I arrived at the BYU Athletic Building a few minutes before my scheduled interview with Tom Holmoe for this Utah Valley Magazine cover story. I looked through the displays in Legacy Hall before walking up to the third floor. Across the lobby I watched Tom fly in the front door and toward the weight room. A group of athletic-looking men yelled out to Tom lightheartedly while pointing to another man in their circle, “Tom, do you think we should still talk to this guy now that he’s a member of the media?” Tom called back as he rushed away, “You gotta be careful!”
Laughs all around.
Tom is sought after for his humor and known for his easy smile. (He did a lip sync video with two presidents of BYU. He’s also been both Justin Bieber and Abe Lincoln for Halloween.)
He is sought after for his advice on athletics. (Tom had a 9-year NFL career after putting up big numbers at BYU. He has four Super Bowl rings from his time as a player and coach.)
He’s sought after for advice on religion. (He came to BYU as a Lutheran and joined the LDS Church several years later during his professional career.)
And he’s sought after for his leadership. (He tells his staff to get the job done and then go home to their families.)
As a journalist, I sought after some of his precious pre-season time to learn more about this father of four who has spent a decade as Teams Captain at BYU. His focus on student-athletes of all 21 sports and his willingness to talk to fans on Twitter — and take ice bucket challenges — have gained this declarer of independence his own fan club.
I’m now a card-carrying member.
As told to Jeanette Bennett
We had a Seven Peaks party the other night for the Athletic Department, and I challenged myself to do the crazy slides. I am not a thrill seeker — in fact, I’m scared of heights. But I like to accomplish things. I don’t care if anybody sees me. Hard is good. That’s one of my mottos.
For two years I’ve been working toward my goal to walk from the Draper Temple to the Salt Lake Temple, which is nearly 22 miles. My favorite church movie is “Only a Stonecutter,” which portrays John Rowe Moyle’s dedication to his faith and his obligations. He etched “Holiness to the Lord” in the Salt Lake Temple after walking 22 miles to get there without one of his legs. I showed that movie at a department meeting. I’m 54. I’m an old dude who played football. My knees hurt. But if he could do it without a leg, I’m going to do it. I crave hard things.
I train by walking for 45 minutes in the morning by myself through the Grandview area of Provo. One of my favorite walks is when my wife drives me to Vivian Park and I walk home. Sometimes I’ll walk to the Provo Temple and back or sometimes out to Utah Lake. I listen to scriptures, church talks and music — a mix of ‘70s, modern and church artists. I really like Hilary Weeks, who I met through soccer. Hilary is a big fan of the women’s team. I also love the movies — on a Monday or Thursday or whenever. I turn my phone off, get a big popcorn and something to drink. It’s my getaway.
My job as Athletic Director at BYU can be busy and stressful, but I love it. I like interacting in lighthearted ways. That’s why I’m on Twitter. I like getting feedback from the fans, and I like to hear their voice. I can use social media to squash rumors floating around. Sometimes people ask silly questions, and sometimes they ask smart questions. I try to look at Twitter at night so it doesn’t consume my day, but if I glance and see I have 25 Twitter notifications, I know I’m in trouble. (Looks at phone) Right now, I have 11. Maybe something is going on.
I’m more deliberate than most when it comes to forming opinions and making decisions. I have great mentors at BYU. President Samuelson took me under his wing, and I listened to everything he said. Kevin Worthen is a brilliant man. With him, you don’t just make a good decision. You make the best decision.
Brian Santiago, senior associate AD, is way different than I am. Some people might think we’re “Mutt and Jeff.” I encourage him to be the contrarian. I’m very conservative, and I like that he gives me the other side. In the end, we are always on the same page. Janie Penfield Rasmussen, senior women administrator, is very bright, very smart. She brings the woman’s touch, and I like her opinion. Those two are way faster thinkers, so they balance me out.
The biggest decision I’ve been part of was to take BYU independent, which germinated from the issues we had in the Mountain West Conference and TV. We tried to resolve them the best we could, but we couldn’t. One of the options we began discussing with Kevin Worthen and President Samuelson was going independent. I would give them the athletic point of view. They would give me the business, legal and political viewpoints. It was an incredible opportunity for me to listen to smart minds. We talked for maybe two years. We had white papers. We had strategies.
[pullquote]The biggest decision I’ve been part of was to take BYU independent, which germinated from the issues we had in the Mountain West Conference and TV. We tried to resolve them the best we could, but we couldn’t. One of the options we began discussing with Kevin Worthen and President Samuelson was going independent. … We talked for maybe two years. We had white papers. We had strategies.[/pullquote]
It was a huge decision. More than 80 years of athletic history would be altered. President Samuelson wasn’t going to let BYU go on a whim. It had to be right. And it couldn’t be about the money. We framed the decision based on access and exposure. Fans nationwide would see what we were all about. I knew it was right. But I didn’t know if it would be successful.
Things are constantly moving in college athletics. It’s like a solar system. When we broke out, independence fit really well. It still fits well, but not quite as good. We have great partners in the West Coast Conference — Christian schools that practice what they preach. They have a mission and they live it. The collegiality is incredible. Relationships mean a lot to me.
I love being part of the BYU community. We all have the same principles, and family is very important. I stress to my staff that they should work hard and get their job done, but there’s no reason to stay late. I try to get home by 6 o’clock. I’m usually walking in right when dinner is ready.
As a professional football player, I usually went into work at 8 and came home by 5. It was a pretty easy schedule. Coaching in the NFL is another story. We’d go seven months without a day off. In the off-season, we would take Saturday and Sunday off — unless we were scouting somebody. I love the game, but I love my family more. I respect NFL coaches who can maintain that lifestyle, but I was spending too much time away from my family. I’ve got a wife and four kids who are everything to me.
I got married 32 years ago after proposing at the Disneyland Hotel. Lori was a cheerleader, and I had my eye on her but was afraid to ask her out. I used to watch her in the Marriott Center. Back then, the cheerleaders had a dugout area they jumped into. I used to help recruit football players, and we sat right next to the pit.
Lori and I fell in love, but I wasn’t LDS and she didn’t want to be a part-member family. I’d go to the St. Mark’s Lutheran church on Sunday mornings and then go with Lori in the afternoon. She could see my development. But I built a wall. I was prideful. I started to feel the benefits of the gospel by being around it. I read books and listened to the leaders of the LDS Church. But I avoided people who would try to have me take the lessons. I had a good defense mechanism, and I knew how to slide around. I had a couple faculty members who took me under their wing. They didn’t push, but we would have serious spiritual talks and they brought me along slowly. I wanted to be true to my background, but I knew so many of the principles of the LDS Church were true. Some things were harder for me to accept. I felt like I had to know everything. I knew more than I needed to be baptized, but I didn’t do it. My mother-in-law made me take the discussions before I married her daughter. I kept taking them and taking them. I could have given the discussions.
I was a premed major in the department of zoology. I was a decent player at BYU, but I didn’t think I would be in the NFL. When I was a junior, the scouts were looking at the seniors. Coach Dick Felt told me I was going to get drafted the next year. What? Really? That changed everything, and I started focusing on football. I still thought I’d go to medical school after a couple of years in the NFL.
I got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. We had a great ward. They embraced our family. I was a Webelos leader. The bishops were fantastic to me. I would speak at firesides all the time. They would ask me because I went to BYU. I went to church. I played for the 49ers. That must have sounded like a pretty good speaker. I was a little coy. I would speak about preparation, persistence, faith. I was a Christian man. I could speak about the Savior and the Bible very well. On occasion I would talk about things I believed from the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. People were there to hear a football player — not a spiritual giant.
Then the spirit hit me like a ton of bricks. We were up in Provo for the offseason after my sixth year with the 49ers. We would always spend a couple weeks here with Lori’s parents and I would visit campus. It had been 10 years since I had come to BYU and really started to learn about the gospel. It’s hard to explain spiritual things, but I realized I wasn’t being true to myself. I knew I should get baptized. I knew a lot of people had been put in my path to help me. I was afraid of what my family and friends would say. But right then I called Joe Wood, one of my professors, and then I talked to Floyd Johnson, the equipment manager. He said, “Tommy boy, I knew this day would come.” He had me talk to the missionaries. A week later, my father-in-law baptized me.
We started having children in 1984, which is also the year we won the Superbowl. Of my four children, three were born on years that I won the Super Bowl either as a player or a coach. People would tell me I should have more kids since it seemed to be a good luck charm.
I wanted to get into athletic administration after playing football, and I was planning to go to Ohio State. We were months away from going when I got a call from LaVell Edwards. He said Dick Felt had a heart attack and couldn’t coach for awhile. LaVell said he’d appreciate me filling in. I said I would love to but I was going to Ohio State. LaVell asked why I didn’t just come to BYU for grad school. I explained that BYU didn’t have a degree in athletic administration. He paused and then said, “Well there is one now.” I coached the DBs for a season and then Coach Felt came back. I was hooked on coaching. Then I went to Stanford, back to the 49ers and UC-Berkeley as a coach before returning to BYU.
As AD, I don’t have time to look through the blogs and fan sites, but I do have people who report back to me on what is being said. I want to know if fans are unhappy. Some of the stuff they say is right. We make mistakes. Tough things happen. We don’t report every one of our foibles. We are strategic about what we say. I know the professional sports writers and broadcasters. They are friends. They have a job to do, and so do I. Some days those two things don’t jive. But I like people. This is a social job because you meet so many people. You can be kinda dry or you can have fun. I like to have fun.
[pullquote]As athletic director, I don’t have time to look through the blogs and fan sites, but I do have people who report back to me on what is being said. I want to know if fans are unhappy. [/pullquote]
It wasn’t my idea to do the lip sync video with President Samuelson and President Worthen during the basketball season last year. Sharon Samuelson put us up to it. After a basketball game, I went into the locker room to talk to the team like I always do — win, lose or draw —with President Samuelson and (now) President Worthen. When I walked back out to where Sister Samuelson was sitting, the women with her had this look on their faces and I asked what they were up to. Sharon thought I should do a music video with “Kevin and Cec.” I said the president would never want to do that, but Sharon assured me he said he would do it if I would do it. So I agreed. Then she went up to President Samuelson and said he should do a music video. She hooked us.
I told my marketing people that we were dealing with the president of the university — an emeritus general authority. “Don’t embarrass him — pick a good song.” The music had to be from his era. They chose “It’s Not Unusual.” We made the video in half an hour. The video had a great reaction.
I also have fun at Halloween. One year when my kids were really young I was going to be on the road on Oct. 31. I asked my wife what the kids were going to be. She said they weren’t dressing up. “Oh yes they are,” I told her. I made her get them dressed up and take them out. I like to dress up at BYU. It’s such a conservative place! The women’s soccer team dresses up, and I like to be part of their team. This year I’m not going to be here on Halloween, but I’ve got to figure out a day to still wear a costume. Everyone always asks me what I’m going to be for Halloween this year. One year I was Frankenstein. I’ve been Justin Bieber. Dressing up is social. My dad was social.
My father worked in the same barber shop for 53 years. He was legendary in Glendale, Calif. He had an impeccable work ethic. He’s an honest, happy man who loved to throw parties. I am the youngest of three children, and I’m a momma’s boy to the nth degree. I cuddle up with her all the time. My parents were active in their church. They were excited when I came to BYU because they knew I’d get a great education. At first they didn’t want me to get involved with the religion, and when I married a Mormon girl they had to warm up to that idea. But when we had our first child, they melted. My dad was a fiscal Republican. My mom was a social Democrat. My brother and sister are very sharp, so when I was a young kid we’d get into some big conversations. My family was tolerant of a lot of ideas.
La Crescenta was my Mayberry. I played every sport as a kid, and we lived 150 yards from a park. I would wake up in the morning and not even put tennis shoes on before I ran down there. I would come home for lunch. Maybe. Depends on how the games were going. Then I’d come home for dinner. There were no cell phones. I knew by the sun when it was time to come home.
In high school, my brother was a big football star. He got a scholarship to UCLA. He was a tremendous guy and nobody messed with him. Our last name — Holmoe — was a hard name to grow up with. But I would hear people say about me, “Don’t mess with that kid or his brother will kill you.” He taught me how to play sports. Because of him, I always had the best bat. When other kids had black cleats, I had white cleats. I had the best glove. My brother was bigger than life to me. My sister is 12 years older than I am, and she was my second mom. I grew up in a community where I wasn’t the best athlete. I was just one of the gang.
When I was playing football, I always turned into an introvert two days before the game. I didn’t want to talk about football and I needed alone time. My wife knew my pattern. But by game day, I was ready and excited to play. With BYU, I’m nervous during preseason. I don’t enjoy scrimmages because I’m worried about injuries. But once the season gets going, I’m ready for game day. If I get asked to go golfing on the morning of a game, there’s no way I could do that. I’m focused. I like to walk out on the field several hours before the game while it’s still empty. I go in the empty locker room. That’s how I calm my nerves and prepare. My biological clock still ticks like it did when I was a player. I’ll always have football in my soul.
Read more on Tom’s route to BYU here.