Arizona Wildcats coaching legend Dick Tomey is undergoing treatment for lung cancer at a Texas hospital following a recent diagnosis, his family and the UA announced Friday.
"Coach Dick Tomey was recently diagnosed with a type of lung cancer at Tucson Medical Center and is currently undergoing further tests this week at MD Anderson Medical Center in Houston, Texas," the family said in a statement. "We (Coach and his family) greatly appreciate all the people who have reached out to help in so many ways and all the expressions of love and well-wishes being sent our way from so many people. Following Coach Tomey’s example, our family is feeling very grateful and hopeful for a positive outcome."
Tomey, 80, has been living in Tucson full-time for the last few years after relocating from Hawaii. He was honored alongside his 1998 team during a 20-year reunion last fall, and spoke to this year's team in the days before the Wildcats' rivalry game against Arizona State.
Between 1987-2000, Tomey won 95 football games at the UA, a program record. His mid-1990s teams were famous for their “Desert Swarm” defense, even gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview 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, another program best. Tomey was inducted into the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Tomey resigned from the UA following the 2000 season, and went on to serve as an assistant with the NFL’s 49ers and at the University of Texas. He was San Jose State’s head coach from 2005-09, and finished his career as Hawaii’s special teams coach in 2011.
Arizona initially hired Tomey away from Hawaii in 1987 to replace Larry Smith, who departed following the team’s bowl game to become the new head coach at USC. Tomey was initially torn; he told reporters he thought of returning to Hawaii, where he was the program’s all-time wins leader and a local legend, more than once.
But Tomey — and his teams — soon fit right in. Arizona went 4-5-3 in Tomey's 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 standout on the 1998 team, went on to become one of top cornerbacks in NFL history.
For every Bruschi and McAlister, there were dozens of players — many of them undersized or unappreciated, some of them transfers — who went on to succeed in the private sector. Tomey was often among the first to help them in times of need.
Tomey raised money to support former players Donnie Salum and Warner Smith when they got sick in recent years, and remains a steadying force to a legion of former players. Much of Tomey’s work is done quietly, typical of his nature.
“He had a great career here,” former running back Kelvin Eafon told the Star last fall. “… He built a lot of great men, and a lot of guys would attest to that. He was about helping you to be a better man.”
The UA said in a statement that it "saddens us" to confirm Tomey's diagnosis. UA president Robert C. Robbins, a doctor and former CEO of a Texas hospital, helped connect Tomey's family with experts at MD Anderson.
"Coach Tomey is an iconic figure not only in our football family, but also the University of Arizona and Tucson community," the statement said. "Our thoughts are with Coach Tomey, his family and loved ones, and we wish them all the very best during this difficult time."