How Tom Holmoe revived BYU’s schedule and reputation in a pandemic

Every collegiate, amateur and professional sports league shut down seemingly overnight following an announcement from the NBA on Mar. 11 that Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.

The repercussions eventually reached BYU Football and Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, the man responsible for the Cougars’ schedule. As the leader of an independent football program not aligned with any collegiate conference, Holmoe navigated the uncharted twists and turns of the pandemic and ultimately cobbled together a schedule that has allowed BYU to climb out of mediocrity and into the elite top 10 of the AP Poll in a matter of months. 

Salvaging the 2020 schedule

Salvaging the schedule before the pandemic even began, Holmoe locked in a schedule for 2020 that any athletic director would be proud of. BYU was scheduled to play six “Power-5” teams, including schools from three of the five “power” conferences (Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten). Due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the global pandemic, schools and conferences were forced to make difficult decisions for the health and safety of their student-athletes. 

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement following the conference’s decision not to participate in fall sports.

“Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is.” 

The Pac-12 was one of many conferences that decided to alter their original schedule, leaving an independent BYU with almost none of their originally scheduled games.

“Everybody had to make a decision based on their own unique situation,” Holmoe said. “I did not want to judge anyone making difficult decisions (at other schools) at that time.” 

Holmoe said BYU “never wanted to concede” its fall football season but recognized that doing so seemed inevitable at different points of pre-season conversations. Holmoe and the BYU Athletics staff worked tirelessly to assemble a football schedule that was both competitive and safe for everyone involved.

“I am the spokesperson,” Holmoe said. “But there were hundreds of people who were involved in putting our schedule together.” 

To date, BYU has played eight games and lost none, with two more scheduled from here until mid-December. The University of Houston and Boise State are the only teams the Cougars have played from the original 2020 schedule.

The majority of BYU Football’s original 2020 schedule, top, was canceled due to COVID, but the revised current schedule has the Cougars among the top 10 in the nation and eyeing a College Football Playoff spot. (Elisa Huhem)

Help from fans

Holmoe and the Cougars also relied on their loyal fan base to survive the pandemic challenges. Due in large part to BYU’s affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the so-called “Cougar Nation” exists far beyond the city limits of Provo. Several fans in Utah County and beyond pre-paid for season tickets. These funds helped keep BYU’s hope for a football season afloat when normal revenue from tickets wasn’t coming in.

“We asked if we could hold on to some funds and transfer them to their tickets for next year,” Holmoe said. “Some of these stories are the widow’s mite — it is humbling to be a part of.” 

BYU season ticket holder Nate Slack shared his story and how he approached the decision to ask for a refund or set aside the tickets for next season.

“I wanted BYU to keep the money I spent on season tickets because I know there’s already been a lot of money lost with the pandemic,” Slack said. “I’ve read of a number of schools cutting sports programs and laying off employees, and I would hate to see that happen at BYU. I know the money I spent on season tickets alone won’t be enough to allow someone to keep their job or keep a sport at BYU, but I am of the opinion that anything helps right now.” 

BYU was eventually able to allow fans into the stadium for home games against UTSA, Texas State and Western Kentucky. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for BYU fans, especially the impact they had before they were allowed back inside LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“What was really exciting to see was the fans outside of the stadium when we drove in on our buses,” Sitake said. “They were showing support even though they knew they couldn’t come in. There was a good number of them, and I want them to know how much we love and appreciate them doing that.”

BYU Photo
Kalani Sitake interacts with fans during the “Cougar Walk” before a game in 2018. Sitake and the players haven’t been able to greet fans normally due to COVID restrictions, but that hasn’t stopped Cougar Nation from showing their support online and in person. (BYU Photo)

National relevance

BYU’s remastered season has been as much of a hit among Cougar fans as the remastered version of the Beatle’s iconic “Abbey Road.” The Cougars are ranked No. 8 nationally and are unbeaten through eight games — a feat BYU has not accomplished since its 2001 season. BYU is on national radars and BYU quarterback Zach Wilson is a top contender for college football’s most coveted individual prize: the Heisman Trophy.

“It has added value for sure,” Holmoe said. “You see college teams that are struggling and you think ‘Woah that’s not the team I’ve seen in the past.’” 

BYU, like many other teams around the country, had to cancel one of its games less than a week prior to kickoff early in the season because of COVID cases on the team. Since then, however, the team has remained hyper-vigilant and avoided virus breakouts.

“You have a few hurricane games in the past, but I think everybody understands that canceling games is a real possibility this year,” Holmoe said. 

Now with just two games remaining, the Cougars hope to finish out their 10-game schedule without having to postpone or cancel any more games, even as COVID cases rapidly rise in the state of Utah.

One grateful Cougar fan expressed his appreciation for Cougar football to Holmoe and BYU Athletics via Twitter. Holmoe replied to the fan saying, “Thank you Cougar Nation! Never before have I felt the strength of each and every one of us — from players and coaches to fans and support staff — working together for our beloved Cougs. (I was) walking out of (LaVell Edwards Stadium) after midnight and a family with small kids all told me thanks. (But) I say, THANK YOU.”

The Cougars recently broke the Smurf Turf curse in a statement win over No. 21 Boise State to continue their unbeaten record. Holmoe and Sitake have both noted that the Cougars are focused on their current schedule but could still add a game or two before regular season play wraps up. 

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