Dick Tomey, who won more football games than any coach in Arizona Wildcats history and became a legend in both the Sonoran Desert and the Hawaiian Islands, has died at age 80.
Tomey's family said he died late Friday night. Tomey, a Tucson resident, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer around Christmas. In January, he underwent tests at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; he also received treatment at Tucson Medical Center.
"We are all heartbroken to lose him," the family said in a statement, "but are forever grateful to have shared his life."
In 20 years as the head coach at Hawaii, Arizona and San Jose State, Tomey went a combined 183-145-7. He won 95 games at the UA from 1987-2000, and 48 in a six-season stretch from 1993-98 that's considered among the best in program history. His mid-1990s teams were famous for their “Desert Swarm” defense, even gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1994. His 1998 team went 12-1, beating Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl to cap the greatest season in program history. The Wildcats finished No. 4 in both major polls that year, another program best.
Tomey coached five future first-round NFL draft picks; 20 of his Wildcats were named All-Americans. Michigan legend Bo Schembechler loomed large in Tomey’s life; so did author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who taught the coach the importance of connecting with people and building relationships.
Tomey had countless connections and maintained many relationships. He greeted his former players and colleagues with what he called “real hugs” — and kind words.
"To us, Dick Tomey was one of a kind," his family said. "Known for his room-for-everyone big-heartedness, generous spiritedness (to a fault), instinctive kindness, love and respect for people of all walks, and the ease with which he forgave himself and others and moved on with life without resentments — taught all of us so much. Dick Tomey was never petty, never small minded. He was a man who discovered his mission in life, embraced it, enjoyed it, and accomplished amazing things. When speaking of football, he often said, 'Football is not complicated. People are.' He was always, first and foremost, a people person."
Tomey was born in Indiana and graduated from DePauw University. He coached freshmen at Miami of Ohio and at Northern Illinois before getting his first varsity job, coaching Davidson’s defensive backs in 1965. Tomey spent four seasons at Kansas before following Pepper Rodgers to UCLA. Tomey coached the Bruins’ offensive linemen and defensive backs, then spent the 1976 season as the Bruins’ defensive coordinator.
In 1977, Hawaii named Tomey its head coach. It took him only six seasons to turn around the Rainbow Warriors’ moribund program. The team earned its first Associated Press ranking and produced its first-ever AP All-American, Al Noga.
Arizona hired Tomey in 1987 to replace Larry Smith, who departed following the team’s bowl game to become the new head coach at USC. Tomey was torn; he told reporters more than once that he thought of returning to Hawaii, where he was the program’s all-time wins leader and a local legend.
Tomey went 4-5-3 in his first season, then posted a string of success rarely seen in UA football history. Tomey posted 11 winning seasons, including a 10-2 mark in 1993 that ended with a Fiesta Bowl win over Miami (Fla.), and the team-record 12-1 showing in 1998. Tomey’s teams were defensive-minded, thanks in part to a “double-eagle flex” scheme devised by assistant coaches Larry Mac Duff and Rich Ellerson. Tedy Bruschi and Rob Waldrop emerged as college football stars during their times as Wildcats, setting sacks and tackles records while earning all-league honors. Chris McAlister, a defensive star on the 1998 team, went on to become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks.
For every Bruschi and McAlister, there were dozens of undersized players who were the hallmark of Tomey’s teams.
"When it came to football, Dick Tomey had an eye for undiscovered ability, an eye for raw potential, an eye for leadership — and a deep regard for guys who walked on, who sacrificed to play the game simply because they loved it," his family said. "He was never afraid to be the underdog coach, with the underdog team … in fact, he was partial to taking his underdog team(s) in to play the moneyed power schools … and his teams won their share of those games.
"Off the field Dick was a beautiful human being. His was a loving spirit. He was a natural leader, a natural teacher. His gift of oratory was legendary. Nearly everyone who knew him can quote Dick Tomey on some subject. Words were his most powerful tool (even his profanity was eloquent). When he spoke he made listeners out of non-listeners, believers out of non-believers. He lifted, he challenged, he inspired. He could change the way a person thought about life, about the world around him, and the person would be better for the change. His own family is proof of that."
Tomey preached “the team, the team, the team” and motivated his players with slogans and T-shirts long before it became vogue among coaches. His fierce loyalty to his assistants was unique in a profession that churns through them. Duane Akina served as both Arizona’s offensive and defensive coordinator during his time in Tucson. Tomey lured Hall of Fame coach Jim Young back to Tucson as an assistant coach, two seasons after he was fired as Army’s head coach. Another coaching star, Homer Smith, served as Arizona’s offensive coordinator under Tomey.
Tomey’s loyalty to his assistants — and certainty in his scheme — may have ultimately led to the coach’s undoing in Tucson. The Wildcats were blown out by Penn State in their 1999 season opener, and the team managed a 6-6 record that season. Arizona started the 2000 season 5-1, beating USC and Stanford in California, but lost its final five games. ASU beat the UA 30-17 in what was seen as a must-win game for Tomey; he told his team in the postgame locker room that he would not return.
The “public debate” over Tomey’s decision-making had been too much to bear, he said. The coach wondered aloud if it had to do with his Western Athletic Conference roots, and UA fans’ desire to move past it and into the Pac-10. College football was being taken over by pass-first, offensive-minded coaches, and Arizona’s attack seemed stodgy by comparison.
Then there was “the Rose Bowl thing,” Tomey said — notably, the fact that Arizona hadn’t been to one. Tomey got the Wildcats close more than once. If not for Miami’s upset of UCLA in 1998, a game that was rescheduled due to a September hurricane, the Wildcats would’ve spent New Year’s Day 1999 in Pasadena. In fact, Arizona players had celebrated that year’s rivalry win over Arizona State by posing with roses in their teeth. Days later, Miami’s Hurricanes put a stop to that.
John Mackovic was hired to replace Tomey. The Wildcats broke offensive records behind a pass-heavy attack, but won few games. Mackovic won just 10 games — and just two in Pac-10 play. He was fired midway through his third season.
The well-connected, well-respected Tomey wasn’t out of coaching long.
In 2003, he served as a defensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. A year later, joined Akina, his former UA assistant, on staff at Texas. The Longhorns rewarded Tomey with a win in his first-ever Rose Bowl.
Tomey was named head coach at San Jose State in 2005, and went 25-35 in five seasons. Like he did at Hawaii and Arizona, Tomey built the Spartans into a bowl contender.
Tomey moved to Hawaii with his wife, Nanci, and spent time in semi-retirement. He coached Hawaii’s special teams in 2011, and served as an associate athletic director at South Florida in 2015. The Bulls’ athletic director, UA grad Mark Harlan, connected Tomey with the school’s young football coach. That man, Willie Taggart, is now the head coach at Florida State.
Tomey left his beloved Hawaii for Tucson, a place just as special, a few years ago. Tomey was honored alongside his 1998 team during the Wildcats’ 2018 season. He was a vocal supporter of first-year coach Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin, an admirer of Tomey’s, gave him a locker at the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility.
In May, Tomey spoke in a bid to save Pima College’s football program. In November, he addressed the UA football team as part of “rivalry week.”
Tomey was inducted in the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Tomey is survived by his wife, Nanci, four adult children and five grandchildren. His son, Rich, was a baseball player at the UA and a longtime employee of both the Diamondbacks and Cardinals.
"As a family we rarely talk about how many games Dick Tomey won — we talk about how many hearts he won," his family said. "Including all of ours."
Tomey’s memorial service will be held Friday, May 31, at McKale Center from 9-11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to the Dick Tomey Legacy Fund, which has been created through the Positive Coaching Alliance of America. Visit www.positivecoach.org/TomeyFund for more.