In his first interview since the latest tsunami to hit conference expansion, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said he is all-in when it comes to having rival Utah as a member of the Big 12 Conference beginning in the fall of 2024.

The Utes and former Pac-12 foes Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State opted out of their league for the Big 12 to find some stability in the ever-changing landscape of college football.

“I’ve been in the (Big 12) conference meetings for 1 ½ years now and you see the vulnerability of conferences these days,” Holmoe told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “The SEC and Big Ten are strong. But as for the ACC, you never thought you would see some cracks with them, and the Pac-12, I grew up in Los Angeles. I never thought I’d see this day.”

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Holmoe and the rest of college football watched Colorado exit the Pac-12 for the Big 12. Then Oregon and Washington left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, one year after USC and UCLA did the same, bringing the heralded “Conference of Champions’ to the brink of extinction.

In a quest for survival, Utah jumped off the sinking ship with Arizona and Arizona State and into a lifeboat sent by Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark — and he wasn’t alone.

“As we had talked (as a league) even before the last couple of weeks, we knew we needed to strengthen the Big 12 as much as we could, whenever we could,” Holmoe said. “We have a contract that is going to go for six or seven years and then we are going to be back to the same thing again. When you see Brett Yormark talking about adding Gonzaga for basketball and UConn for all sports, what he’s trying to do is make us as strong as we can possibly be — and we get stronger by adding Utah. No one can argue that. You are not going to weaken yourself by bringing Utah into your conference. You are going to get stronger.”

Holmoe admits Utah’s admittance has created mixed reviews by BYU fans.

“I get it. I get the Utah-BYU thing. I played in those games. I get it for the fans. I love our fans. I like the fact that they are so emotional,” Holmoe said. “We just have to look at like, ‘We are going to be in the same conference. It’s gonna make us stronger. We are both going to benefit from it, but when we play, let’s go!’”

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe is pictured during BYU football media day in Provo on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe is pictured during BYU football media day in Provo on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Reuniting with ‘Prime Time’

In addition to reuniting with Utah as conference mates for the first time since 2010, BYU will reengage with Colorado — a program they once affiliated with in the Skyline Conference in the early 1940s.

For Holmoe, the Cougars and Buffaloes rekindle a much more recent relationship with Colorado head coach Deion Sanders.

Just moments after San Francisco’s final NFL preseason game in 1994, Holmoe, the defensive backs coach for the 49ers, was in the locker room at Candlestick Park visiting with his players.

“All of a sudden Deion comes walking in with his entourage,” Holmoe said. “I went to Ray Rhodes who was the defensive coordinator and I said, ‘What is Deion doing in our locker room?” He said, ‘We just signed him. He’s gonna play for us.’”

While initially elated, it didn’t take but a few seconds for reality to hit the second-year assistant coach.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I’ve got to coach him! I’m the DBs coach,” Holmoe said in amazement. “I can’t coach Deion?”

Sanders joined an already impressive group in Holmoe’s secondary, including Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks and Eric Davis. The first day of practice with Sanders on the field delivered a moment that was unlike any other the young coach had seen. 

“Everybody on the field, the custodians, the lawn guys, every manager, every player was watching the receiver-defensive back drill,” Holmoe said. “Deion was in one line and Jerry (Rice) was in the other.”

Eventually, the moment came when two of the NFL’s all-time greats lined up against each other. It was Rice vs. Sanders, with former BYU quarterback Steve Young throwing the pass.

“Everybody stopped practice,” Holmoe said. “All the other drills stopped. I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a good season!’ Those two guys went at it hard.”

San Francisco reached Super Bowl XXIX and blew out San Diego 49-26. Rice caught three touchdown passes and Young won MVP honors with 325 yards passing and six touchdowns. Sanders, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, had an interception and when the dust settled at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Holmoe had won his fourth Super Bowl ring.

 “(Deion) was such a nice guy, a friendly, family guy,” Holmoe said. “The thing that was interesting is he had the persona that (the game) was so easy — and it was for him. But he studied hard when no one was looking. When he went into a game, people would think it’s all just total skill, which he had plenty, but he backed it up with a lot of intelligence.”

Coach Prime, as Sanders refers himself, is in his first season as Colorado’s head football coach and is likely to play BYU in 2024 as a member of the Big 12. If it happens, the game will be 29 years after Holmoe welcomed him into his position group in San Francisco.

Taught by the best

Holmoe’s football journey included both playing for and coaching with LaVell Edwards, Bill Walsh and George Seifert. He also worked as an assistant coach for Steve Mariucci at Cal.

“I think I was placed on that path for a reason and someday I’ll ask why that was,” said Holmoe, while looking towards the heavens. “But I think the best part about it is I picked some stuff up. I might not have picked it all up, because I’ve had some failures after working for them that I should have known better, but there is a bunch of stuff that has really helped me.”

As athletic director, Holmoe navigated the Cougars through 12 years as a football independent before officially joining the Big 12 Conference last month — a journey that former BYU President Kevin J Worthen said would not have been possible without Holmoe’s leadership.