One-on-one with BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe on his time at Cal


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I have heard stories that you were very highly respected and admired when you were the coach for Cal. They told me of a time when you played Nebraska on the road on a Saturday, lost to them, but you were still in church at home the next morning.

I was a coach, and I didn’t want to be defined as a coach. I wanted to be defined as a person. To me, church and attendance, being there with my family, all of those things were important to me. So, even though we got back late or whatever and it was a tough defeat, you need to stand up and come in. And there was support from the members of the Church. … But still, it’s my responsibility to be in church regardless of what time we come home. That’s just how it goes.

What are your feelings about returning to a community you spent a lot of time in?

I have really great feelings about Cal. The people there were great. I loved Berkley … it was a vibrant place, and I was not successful there. … But it was a good experience. There were some good things that happened, but there were some bad things that happened where we weren’t successful on the field. But we did, I think, a good thing with the kids. I think a lot of those kids grew up at that time. They got great degrees. They learned and experienced difficult challenges. We had some big wins. So, overall, I can’t say it was a failure totally in terms of everything that we did, but coaches are measured on wins and losses. In that regard, I didn’t do well enough to continue on there.

Can you anticipate what your thoughts/emotions may be when you enter the Cal stadium again?

I really have a fondness for Cal, and when I watch them I want them to win their games except for our games. You know, there’s the band, the fans, Tightwad Hill, all the cheers, the traditions and all those things about Cal. I’ll have a hard time ever forgetting them. I hope I don’t, but this is different. I am the athletic director at BYU. So, we’re going to go in there. I’ll feel good. I’ll have different feelings. I’ll have different emotions, I’m sure. I get emotional about every game we play. So, going back to a place where I put in a lot of blood, sweat and a lot of tears, it’ll probably be a way different feeling, but I’m looking forward to it. And it’s been a long time. It’s been 12–13 years since that I’ve been gone.

Here at BYU, you try to go into LaVell Edwards Stadium hours before the players show up to get ready for the game. Are you going to be able to do that when you’re at Cal?

No, probably not. I mean, I usually get to the stadium everywhere, even on the road. I like to get there early. I like to go into the locker room and feel the emotion of the locker room. I like to see the preparation, and I like to see the emotion of the teams. I don’t want to get in the way, because I am not a coach, but I think the players know me and respect the fact that I know the game. But I just try to encourage people. I try to look them in the eyes and not freak them out, but, ‘Come on, let’s go. This is going to be a big one.’ And I like to walk around the stadium. I like to see and feel the different places that we go, because it’s just not a game to me. When you’re a coach, you can’t do that. You can’t get wrapped up in all the emotions of a game, but as an AD, I love that. I go around and look at the graphics and see how they’ve prepared the stadium and get a feel for the band, the venue, the fans and the tailgates. We usually have a huge turnout of our fans. So, I visit with our fans on the road. I love the atmosphere and the pageantry of college football.

Is that something you think you got as a player?

You know, that was a big part of it, but I’ve loved football for as long as I can remember. I mean, when I was a little kid, my older brother’s 9 years older than me. So, when he was in high school … I would go to practice and run alongside the field as they would run. I would go to the games and watch. I would go out onto the field after the game, and I was the one of the original ones that wanted to get their sweaty towels and sweat wristbands. I would cry when our high school would lose. So, I can’t remember not being emotionally wrapped up in football.

Holmoe speaks with a group of people during registration of the 2012 Media Day at BYU. (Chris Bunker)
Holmoe speaks with a group of people during registration for the 2012 Media Day at BYU. (Chris Bunker)

So, you were with the 49ers before Cal. How was that transition? How did that happen?

I was coaching on the 49ers as a defensive back coach, and I loved every second of it. We were really good, especially the defensive backs. They were great individual people and fantastic players. But I could see, in sense for me, the commitment that you had to make was taking me away from my family. I could feel that. And in a two-year period of time, I loved the addiction of being a part of that team, but I could sense that I was not at home very much. And I just knew that I needed to go in a different direction. So, I pretty much just walked away from the professional football coaching. And, you know, some colleges are like that, too. But, just the experience I had at Cal was good. As a head coach, I was there for a year as the coordinator, and you could determine how you run your program. It wasn’t all just time, but energy and emotion that you put into it. It was something that I thought I would be better at in the college than I would be in the pros. And even though I was successful as a professional coach, I just felt that it wasn’t going to be great for my family in the future.

So, when you were head coach at Cal, were you able to find that balance?

Better. Better than I could when I was with San Francisco. As a coach, you don’t play on Sundays. So, you could be in church a lot more. I’d go to church in the morning, but then I would come by. … On Sunday, everything is closed down. So, we would go in and look at film, get (players) treatment, do a lighter practice on Sunday, and then the players would have a day off one Monday. It was more manageable at that time for me. And I think that our coaches enjoyed that, too.

Cal is known to have a really good football program. So, what was it like transitioning to head coach and taking that on?

Well, I mean, it’s interesting because Cal hadn’t had a lot of success. We went to a bowl game in the year I was coordinator. But they hadn’t had great success, and so I was hoping that I could come in and bring them to a higher level. You know, the philosophy is that strategies that I employed were what I had learned at BYU and the 49ers, and I was at Stanford for two years with Bill Walsh. I learned in hindsight that that was a mistake. The things you can do at one school or one organization don’t necessarily translate to every school. So, if I could do it over again, I would change the way I did it. … But the guy who took my place, Jeff Tedford, actually did a really good job and got them into being a consistent, really good team. I always say, like with all the former coaches at Cal, when they go to the Rose Bowl, I’ll be there. You know, I’ll drop what I’m doing and I’ll be at that Rose Parade. I’ll be at the game, because we’ve all given a lot of ourselves for that program, even if it wasn’t a great success. I feel like I would love to see and feel the emotions of Cal being in the Rose Bowl. That’s a huge dream for all of us.

Cal is also known academically to be a good school. As a head coach, what were some of the unique challenges you faced working with the University?

I would say that Cal is a very difficult school for student athletes. It’s just incredible competition. You get the cream of the crop of students there, and you bring in athletes. You know, you can’t bring in a bunch of choirboys to play football … but that’s a fine line as to how you balance that. Berkley in and of itself is an unusual, very unique environment living there and being on that campus. People are challenging you all the time with thoughts and what you think, and there’s peaceful demonstrations everyday. School is very hard for the kids, and the athletic competition is intense. So, all those things together make it very hard for a student athlete at Cal. But I will say that the kids that graduate from Cal are better prepared than most places in the world, because they’ve been through an incredible challenge and the adversity and the successes will prepare them. I think that’s why Cal alums are so special.

Do you see any similarities between being the head coach at Cal and being the athletic director now?

You know, there are always some similarities. There’s leadership. You’re in charge of an organization, whether it’s the football team or the athletic department. I learned a lot from being at Cal and how not to do it. So, I have avoided making mistakes that I made with Cal at BYU. One of the things is being the athletic director at BYU, I coach the coaches. … Not just the football team. We have 21 teams, and I work with these coaches. … I don’t go to them like I’m the expert of all things. … Instead, they look at me as, ‘I’ve had this experience and I’ve done it, and my counsel would be do this.’ I think they trust me like, ‘Hey, this guy has experience where he knows good and bad.’ So, that’s probably been one of the things that was a great advantage for me was having an experience at Cal where I learned a lot.

Your path to get back to BYU, was it anything close to what you expected?

No, I never really planned. … I didn’t plan to come to BYU originally, but I got hurt in high school, and some of the schools that were recruiting me dropped me. I ended up at BYU as a kind of fallback. Then I planned on going into athletic administration at Ohio State. Then LaVell Edwards called me and had an emergency situation that he needed me to come help him. So, I came back here for my master’s degree and to be a graduate assistant. Then, when I was finished at Cal, I wasn’t sure if I was going to go back into the NFL or go back to another college and coach. And LaVell Edwards called me and said, ‘Hey, you know, why don’t you come back to BYU? This is a great place for you. You’ve had success here, and there’re good opportunities.’ So, I think it was the people at BYU, LaVell and some other people who always kind of brought me back.

Holmoe addressed the members of the media when he announced that the football program will become independent while joining the West Coast Conference in other sports.(Luke Hansen)
Holmoe addresses the members of the media when he announces that BYU’s football program will become independent while joining the West Coast Conference in other sports. (Luke Hansen)

So, you weren’t LDS when you came to BYU. How did you ultimately decided to come to BYU?

I had kids at my high school that were LDS who were great examples, and I loved these guys and girls. You know, I just kind of respected them. So, when the opportunity came to go to BYU … I told them of the interest BYU was showing in me. They’re like, ‘You got to go up there and take a trip.’ And that’s kind of how one thing led to another. I took a trip to BYU and kind of got into the recruiting mode based on the people that I knew that were LDS. When I came up here on my visit, my official visit, it was fantastic. I loved it. I went on other visits (to other schools) after that, but I kept comparing each one of those subsequent visits to BYU, and in the end I told everybody that I think I wanted to go to BYU. High school coaches, friends and family were like, ‘Really?’ Because I had other options, but BYU was the place. You know, I can say in hindsight now, with the way my life has turned out that I believe I was led to BYU for the things that occurred in my life. I came to BYU. I learned about the gospel. I was very prideful, very defensive and not very humble. So, I learned and saw the principles of the gospel that I kind of kept in the bay. You know, I left here without joining the Church, and then I go to San Francisco and I get involved in a great ward and stake where the people there were fantastic. And that continued my quest to learn more about the Church, and that was a great spiritual environment for me. … I learned the gospel here (BYU) but found my testimony, I should say, through service in the Bay Area.

Hearing about your conversion story, you told your wife that if you were going to become a member, it would be on your own terms. Why was it so important for you to decide to become a member and not to do it for anyone else?

I was a member of another church. So I had faith in Jesus Christ, and I knew that this would be a change in my spiritual path, but it was still the same Savior. So, it was just maybe cultural, familial and traditional where my ties were pulling me here, but I saw and felt other things. But I had seen too many people that did convert for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to do that, and I wasn’t going to do that. I just really believe that Heavenly Father is our Father. He’s my Father. He knows who I am. So, I’m going to have a personal relationship with him and his Son. That’s about me. I can come to a conclusion of my own, because I know that. I knew that then. I knew that before I joined the Church, but it was just about a matter of where do you (Heavenly Father) want me to be? And LDS people might not understand that, but for me, I had to find that out. When I found out through the Spirit, it was awesome, and I never went back.

Do you feel that your conversion had anything to do with where you went in your life?

For sure. I mean, I don’t think there are any coincidences. You can use the word, I might use the word, but I think things happen for reasons. I think we’re put in place. I am a big relationship guy. I believe that relationships help each other. I believe that when we pray, that when we help other people, it’s an answer to our prayer. I just feel that there’s no question that the people I met along my pathway have changed my life. I mean, one of the best was the 49ers. My best friends, the people that I respect the most are my 49er teammates and coaches. I mean, I went through experiences with those guys that we are close. Those are like my brothers. They are my brothers. They’re not LDS, but I love those guys like my brothers, and they love me. I know that that was part of my spiritual pathway. It changed my life, for sure. … So, definitely that happened. It’s not that we’re put in positions just for Church things. We’re there to help each other out. We’re brothers and sisters anyways. These guys are way closer than some of my LDS friends.

Holmoe places the Deseret First Duel memorial brick in place in 2010. (Drew Van Wagenen)
Holmoe places the Deseret First Duel memorial brick in place in 2010. (Drew Van Wagenen)

It’s exciting to watch the Superbowl as a fan. So, what was it like to go to the Superbowl as a player?

I think that we all have the same feelings that the fans do, but then there’s another, deeper feeling. It’s hard to describe it. You just have to live it. … In that time we went to the Superbowl, it’s not just the game itself. It’s all the things that lead up to that. Injuries, guys getting fired, family problems, great successes, fame and fortune. All those things you share. Everybody thinks it must be so glamorous. It’s not. It’s a really hard job. We come to work every day, and it’s work. There are not a lot of people taking your picture or looking for your autograph. You’re working your tail off with those guys. Like I said, blood, sweat and tears. So, you feel every emotion that they feel. You experience everything that they experience. So, when you achieve the greatest success for what we can as football, it’s the Super Bowl. … It’s private. It’s almost sacred. … That’s kind of an amazing thing. It’s hard to believe, but I can’t describe that. I try to instill that here, because it’s all relative. You can have that as a family. You can have that at work. You can have it as a team, but you have to sacrifice everything for that team. A lot of kids don’t understand that. You only get out of it what you put in, and those guys put in everything. I mean, all chips are in. When you do that, not every team wins, because lot of people put all the chips in and don’t win. So, there’s something to that winning and that goes deeper even with putting together a team, having the right people. You know, not every family is perfect, but that’s who you got. You don’t have to be family of the year, but it’s the best we got, and if you could celebrate that, that’s a sweet thing. That’s why I feel so much emotion for these teams at BYU.

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