Greg Hansen: Dick Tomey’s life, importance went well beyond wins and losses

May 11, 2019

A few days after his 53 rd birthday, Dick Tomey put on a baseball uniform and drove to the backlot behind Hi Corbett Field, carrying a catcher’s mitt and gear suitable to play in a city league game against a bunch of 20-25 year-olds.

Surrounded by a motley crew of ballplayers that included the UA’s groundskeeper, its golf coach, athletic trainer, sports information director, several former Wildcat baseball players and a couple of sportswriters, Tomey was comfortable in a pose as an underdog.

Late in a game that became chippy and full of macho chatter, Tomey was hit in the face by a fastball. Those from the Creative Awards dugout, Tomey’s team, some wielding baseball bats, ran towards the pitcher’s mound.

There was going to be a fight.

Momentarily dazed, Tomey gathered himself, sprinted to the mound and faced not the fearful pitcher but his own teammates.

“Get back!” he commanded. “I’ll be fine. Play ball.”

In a moment of crisis, Tomey chose to protect the pitcher rather than think of himself.

After the game, Tomey, his wife and son, Rich, the club’s pitcher, joined the team at a campus-area bar and grill, Bob Dobbs, to celebrate his birthday. He had a soft drink, and before he left to attend a movie — in his baseball uniform — I noticed two red welts on his chin. They were outline of the stitches of a baseball.

“I wanted to make sure we didn’t get kicked out of the league,” he said. “We were only going to hurt ourselves if we got into a fight.”

Dick Tomey died late Friday following a struggle with lung cancer. He was 80. He was so much more than a football coach. The old DePauw University Tiger had a perspective on life that went far beyond wins and losses.

In early January, I sent Tomey a text message expressing my frustration that he wasn’t part of the Class of 2019 of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

He called a minute later.

“Please don’t make an issue of this,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

A month later, the Southern Arizona Chapter of the Hall of Fame transmitted an 18-page nomination of Tomey to the Hall of Fame office in Atlanta. It included testament to his worthiness from UA Hall of Famers Tedy Bruschi, Chuck Cecil and Ricky Hunley. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan, Tomey’s former student manager at the UA, wrote that Tomey’s proudest achievement at Arizona wasn’t beating No. 1 Washington or shutting out mighty Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, but winning the Provost Award as the UA’s best teacher. He was the first-ever coach to win the award.

“That is the kind of respect Dick Tomey had from the faculty and administration on campus,” wrote Harlan.

Tomey coached at Arizona for 14 seasons, winning more games in the 1990s than any Pac-10 team, but that wasn’t who he was. Coaching didn’t define his job. He preferred a broader concept: being a father figure, a shoulder to cry on, an advocate, a friend.

When backup defensive end Earl Johnson — a young man who grew up without either parent in his life — quit football in 1991, he moved to Las Vegas without a real plan. Tomey phoned Johnson.

“You can quit football,” he said, “but you can’t quit school.”

Johnson returned to Tucson. Tomey renewed his scholarship and Johnson finished school. For that alone, Tomey should’ve been Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

After his team finished No. 4 in the nation, beating Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl, Tomey was asked if he would speak to the inmates at the Arizona State Prison in Douglas, near the UA’s annual Camp Cochise training site.

What coach of a top-10 team would do that? A two-hour drive to the most remote piece of earth in Arizona, no compensation, no TV cameras to make him look good.

Cochise College basketball coach Jerry Carrillo told me I could watch Tomey’s interaction with the prisoners, but that no photographers would be allowed and that I would be escorted from the property as soon as Tomey’s speech was concluded.

I waited in the parking lot for more than an hour on a hot summer afternoon. When Tomey finally appeared, I asked him how it went.

“It was a life-changing experience,” he said.

I told him I agreed; the prisoners visibly absorbed his speech.

“Not for them,” he said. “For me.”

Tomey was 60 years old. He had been a head coach at Hawaii and Arizona for 23 years. He had been an assistant coach for the iconic Bo Schembechler and at UCLA and Kansas. Yet he insisted that speaking to prisoners at the Mohave Unit of the Arizona State Prison changed his life.

When you talked to Tomey, he didn’t spend time with the details about a big win at USC or Arizona State, but about those he met along the way.

Arizona was invited to the 1990 Aloha Bowl, a homecoming game in Honolulu, playing Syracuse on Christmas Day. It was going to be all about Tomey going back to his head coaching roots, with TV cameras meeting the team on the tarmac, telling the story of Tomey’s triumph as the Rainbow Warriors coach from 1977-86.

But that wasn’t part of his plan at all. Before the trip, he sparred with the UA administration, which was trying to save money, sending a skeleton travel party to what would be a very expensive bowl game in Hawaii.

The athletic department limited Tomey’s traveling squad, informing him that 10 or 12 walk-ons would not be allowed to go.

“We’re not going unless the walk-ons are going,” Tomey insisted. “They’re as important to this team as (All-American cornerback) Darryll Lewis.”

The walk-ons made the trip.

It wasn’t a victory that gets you into the Hall of Fame, but for Tomey it was the kind of win that made you feel fortunate you could call him a friend.