It was the summer of 1977, smack dab in the most tumultuous, dysfunctional chapter in University of Hawaii athletics.
The NCAA had just slapped the school’s basketball team with a two-year probation for rules violations, the football team lost its spring game to an alumni team and its head coach, Larry Price, quit in frustration over what he termed “broken promises” by the school and state.
Thirty-three football players were threatening to follow Price out the door and three candidates the school had approached as replacements turned UH down.
“Maybe, that’s why they offered (the job) to me,” the fourth candidate, Dick Tomey, observed later.
What the 39-year-old, first-time head coach did with the job in a remarkable 10-year tenure and the look-you-square-in-the-eye manner he went about it endeared the Indiana native to his adopted state and made him among the school’s most beloved athletic figures.
Which is why news of his death Friday night in Tucson, Ariz., at age 80 following a battle with lung cancer brought an outpouring of aloha from fans, former players and coaches.
More than being the winningest UH football coach — 63-46-3, by the time he left Manoa in 1986, since overtaken by June Jones — was the impact Tomey had on people.
“As a family, we rarely talk about how many games Dick Tomey won — we talk about how many hearts he won … including all of ours,” Tomey’s family said in a statement.
“He touched a lot of our lives and molded a lot of us as young men,” said Mark Kafentzis, a defensive back in the late 1970s and early ’80s. It was a sign of the family’s trust in Tomey that five other members of the Kafentzis family followed Mark to UH or Arizona, where Tomey also coached in a 29-year head coaching career.
Tomey is survived by his wife, Nanci, four children and five grandchildren.
“Hawaii will forever be his home, and he always carried a deep love for the people of Hawaii, and everything it represented in his life,” Nanci said. “The spirit of Aloha will carry on forever in his legacy.”
She said the family envisions a July memorial service here, although no date has been set.
First love was baseball
Tomey’s first love was baseball, a sport he continued to play into his 60s. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he still had a box of baseball cards under his bed,” a college friend said when Tomey was coaching at UH.
After being a three-year starter on the DePauw University baseball team, his first job was at a junior high in Indiana, where he coached baseball, football and track.
Soon after, he landed a position as a football graduate assistant coach at Miami (Ohio) under fast-rising Bo Schembechler. “I did whatever Bo wanted me to do — go get coffee, sweep out the place, you name it — just for the chance to learn,” Tomey recalled. In the process he learned that he could have a future beyond the high school coaching career he had initially set his sights on.
Throughout his career, he would keep a picture of Schembechler, the man who shaped much of his hard-nosed football philosophy, in his office.
With stops at Northern Illinois, Davidson, Kansas and UCLA, Tomey worked his way up the coaching ladder. He was an unsuccessful finalist for head coaching jobs at UCLA (1976) and Arizona (1977) before getting a call from UH, where ex-Bruin Ray Nagel got the assignment to straighten out the mess as athletic director in 1977.
Nagel dumped the rubble — and some of the rabble — from a 3-8 season, in which UH had been outscored 127-3 in its final two games, in Tomey’s hands. With UH scheduled to join the Western Athletic Conference in two years, Nagel said, in effect, “You don’t have to do anything spectacular, just pull it together and build a foundation. Then, we can talk about winning some games.”
When he arrived here, Tomey said, “All I heard were reasons why we couldn’t be successful. I believed we could be.” Of course, Tomey told anybody who would listen, he was optimistic by nature. “When I hit a ball into the trees, I still believe I can make par.”
The first thing he had to do was re-recruit, one by one, UH players who were looking to leave. One of them was Blane Gaison, a sophomore-to-be quarterback and defensive back, who agreed to listen to Tomey’s pitch before leaving for Boise State.
Impressed with Tomey’s positive approach and up-front, man-to-man sincerity, Gaison stayed and became a leader in the UH comeback.
The ’Bows went 5-6 in Tomey’s rookie season, including a victory over South Carolina. But the real eye-opener came a year later in the final game of the 1978 season when UH, a 39-point underdog playing before the first sellout crowd at Aloha Stadium, trailed eventual national champion USC just 7-3 entering the fourth quarter of a 21-5 loss.
“Dick came in and raised the expectations, raised the standard,” said former Hawaii center and San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowler Jesse Sapolu a few years ago. “By the time he left … we broke through a lot of barriers … joined the WAC, played in the championship game against BYU and Jim McMahon and he filled up the stadium.”
With bruising defense and solid special teams play as hallmarks plus the occasional muddle huddle, UH football made its first appearance in the Division I polls, its first national TV appearances and became a Saturday night event in Halawa, where the ’Bows’ attendance went from an average of 20,236 to 42,915 at one point.
After the 1986 season Arizona came with an offer and Tomey, fighting through the tears at an emotional campus press conference, announced his departure. Though two days later he called athletic director Stan Sheriff and said he wanted to reconsider.
In 14 seasons at Arizona, where he became the school’s winningest football coach, Tomey went 95-64-4 and twice had the Wildcats as high as No. 4 in the polls. After resigning at Arizona, he served as an assistant with the 49ers and at the University of Texas before becoming the head coach at San Jose State in 2005.
With the Spartans he took over a program that had scholarships stripped by the NCAA for poor academic performance. Undaunted, he said it reminded him of the challenges at UH, and he put the Spartans back on their feet with a 9-4 season and bowl appearance in 2006.
His coaching career ended back at UH in 2011 as a special teams coach with Greg McMackin’s staff.
The biggest reward along the way, Tomey would say, was what came with the first UH job. “They offered me — and my family — the chance to be part of the culture, the community.”