After they both moved back to Tucson full time, Dick Tomey and Glenn Parker would have lunch together every other month or so.
Although he had played for Tomey at Arizona and deeply appreciated the relationship they had developed since then, Parker became uncharacteristically reticent when it came to inviting his former coach out for a meal.
“I always felt like I was going to bother him if I asked him,” Parker said. “Before I could even pick up the phone, he was already texting me or calling me.
“He was really good about maintaining ties with people. I’m closer to him now than when I played for him, and I loved him when I played for him.”
Tomey died Friday after battling lung cancer. He was 80. A memorial service will be held May 31 at McKale Center.
Tomey won more games as Arizona’s football coach than anyone in history. This story is not about that.
This is about Tomey’s legacy — the impact he had on countless former players who have been paying it forward since the moment they stopped playing for him.
Take Parker, for example. The former offensive lineman, who played for Tomey in 1988 and ’89, works for the University of Arizona Foundation. He also trains linemen. He always thinks about one of Tomey’s favorite sayings: “Coach ’em hard, but love ’em harder.”
“When I’m around my guys,” Parker said, “I ask them about their personal lives, about their families. I don’t even worry about football until we’re in that meeting room or on that practice field.”
Tomey loved his players, but he also pushed them. They were more receptive to the latter because of the former.
Kelvin Eafon began his UA career as a basketball player. He became a touchdown-scoring machine as a short-yardage specialist for the 12-1 Wildcats of 1998. Eafon attributes much of his success in football to the trust he felt from Tomey. Eafon uses that same approach as a local coach and trainer.
“When somebody tells you they love you, then they give you an opportunity and they coach you up, that went a long way with me,” Eafon said. “It made me realize that if you put some time into people and you love on ’em, you could mold (them).
“I’m very proud of being able to help a lot of kids achieve goals of playing college basketball and football, graduating college — a lot of kids that never would have thought about graduating college.”
Barrett Baker, the special-teams captain of the ’98 squad, summarized Tomey’s coaching style in two words: “tough love.” Don’t discount the tough part.
Every so often, Tomey would boot a player off the practice field. It happened once to Parker after he kicked a teammate in the head.
“Most coaches make you run,” Parker said. “He wasn’t like that. He just wouldn’t let you around the team. That is more devastating to a player than having to run. He was really tough on guys that way.
“But he was also the same guy that would grab a brown paper bag, sit on a bench with you on campus and have lunch. He was an everyman.”
After Arizona lost at Washington State in 1987, Tomey’s first year here, he took the unusual step of scheduling a practice for the following morning. It isn’t easy to get from Pullman to Tucson; practicing was probably the last thing the players wanted to do. But Tomey had a point to make.
“I want to say it was at 6 or 7 o’clock at the Cherry Avenue field right behind the stadium,” former UA safety Chuck Cecil said. “He basically said, ‘I just want to know who wants to be on the team — who wants to play for me. If you don’t want to, then don’t be there. It’s that easy.’
“Clearly you don’t like that, but you respect it and appreciate the fact that he wanted to find out who wanted to be on the team with him.”
Cecil had less incentive to buy in than the younger players on the team. Tomey’s first year coincided with Cecil’s last. He already had established himself as an all-conference performer.
But Tomey’s methods and philosophies resonated with Cecil in a profound way.
“He was a father figure for me,” Cecil said. “I went on to coach in the NFL for 15 years and have now been back here for three (as a senior defensive analyst for the Wildcats). He embodies everything that I tried to be as a coach. He was the standard.
“He was a man of few words, but they were very strong words and very powerful. He was not a yeller. But you got the message when he spoke.
“That was one of the things I loved about him. You knew exactly where you stood with him. There were no gray areas.”
Friend, mentor, coach
Cecil needed time to compose himself before speaking about Tomey. That Cecil feels so much fondness for him — after playing for him for only one season — says a lot about the type of guy Tomey was.
After he returned to Tucson to join the football staff, Cecil would play golf with Tomey. The two men and their wives would go out to dinner together.
“Not only a father figure,” Cecil said, “but a great friend and mentor.”
Many feel similarly. Baker was reminded of that when the 1998 team assembled for a reunion last fall. Tomey spoke to his former players at a gathering at Frog & Firkin.
“You’re dealing with grown men that are 40-something years old,” Baker said. “(Yet) he could get the team’s attention in two seconds flat like we were 20-year-old kids in a meeting room. He had the ‘it’ factor. He was our coach, is our coach and will always be our coach.
“I know it sounds weird, but even though we hadn’t heard Coach’s voice for 20 years in that way, it immediately was ‘Coach Tomey.’ And we loved it. We missed it. We wanted more of it. We wanted to get one more speech with Coach.”
Nothing could have meant more to Tomey, who always placed people and relationships above Xs and Os. In an interview with the Star last summer, Tomey recalled the January 2018 memorial for former UA lineman Warner Smith, who died at 44 from ALS. Smith’s former teammates and other ex-Wildcats came together to honor one of their own.
“To watch those guys greet each other and be so glad to see each other was what every coach has to be looking for,” Tomey said. “When those hugs they’re giving each other are not just those little counterfeit things (but) two hands and gobble a guy up.
“That’s what you’d see with these guys. That’s as rewarding as anything.”