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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.

BYU's athletics department presented Cecil Samuelson a jersey at the annual Y Awards banquet on April 3, 2014, honoring him for his devotion and contributions to Cougar sports. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's athletics department presented Cecil Samuelson a jersey at the annual Y Awards banquet on April 3, 2014, honoring him for his devotion and contributions to Cougar sports. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

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.”

BYU President Cecil Samuelson laughs with students while filming an institutional commercial in 2003. (Mark Philbrick, BYU) BYU President Cecil Samuelson laughs with students while filming an institutional commercial in 2003. (Mark Philbrick, BYU)

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.

New BYU President Cecil Samuelson conducts a campus Family Home Evening with students at the Marriott Center on Sept. 10, 2003. In the background is Sister Sharon Samuelson and the couple's daughter, Sara. (Mark Philbrick, BYU) New BYU President Cecil Samuelson conducts a campus Family Home Evening with students at the Marriott Center on Sept. 10, 2003. In the background is Sister Sharon Samuelson and the couple's daughter, Sara. (Mark Philbrick, BYU)

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.”

From left to right, Sister Frances Monson and her husband, President Thomas S. Monson, and late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley share smiles and laughter with BYU President Cecil Samuelson and his wife Sister Sharon Samuelson at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on President Hinckley's 96th birthday, June 23, 2006. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) From left to right, Sister Frances Monson and her husband, President Thomas S. Monson, and late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley share smiles and laughter with BYU President Cecil Samuelson and his wife Sister Sharon Samuelson at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on President Hinckley's 96th birthday, June 23, 2006. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

Samuelson ran an athletic program that was one of about 20 in Division I that operated in the black — didn’t lose money.

The strict code of conduct required of BYU athletes was in place before Samuelson came and will remain now that he’s gone. At times personal, high-profile failures brought headlines under his watch.

But those who know Samuelson tell stories of how he personally met with those who were struggling, how he went to their homes, met with them privately, if not to give counsel, to simply show love and appreciation for them as human beings, coaching those that had stumbled to understand that the world was not lost.

Samuelson took on the MWC and its TV partners, challenging those who had made promises to keep their word. Frustrated, when the time was right, he took bold measures in taking BYU football to risky life as an independent, without conference affiliation.

University President Cecil Samuelson, in the light-colored overcoat, smiles during the topping ceremony for BYU's Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on Dec. 8, 2006. Major donors Ira Fulton, left, and King Husein, right, flank Samuelson as they watch as the last piece of steel is hoisted onto the building. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU) University President Cecil Samuelson, in the light-colored overcoat, smiles during the topping ceremony for BYU's Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on Dec. 8, 2006. Major donors Ira Fulton, left, and King Husein, right, flank Samuelson as they watch as the last piece of steel is hoisted onto the building. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU)

One would have a tough time finding any period of BYU athletics that has not received as much attention and exposure as witnessed by the past four years with ESPN and BYUtv.

A lifelong Utah man and founding member of the University of Utah’s Crimson Club, Samuelson stepped away from his roots and that of his family and friends in Salt Lake City for an 11-year adventure in Provo.

While some questioned his loyalties, you had only to see his interaction with coaches and players — entering and exiting locker rooms from Dallas to Austin, from South Bend to San Diego — to understand his dedication to his job to lead BYU, specifically its sports decisions and direction.

Survey the scene. One has to admit, he left BYU athletics in a better place than he found it 11 years ago. Holmoe, Rose and Mendenhall have all been successful. Independence, albeit with its challenges, has worked.

Late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, then 97, shows BYU President Cecil Samuelson one of his hammers, initialed Late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, then 97, shows BYU President Cecil Samuelson one of his hammers, initialed "G.H.," before placing it in a time capsule during the dedication of BYU's Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on June 23, 2007. (Mark A. Philbrick/BYU, BYU)

“We have stable, successful coaches with the right values and modeling for all involved,” Samuelson told the Deseret News in his final week.

Leading BYU was not an easy assignment. And the last few times I’ve seen him on a field, sideline or portal before or after a game, I’ve teased him about when his release would come — most BYU presidents serve about eight years.

He’d give me that endure-to-the-end smile and go on his way. Now that he's gone on his way, it's up to his replacement to try to preserve his predecessor's legacy.

“Kevin Worthen will be the same president as Samuelson was,” predicted Holmoe.

"He’s smart, a better thinker than 99 percent of those you’ll ever meet, but he’s personal and talks at your level and makes you feel at ease. We went from a 1 to a 1A.”

Following longstanding tradition at BYU of having presidents speak with their wives, university President Cecil Samuelson and Sister Sharon Samuelson speak at the opening ceremonies for homecoming on Oct. 20, 2009. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU) Following longstanding tradition at BYU of having presidents speak with their wives, university President Cecil Samuelson and Sister Sharon Samuelson speak at the opening ceremonies for homecoming on Oct. 20, 2009. (Mark A. Philbrick, BYU)

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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