Dick Harmon: Influential Cecil Samuelson leaves BYU with a personal touch legacy

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 6:25 p.m. MDT

"Whoosh, Cecil!" BYU President Cecil Samuelson gives his trademark thumbs-up signal one last time during the Y Awards banquet on April 3, 2014, with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and Sharon Samuelson at his side. Sister Samuelson may have been the bigger Cougar fan, known for constantly checking team scores on her smartphone. Cougar fans long yelled "Whoosh" after a made free throw at basketball games, then added "Cecil" to the phrase, prompting the president to give each chant two thumbs up.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU, BYU

When Dr. Cecil O. Samuelson vacated his office as university president in the Abraham Smoot Administration Building on BYU’s campus this past week, he left fingerprints on athletics that will remain weighty for decades to come.

A kind, spiritual, quiet man, Samuelson was an intellectual who engaged challenges.

I remember one of his first press conferences when he discussed the hire of BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall in 2004. At the time he had yet to hire an athletic director, and I asked him if he had a timetable to make that selection.

His answer was a gentle rebuke of sorts. He said as a physician, he had a deliberate method of approaching problems and finding answers. “And my timetable may not be the Dick Harmon timetable.”

I wasn’t demanding, but he wasn’t blinking. And the tick of time made no difference.

In weeks that followed, Samuelson hired Tom Holmoe to direct BYU’s men's and women’s sports programs. He also elevated Dave Rose to replace Steve Cleveland as the Cougars' basketball coach. In succeeding years, he oversaw the completion of the Broadcast Building that houses a sophisticated BYUtv operation and severed ties with the Mountain West Conference for football independence and partnership with ESPN.

But the biggest thing he may have left behind, like he did that day with me, is a personal touch, which has encompassed a broad-reaching latticework that even had students at the Marriott Center yelling his name after made free throws in the “Whoosh, Cecil” tradition, which he returned with a two-thumbs-up salute.

“When May 1 came, he was working his way out, but it hit me hard,” said Holmoe. “I love Cecil Samuelson. He was a mentor to me and taught me a lot, with good advice. He wasn’t trying to train me, but in a nice way, I always felt I was learning something when I was around him. An athletic director couldn’t have a better president than Samuelson.”

Those that worked closely with Samuelson said it is hard to imagine a university president with as many irons in the fire as Samuelson faced at BYU, a unique private school. The amount of irons he had in the fire would keep a rebar factory on call.

It wasn’t just meetings and councils, but personal time given to a myriad people. “I didn’t know him at all when he first came and now he’s my personal friend,” said Holmoe.

Samuelson’s intelligence enabled him to figure out athletic strategies quickly. He understood sports. When Holmoe and his boss, Samuelson’s replacement (Kevin Worthen), mulled over some tough decisions, they’d take them to Samuelson and lay out the options. Both men were impressed with how quickly Samuelson understood the depth and complexity and offered suggestions. He never had to turn to a copy of "Sports for Dummies." He got it, and lightning-quick.

Samuelson had a knack for knowing athletes, whether high-profile football and basketball players or those who participated in soccer, track or softball. BYU has 631 student-athletes and Holmoe maintained Samuelson knew half of them by name.

The president would often come up to an athlete and say, “Hi Allison, how are you doing? Now, you are from Orange County and your parents are Bill and Mary. How are they doing?”

Other times, Holmoe would bring up an item to Samuelson, a piece of news about an athlete. Weeks or months later Holmoe would be around that athlete and Samuelson, and hear the president bring up that item.

“You should have seen the look on their faces when he’d call them by name. It was amazing,” said the athletic director.

“He had a personal touch that meant the world to these guys.”

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