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Turbo mode: Tom Holmoe

Published: Saturday, June 11 2005 5:50 p.m. MDT

BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe takes a break at Lavell Edwards Stadium on the BYU campus.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

One of these mornings, Tom Holmoe will wake up from a good night's sleep. But not while he's got work to do as BYU's athletic director — his mind won't shut down; it grinds on like gears in a clock. Even while his body mimics a form of suspended animation, at night, his brain is in turbo mode.

Agendas, task lists, speeches, interviews, appointments, reports, plans, goals, ideas; they all flow like lava and never stop.

Holmoe has been the Cougar athletic director for three months. It's too early to tell what his mark will be. But what makes Tom Holmoe tick?

In simple terms, Holmoe is a driven man, a people person, a guy who never stops working regardless of the task or hour.

It remains to be seen if Holmoe's game plan, Holmoe's goals, Holmoe's vision and the direction of BYU's athletic department will pay dividends. It still isn't clear if tackling a list of 90 suggestions from an outside study (part of Holmoe's mandate from administrators the past eight months) will make a difference, or if the school really has given this new athletic director the reins.

If there is success, however, Holmoe's style is to sit back and let others receive the credit. If it doesn't come, he'll stand up and take the heat.

Already Holmoe's shared his vision of recruiting with head football coach Bronco Mendenhall.

That started before he officially got the AD job.

People recognized Holmoe as an outstanding recruiter at Cal-Berkeley. Holmoe had a formula. He won't share it publicly for print, not a word. If any part of his suggestions take hold at BYU, it is Holmoe's modus operandi for it to quietly become Mendenhall's plan and philosophy.

A dozen years ago, Brent Eads, publisher of Student Sports Magazine in Anaheim, Calif., had lunch with Holmoe when he got the Cal job as head football coach.

"I came out of our meeting ready to sign up myself and go to battle with and for him," Eads said. "His energy, enthusiasm and passion are unbelievable. It's comparable to what you see with Pete Carroll at USC. It works because it's sincere, and I always thought Tom was the ultimate salesman, the guy you'd want to have in the home closing the deal with recruits.

"At the time, Cal was in the shadow of USC, Washington, Oregon and other Pac-10 programs and Tom got further along with prospects than he probably should have because he is so personable and could relate to athletes. "

But there's the catch. Holmoe now heads BYU's athletics, but at Cal, he couldn't rise out of a quagmire and had a losing record from 1997 to 2001.

"I'll say this," Eads said, "Cal's struggles on the field weren't because of his sales ability, which I think are almost unsurpassed in college football. He is, as the saying goes, the kind of guy who could sell air conditioning to an Eskimo."

Except for a slippery stint at Cal, Holmoe has never been associated with losing. He's rubbed shoulders with the best minds and performers in all of football at every level. These men include LaVell Edwards, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and current USC's Carroll. He has three Super Bowl rings.

Holmoe is a people person, a teacher, philosopher and obsessive observer of human beings. When at Disneyland, he'd rather watch people than go on a ride. In a restaurant, his wife Lori is used to her husband zeroing in on conversations from diners at the next table.

He is a people scientist. All carbon-based life forms are his laboratory.

People fascinate Holmoe. While in college, his favorite professor of all time was Joe Wood, who taught history and religion at BYU. Dr. Wood presented his students with the idea of having a personal hall of fame and placing in it people's stories that inspire and entertain, folks you see as heroes for one reason or another, either real, imaginary, from the scriptures or history. Wood would come into class and start a dramatic lecture on inspirational Americans.

Said Holmoe: "He'd get into it so well, we were all on the edge of our seats."

Holmoe ate that stuff up. Still does.

"He observes people," said Lori. "He looks at people, finds the good in people and tries to implement that good he sees in his life so he can be better. That's what he does, that's how he has become who he is."

For most of his life, Tom Holmoehas led a protective life around great people, family, coaches, teammates and boosters. "I've never been around people who didn't believe in me and it worked both ways."

His best friend is his wife, Lori. He's a private person who likes his solitude and prefers to relax with a good book or working in the garden.

His father, Ivan, worked tirelessly for 54 years as a barber in Glendale, Calif. Ivan went to work every Tuesday through Saturday like a factory worker. If he didn't cut hair, he didn't get paid. He owned his own shop. Ivan grew up on a farm in South Dakota, and his work ethic was impeccable. He did yard work, fixed things up, built things with his own hands.

"He was a great stabilizing force for me, especially at the end," said Holmoe, who traces his genealogy to Finland and Norway.

"He worked until he was 80. How do you work in the same barbershop for 54 years, not just in the same business, but the same shop day after day? People knew my dad. To this day, people come into this office and say, 'Is your dad Ivan?' and I say, 'Yep, Ivan the Terrible, King of the Flat tops.' It's just amazing. He is a great man, slowing down now in a senior assisted-living center."

Holmoe found strength in his older brother Steve and sister Bonnie. There is a gap between them. Steve is nine years older than Tom, Bonnie is 12 years his senior. They always looked after their younger sibling.

"I was a little guy growing up. Steve played football at UCLA and was a star. He broke a vertebrae in his neck his freshman year. He was a star. He always took care of me, made sure I had new cleats, the best mitt, the best bat. My sister would watch over me growing up, and I have a great bond with my sister."

One of the most influential people in Holmoe's life was former USC All-American and 49er Hall of Fame safety teammate Ronney Lott. When asked how he gets along with football coach Mendenhall, Holmoe quickly reverts to his Lott experience.

"I have to earn his respect," Holmoe said. "To me, that's the most important thing in all I do. I learned that from Ronney Lott. He was a hard guy to play with for some, but not for me because he was my mentor, my role model and I love that guy. He could say anything to me. I played behind him. It was a hard thing. But I watched every single move he made, every single thing he did for seven years.

"Some people on the team and in the league didn't like Ronney, but they respected him. Ronney didn't care whether people liked him or not, he just wanted to be respected. I've yet to meet a person who doesn't respect him. To me, that is the ultimate and what I want to pattern myself after, to be respected. I don't want to be a jerk. I'm a little more sensitive. I don't need people to like me, I don't want to offend people, but I'd like to be respected."

Holmoe believes he and Mendenhall have a good relationship, although they've had disagreements.

"We're different in some respects but something is there. When we get together, we see eye to eye on almost everything. We've had disagreements but we have respect for one another."

Not a day goes by that Tom Holmoe doesn't think about his days as head coach at Cal Berkeley, a job he resigned from the first week of November 2001. Six months later, the NCAA reprimanded the Bear athletic department and slapped sanctions on the Pac-10 school for improprieties the previous five years.

The issues? According to university officials, a Cal professor independently awarded false academic credits to two former student-athletes retroactively in the spring of 1999. The two players then competed in the fall of 1999 while ineligible.

A second infraction involved 34 football student-athletes who received extra benefits while staying at hotels before competitions. These players incurred incidental expenses ranging from 75 cents to $325.03, with 20 of the 34 players making less than $20 in hotel charges.

The hit by the NCAA was rock bottom for a program Holmoe tried to fix and failed. The probation handed out came after Holmoe arrived at BYU, but it had happened under his watch. Although it was Holmoe who alerted school officials that the credits given to the athletes wouldn't fly, the troubles and the 1-10 season remain part of his experience as a coach and leader.

Though advised by friends to turn down the head-coach job at Cal in 1997 when he was defensive coordinator for the Golden Bears, Holmoe thought he could resurrect Cal football because he'd never been associated with a loser in his life.

"It's something we're still trying to figure out," Lori said. "I just kept thinking he was doing so well, doing great things for those young kids, making them into successful people when many were from broken homes and challenging conditions. But they weren't winning."

At a banquet before the final 2001 Stanford-Cal game, Holmoe received a standing ovation when he walked into the room. "He may be the only coach to receive that kind of ovation when he was basically getting fired," Lori said. Cal people were there, so were Stanford players and media. Despite winning just one game, Cal players threw Gatorade on Holmoe after the Stanford game.

"When he came to Cal he had players in jail and this and that. His job was to build a foundation at Cal, but he couldn't take them any further."

Once redshirts and recruits became upperclassmen, a new coach added a junior college quarterback named Aaron Rodgers and with Holmoe's players, made it to a No. 4 ranking in 2004.

"It humbled me a great deal," Holmoe said of his Cal experience.

"It was the first time I didn't have success. I think about that job at least once a week minimum. I'm not bitter at all. But it was a great learning experience, something I had to go through. I wasn't brash, but I was very confident, and I think I went through that job so confident that it's now made me more realistic. I learned there are issues you have to deal with. It was a job I wasn't prepared for. I made mistakes. I made bad choices, and they were costly. It wasn't a great situation to be in. I took the job and didn't have to and people warned me, but that's maybe where I was brash."

When Cal played Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl and throughout the Bear climb to No. 4 this past season which just missed ending in a BCS game, Holmoe watched players he'd recruited perform. It should have given him some consolation. It didn't.

"It doesn't matter. I feel good about that but I can't take too much credit, they wouldn't have been anywhere without Rodgers, and I had nothing to do with him. Same with the running back. The core of that team were guys I brought in, but that was the plan. I really believe in pieces and the roles and they needed a few pieces that I couldn't give them and one of them was Jeff Telford. He brought all the right stuff to that team. He'd never been a head coach but he had the personality, the experience, the expertise for that job. I look back and don't feel bad they won, I just wish I could have done the job, but I didn't have the wherewithal to do it."

Holmoe has no trouble giving others credit.

But at Cal, for the first time in his life, he looked around and said to himself: "Where is everybody. I was on my own."

When Lori came to BYU, she became a cheerleader, and that's where she met Tom, a football star.

"My mom sent me to BYU to meet a nice Mormon boy, and I came home with the only Lutheran in the whole school," Lori said. Six years after marrying, Holmoe joined the LDS Church. They've been married 23 years.

"When I first married Tom, I was the outgoing one, a cheerleader. Now we've reversed roles. I'm the homebody, and he's Mr. Social Butterfly."

Spotlight aside, Holmoe is a simple man with simple needs. His family is his treasure, no matter how much his job takes him away.

When Holmoe played for the San Francisco 49ers, he drove to the protected practice field parking lot in a rag top '72 Oldsmobile and park it alongside the Porsches, Jaguars and Lexus' that belonged to his teammates. They'd all tease him for not spending his signing bonus on a new car. Holmoe isn't about show. When he finally broke down and bought a new car, he splurged for a new Honda Civic. Even today, he drives a Hyundai. "I'm not big into that car stuff."

As a 49er, Holmoe's teammates nicknamed him after TV characters Mr. Rogers and Opi Taylor from Mayberry RFD. "That was a strength to a degree. To look at me, I don't think people took me serious at first."

His idea of a fun time is dinner and a movie with Lori and a box of popcorn. He sees people with boats and cabins and wonders, how they ever find time for a boat or a stay in a cabin. Holmoe is a workaholic. His clock, like his father, is always on.

Holmoe's coaching career in the NFL and college has taken its toll. His move to Provo was supposed to be somewhat of a respite.

But the past year has been another treadmill. When BYU didn't renew the contract of former athletic director Val Hale in September 2004, Holmoe, as senior associate athletic director, was one of the leaders among the four-person interim management team, until he was named AD in March.

If you want to see Holmoe today, it takes weeks to schedule a chunk of time. He may not be going to work at 6 a.m. and returning at midnight and eating all his meals away from the family like when he coached for the 49ers, but he's still sleepless like the good old days, according to Lori.

"He's non-stop as a worker, always thinking. He's a terrible sleeper," Lori said. "He coaches in his sleep, he talks to people in his sleep. It's constant. A worry wart? He must be now. Actually, he's a very calm personality compared to me. He's patient, it takes a lot to rile him up. I think he worries internally, more than outwardly. Before a game, he'd play the game in his sleep."

Lori remembers one night Tom was sound asleep and dove right over her to the other side of the bed and onto the floor. He was tackling somebody in his sleep.

Tom recently had a medical procedure, checking his stomach and the doctor knocked him out. A doctor's assistant tried to wake him up in recovery and recognized Holmoe's name and gently shook him while saying, "Wake up, wake up, Bronco quit. Bronco just quit."

Holmoe was still thawing out and replied: "Well, I have nine other assistants."

While still partially under, Holmoe told the doctor to come up to the games, on the sidelines and he'd give him tickets and take care of him. To this day, he remembers none of that conversation.

In the Holmoe home on Grandview Hill in Provo is a giant painting, the biggest piece of art in the whole house. It is of the face of legendary Bill Walsh.

Holmoe says a day doesn't pass that he doesn't think of Walsh and Lott.

In the Cal-Berkeley football media guide for 2001, Walsh is quoted with the following endorsement: "Tom Holmoe is so far above any other candidate I could think of for the head coaching position at Cal that it must have been an easy decision. He has an outstanding football mind, he's extremely intelligent and he's well organized. He just exudes class and he'll be a great asset to the University of California."

Then came the end at Cal. Now, the beginning at BYU. "We thought we'd be out of this stress for a while," Lori said. "And now he's back in the thick of it. I've never discouraged him from doing what he's wanted only because he goes 150 percent, non-stop.

Lori did admit, "I've told BYU how he sleeps."


Biographical information

Full name: Thomas Allen Holmoe

Personal: Born March 7, 1960; wife Lori Wright, married 23 years. Children: Shannon 21, Danny 19, Erik 17, Lauren 11.

Hobbies: Reading, gardening. "I like to be alone, she (Lori) doesn't. I like to be alone because growing up I was the only child, so I had friends and stuff, but I liked to go in the mountains, kayak in Foster City, a place with lagoons and waterways. I just got into genealogy. Love movies.

Favorite movies: "Pride of the Yankees," "Jesus of Nazareth," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Jim Thorpe, All-American," which for me and my brother is like today's "Dumb and Dumber," where you memorize all the dialog. I am a huge movie fan. I cry at the movies all the time. Lori thinks it's funny. I'm not into Star Wars."

Favorite music: Country. Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw. I wasn't a country fan until about five years ago and for some reason I like it well. I grew up in the late 60s and I like all that crazy stuff, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Cream. I don't listen to them but when they come on the radio, boom, I listen."

Favorite TV shows: Whatever. I watch it to wind down sometimes. But I don't think there is one thing I have to see. I can take it or leave it. We saw "Survivor."


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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