed almost 23,000 times by Saturday evening. It featured five of Tomey’s former UH players talking about what he meant to them.
Bernard Carvalho Jr., who’s now the mayor of Kauai, played for Tomey in the early 1980s. He recalled the day Tomey offered him a scholarship.
“I never (thought I would have) the opportunity to go to college,” Carvalho said. “That helped me to be who I am today. He gave me a chance.”
Most of the ex-players talked about the ways Tomey impacted them off the field. That message syncs up with the mission of the Dick Tomey Legacy Fund, which embodies who he was, his son said.
“He’s someone who taught life lessons through sports,” Rich Tomey said.
“He was,” former UH player Kent Untermann said, “as great a psychologist as he was a football coach. He would walk us through, before a football game, all the mental aspects. So much of football is actually mental. He recognized that.
“Sometimes it’s not going to look (good). So what’s going to happen? The answer was, someone’s gotta make a big play to change the momentum. Inevitably, somebody would.
“Learning how to deal with adversity both mentally and physically was something that Coach Tomey taught us all. I remember that to this day.”
The Tomey family actually visited Hawaii in July. They came to spread Dick Tomey’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
“We went out on a boat outside of Diamond Head. He just loved that area,” Rich Tomey said. “We felt that would be a fitting way to send him off. He’d sort of be a permanent part of Hawaii.
“This is where he would have wanted to be put to rest. This is where he would have wanted to ride off into the sunset.”