Dick Tomey's lifelong mark on his players was about more than just football.
'A great man that’s willing to give people opportunities, from all walks of life'
The Arizona and college football community lost one of its own Friday night after UA legend Dick Tomey passed away at 80 following a battle to lung cancer.
At Arizona, Tomey won 95 games between 1987-2000, and 48 between 1993-98, which is considered the best stretch in program history. Tomey coached the UA's "Desert Swarm" defense and won the 1998 Holiday Bowl with an Arizona team that finished the season 12-1. With a stop at Hawaii before his time at Arizona and San Jose State afterwards, Tomey posted a 183-145-7 record over 20 years.
Known for his unique way of connecting with people, Tomey touched the lives of many and developed relationships with anyone he encountered. His UA players will be the first to tell you. Some of his players shared their favorite memories and lessons Tomey gave them at the UA and beyond.
Glenn Parker, UA offensive lineman 1988-89, recruited by Tomey out of Golden West College
Do you remember much about the recruitment process?
A: “Oh yeah. One of the things he talked about was, ‘Don’t fall in love with a coach. You’re going to a school.’ But I went to Arizona for the coaches. I went there for Dick Tomey and Ron McBride. I got offers from a lot of places. Arizona wasn’t really on my map when I started the process. It quickly became the only place I wanted to go.”
What was it about his pitch or his personality that drew you in?
A: “The first time he was in my house, we were just talking. We’re sitting in the living room with the family. He opens up a big map of the campus, and he puts it on the floor. He’s down on the floor. I’m still on the couch. He wanted me to get down on the floor with him. He was like, ‘I’m not going to be above anybody. This is who we are.’ I would never see another coach do that. It was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s different.’”
He was extremely successful here. How was he able to achieve so much at the U of A?
A: “He understood what Arizona is. He understood what Tucson is. He had come from a place at Hawaii where he build that program. He was very happy to be in Tucson. Even though he’d been at UCLA, he’d been at a lot of great places, he was happy to be in Tucson. Sometimes as fans we forget what makes Tucson … Tucson. It’s kind of like Reno, Nevada — it’s the biggest little city. Everywhere you go, you know someone. I think a lot of coaches, it becomes a steppingstone for them. Or they look at it as someplace that’ll get them back on their feet.
“Dick Tomey was happy here. Dick Tomey wanted this to be home. I don’t know that Dick Tomey looked around much, you know what I mean? He understood who we were, and he understood what type of player would fit in there. He understood who it was that he was looking for. He would get a top recruit, but he would also get some guy that nobody had noticed and knew that that guy was going to fit … the University of Arizona and the city of Tucson.”
Do you have any other favorite stories about Coach Tomey?
A: “One that endears him to every player, yet I know it would have been a source of embarrassment to him. Cal in ’89. We had to beat them to go to the Rose Bowl. We were beating them pretty well at half. Ended up losing the game (29-28). He was so angry. We were all devastated. At the end of the team prayer, he said, ‘God bless the rainbows.’ And then he swore. Openly swore at himself.
“We had never really heard him swear. We kinda laughed it off. Nobody was angry at him for it. We were all heartbroken. We all understood in the moment that he forgot where he was. The players loved him for that as much as for anything.”
Brandon Sanders, 1994-95 First-Team All-Pac-10 safety
What were conversations like between you and Tomey?
A: “Whenever you left from his presence, he’d grab you by the neck or whatever, give you that smile, look at you in eye, and give you a big hug. He’ll give you a kiss on the cheek and tell you that he loved you. That’s my memory of Coach Tomey. It wasn’t beating Washington or Miami, it’s that and that resonates with me more than any ring or Pac-10 championship.”
How has Tomey impacted you as a high school football head coach?
A: “Coach Tomey said one thing at a coach’s clinic that really resonated with me: ‘Coach your players hard, but love them harder.’ When he said that, it hit me so many different ways because I look back on our time and that’s exactly who he was. He was hard on us as players, but win, lose or draw, whether you failed or were kicked out of his program, he always kept that love for you.”
Kelvin Eafon, RB and team captain on 12-1 1998 squad, scored 16 TDs as short-yardage specialist
If someone had never met Coach Tomey before, how would you describe him?
A: “A great man that’s willing to giving people opportunities, from all walks of life. The thing I always think about is all the different types of people that were on the team. We had ex-military guys. We had Samoans. We had Southern black guys like myself. (Eafon is from Dallas.) Guys from the West Coast. He brought everybody together. Never, ever did I feel any tension or anything that wasn’t (like) family around the team.”
How was he able to do that?
A: “Because he cared about the person first before the player. He for sure could coach his butt off. He had a great coaching staff. All great guys. That’s something else that I keep thinking about. Man, we had Coach (Duane) Akina ... Coach (Dino) Babers. You think about all these great coaches and men that he had us around. He just believed in people.
“One of the quotes he had was, ‘What you do speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.’ You couldn’t con him with him your mouth. You couldn’t talk your way into anything with Coach. He was going to go by your character.
“One of the things I appreciated was for him to see a guy who came from basketball to give me an opportunity to come out and be on the football team, recognize that I could help the team. And then to allow me to take over the team as a captain, put my imprint on the team with my leadership. I still can’t believe that.”
Kelvin Hunter, defensive back, 1997-99
When did you first meet Coach Tomey?
A: “I first met Coach Tomey on my recruiting trip. I got off the plane and told him right then and there that I wanted to commit and he asked me why I wanted to commit to the University of Arizona. He then came to my house and met my dad and my dad said that’s where I need to go because he’s a man of integrity. He said, ‘That’s where you need to be because it’ll help you be a man. That meant the world to me because my dad was all about trust and if he trusted you, then that’s where I need to go.”
Barrett Baker, special teams captain, walk-on, lettered at UA in 1998:
How would you describe your relationship with Coach Tomey?
A: “Well, it’s such a cliché, but I feel like he made me who I am today. That two-year time with him, when you hear of his passing and you immediately go to look for every picture and every voicemail and every text that you sent back and forth just to see his words or hear his words … it’s just a powerful thing.
“My dream growing up was to play college football. He gave me that chance. He believed in me. It sounds kind of strange, but I swear there’s kind of a domino effect to that. When someone gives you a chance at something and then rewards it with a full scholarship, it changed the trajectory of my life. I hope that doesn’t sound too dramatic. He instills a belief in every person that he comes across that they can be somebody important.”
What’s your favorite Dick Tomey story?
A: “I was late to a meeting at Camp Cochise. Keith Smith, Mike Lucky, myself and Hadley Kilgore, we were late. He kicked us out of a meeting. We had to meet with him the next morning for discipline. Here I was, a walk-on that pretty much knew my career was over before it ever started. Two hours later at practice, I blocked a punt. He said, ‘Who was that?’ They said, ‘Barrett.’ He said, ‘Put him on the travel squad.’
“There was never any grudges held. Everything that he did was for a reason when it came to coaching. If I was late, we paid it off. If I did something great, he would pay it forward.”
Mark Fontana, offensive line, 1987-89
What do you remember most about Coach Tomey’s philosophy?
A: “Team, baby. It was all about the team. You can’t win alone and that’s what I got from him. You have to be a team that loves each other. You have to love each other if you want to win. You can hate each other off the field and we don’t have to like each other, but when you’re out here, you have to love each other. That’s what Coach Tomey was all about.”
Was there there anything significant you took away from Tomey?
A: “I love the guy — for some reason — even more after I was done playing than when I played. Seeing how he treated people with love and respect, I looked at him more highly after I was done. Looking back on his wisdom, he was an incredible coach. Any other coaches I played for, even his assistant coaches, no one compared to him.”