The University of Arizona held a celebration of the life of football coach Dick Tomey on Friday.
And nobody talked football.
There was no discussion of wins and losses, of school records or the Desert Swarm or All-Americans or bowl games or College Football Hall of Famers or a series of big upsets, even one against the No. 1 team in the country.
Oh, how Dick Tomey would have loved it.
His record will speak for itself. It is what it is. It’s not the memory he leaves — it’s not the memory he wanted to leave — with anybody he came in contact with during his 80 years on this earth. He passed away earlier this month after a fight with lung cancer.
The wins and losses aren’t why a who’s who of football people trekked to McKale Center on Friday morning, including a trio of current head coaches — Syracuse’s Dino Babers, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and San Jose State’s Brent Brennan — and former head coaches Dick Vermeil and Rich Brooks.
Tomey’s players, coaches, friends and administrators poured in from all part of the country. Most coaches talk about creating family; few succeeded more than Tomey. Friday was the evidence.
“I believe the best way to honor Dick Tomey is for us to live our lives the way he did,” said former Arizona All-American safety Chuck Cecil, who was a senior during Tomey’s first year with the Wildcats in 1987. “Team, love, tradition. Be the teammate you would want on your team, in your foxhole, in your bunker, for the rest of your life.”
No talk of football.
That was it. Love.
And holy cow.
Dick Tomey was not your typical football coach.
Many speakers Friday talked about how Tomey would end phone calls with “Love you.”
“He has the uncanny ability to take men and make them love each other, and take men who maybe didn’t express love openly to make them express themselves,” said Babers, who played for Tomey at Hawaii and was an assistant at Arizona from 1995 to 2000.
“In my family, we didn’t express it like that. But after playing for him, not only did he change me, he allowed me to go back and change everyone in my family.
“Before Dick Tomey, we would go to family gatherings and we didn’t kiss, we didn’t say I love you. After Dick Tomey, I can’t think of a gathering where we don’t do that. I’m talking about my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, their kids and their kids. It’s throughout the family. That’s Dick.
“Dick Tomey is a virus. Man, he’s a virus. He’s the virus you can’t get out of your computer. That’s the best word for it and a good term. You brush up against Dick Tomey, he leaves a residue, he leaves a stain … and he’s with you forevermore.”
That is a weird way to put it.
Vermeil, who retained Tomey on the UCLA staff after he was hired in 1974 to replace head coach Pepper Rodgers, shared a similar story.
“I know this: I feel good about today that even though he is gone, he knows how I feel, because I told him,” Vermeil said.
“I made a mistake a long time ago, in 1986 when my dad died. I never told my dad that I loved him until the day he died. He was a tough guy, wonderful man, but he was not the kind of guy you walked up to and said, ‘Love you, Dad.’ I have been sad about that, and I learned from that.
“Dick Tomey can teach you to bypass that mistake. He did for me.”
Not everyone had the chance to see Tomey at his home in Tucson as he battled the lung cancer in the past few months. Those who did say that he was positive until the end, passing along life lessons until the end.
Babers had a chance to visit with Tomey a couple of days before Easter in April.
“I got six hours of concentrated Dick Tomey,” Babers said.
“He says, ‘Dino, all the things you’re doing, make sure of one thing: You’re doing it for them. You’re doing it for the kids. You’re giving back. You always keep looking in the mirror and you keep asking yourself those questions. If you can’t say yes to those questions, get out.'”
“I said, ‘Coach, I will always ask myself those questions.’
“Two days before Easter, and he’s putting that knowledge in you, like that final exam test.”
After the two-hour celebration at McKale, the Tomey “reunion” spilled over to a nearby watering hole for lunch and beverages, and then to an eastside location for more toasts and stories and laughter and tears.
All these people infected with the Tomey virus.
All these people have and will continue to pass along the Tomey virus. And then there will be another generation, and another, and another …
The Tomey legacy.