Arizona Football

Dick Tomey, Most Coaching Wins in Arizona History, Father Figure With “Big Heart,” Dies at 80

Dick Tomey, who brought Arizona its famed “Desert Swarm” defense and coached the program to its best season of 12-1 in 1998, passed away Friday night at age 80 after battling lung cancer in recent months.

The Tomey family announced his death this morning via a Facebook post by his son Rich Tomey, a former Arizona baseball player.

“It is with great sadness that we share the news of Dick Tomey’s death on May 10, 2019 at 9:30 p.m.,” the message states. “He died surrounded by his family, resting peacefully, after battling lung cancer for months. We are all heartbroken to lose him, but are forever grateful to have shared his life.

“To us, Dick Tomey was one of a kind. Known for his room-for-everyone big-heartedness, generous spiritedness (to a fault), instinctive kindness, love and respect for people of all walks, and the ease with which he forgave himself and others and moved on with life without resentments—taught all of us so much.”

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In 1987, Tomey was hired from Hawaii by then Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey. The 1990’s became one of the best eras of Wildcat football under Tomey, highlighted by the historically dominating “Desert Swarm” defense from 1992 to 1994 that featured a defensive line anchored with two College Football Hall of Famers in Tedy Bruschi and Rob Waldrop. The defense allowed barely 30 yards rushing per game, which at the time was the best run defense in the nation in about three decades.

Tomey achieved the most wins by a coach in Arizona history with a record of 95-64-4 from 1987 to 2000. He earned Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors in 1992 after the Wildcats nearly beat No. 1 Miami on the road and dominated top-ranked Washington at home that season.

During his tenure, he coached five future NFL first-round draft choices, 20 All-Americans, and 43 Pac-10 first team players. He led Arizona to two of three ten-win seasons in school history, highlighted by a 12–1 season in 1998, in which they finished fourth in both major polls, the highest ranking in school history.

Two College Football Hall of Famers — Tedy Bruschi on the left and Rob Waldrop — with former UA coach Dick Tomey. (Photo by Anthony Gimino,

Tomey had a head coaching career record of 183-145-7 in 29 years with stops at Hawaii, Arizona and San Jose State. He was more than the wins, however. He touched many, especially his players, with his character.

“Dick Tomey was never petty, never small minded. He was a man who discovered his mission in life, embraced it, enjoyed it, and accomplished amazing things,” the family message states. “When speaking of football, he often said, ‘Football is not complicated. People are.’

“He was always, first and foremost, a people person. On the football field he was a tough as nails coach, who loved fierce competition and the thrill of team-building. He loved his players, every single one of them — always. He was hard on them. He constantly raised the bar. He could do that because he knew how to find the goodness and the talent in people. If he didn’t find it immediately, he kept looking until he did, and once he found goodness/talent he never lost sight of it.”

At the outset of Dick Tomey’s coaching career at Arizona he held a brown-bag lunch with fans to discuss and take questions of the game the week before (Andy Morales/ Photo)

During a 20-year reunion with his 1998 team last October, Tomey told a gathering of his players: “To me as a coach the most wonderful thing is to see how happy you guys are to see each other. That’s it to me.”

Tomey is legendary for wanting to coach a team “with a bunch of Joes” that came together to win monumental games for Arizona. He carried on a father-son kind of relationship with his former players.

“I have a special place for Coach Tomey because of what he means to me,” former Arizona defensive tackle Joe Salave’a told The Arizona Daily Star in 2017. “Going through some not-so-good days and he’s always been a steadfast leader for me and to this day if I have something I need to run by or question or anything, he’s one of those guys that I’ll call up. He’s got a lot of wisdom, he’s well-respected in the community and all across the country, even on the (Hawaiian) islands.”

Former Arizona football coach Dick Tomey talked about “the team, the team, the team”and how that togetherness in the entire athletic department enabled him to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame a few years ago ( video capture

Tomey even impacted players from an earlier generation of Wildcat football, namely legendary linebacker Ricky Hunley. During a recent National Football Federation Scholar-Athlete Award function in Tucson, Hunley accepted Tomey’s Joe Kearney Leadership Award.

Hunley, who played for the late Larry Smith (a coach he deeply respects), said to the award recipients about Tomey: “I hope that some of you guys get the opportunity to play for or get mentored by a coach like Coach Tomey because in my book, he’s second to none.”

Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin’s comments of Tomey’s passing were released by the school:

“I have been fortunate to know Coach Tomey as a colleague in our business for over 15 years. However, it wasn’t until I arrived at the University of Arizona that I got the opportunity to know Coach Tomey on a more personal level. There are only two things that could beat his passion for the game of football:  his passion for his family and passion for impacting the lives of his players and coaches on and off the field.

Not only was Coach’s affection for his players and coaches truly sincere, but his affection for Arizona’s current players and coaches was truly heartfelt. He cared deeply about the lives and successes of everyone involved in our program, both past and present. Coach never stopped doing his part to help a fellow Wildcat. He embodies what it means to be a ‘Wildcat for Life.’

Our entire program is saddened by this loss, but we are also grateful to have been impacted by Coach Tomey. We will continue to do our part to represent his legacy well. Nanci and the entire Tomey family continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.”

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate with Dick Tomey in a meeting Tomey had with the Wildcats last year (Arizona Athletics photo)

The remainder of the Tomey family letter:

“He expressed his admiration and raised his expectations—and watched both things multiply. Just that gift alone changed lives, including some of ours. When it came to football, Dick Tomey had an eye for undiscovered ability, an eye for raw potential, an eye for leadership—and a deep regard for guys who walked on, who sacrificed to play the game simply because they loved it. He was never afraid to be the underdog coach, with the underdog team… in fact, he was partial to taking his underdog team(s) in to play the moneyed power schools… and his teams won their share of those games.

“Off the field Dick was a beautiful human being. His was a loving spirit. He was a natural leader, a natural teacher. His gift of oratory was legendary. Nearly everyone who knew him can quote Dick Tomey on some subject. Words were his most powerful tool (even his profanity was eloquent). When he spoke he made listeners out of non-listeners, believers out of non-believers. He lifted, he challenged, he inspired. He could change the way a person thought about life, about the world around him, and the person would be better for the change.

“His own family is proof of that. Dick Tomey never aspired to fame or fortune. As a young man he dreamed of coaching junior high football. His long career included its share of hard knocks and frustrations, but he insisted, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” It was his selflessness and dedication to the common good that always propelled him forward. As a family we rarely talk about how many games Dick Tomey won—we talk about how many hearts he won… including all of ours.”

Thank you to everyone for your love and support during this tough time. – The Tomey Family


A Celebration of Life will be announced at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the Dick Tomey Legacy Fund has been established through the Positive Coaching Alliance (501c3). 100% of these funds will go directly to providing scholarships and programing for underserved youth in the markets where Dick spent the majority of his years in the community as the Head Football Coach.

Visit to designate the Hawaii, Arizona, or Bay Area Chapter as the beneficiary of your donation to the Dick Tomey Legacy Fund.

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