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Marathon Man: Tom Holmoe has been BYU’s AD for 15 years, and he could go many more

Has the former BYU and San Francisco 49ers safety and coach of the Cal Bears succeeded in Provo? Former BYU ADs who know the ins and outs of the job weigh in

BYU Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe, walks on the field at Arrowhead Stadium prior to a game with Missouri in Kansas City Missouri Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015.
BYU Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe, walks on the field at Arrowhead Stadium prior to a game with Missouri in Kansas City Missouri Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — When Rondo Fehlberg became BYU’s director of athletics in 1995, he kept an eye out for up-and-coming college and professional football coaches who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he figured that one day he would have to hire a replacement for legendary Cougars football coach LaVell Edwards.

Early in his four-year tenure, Fehlberg made a trip to the Bay Area to spend a weekend with a former BYU safety and three-time Super Bowl-winning player who was now a promising young defensive backs coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Fehlberg watched the 49ers practice on a Saturday afternoon, attended church with the assistant coach and his wife on a Sunday morning and then roamed the sidelines the next day observing closely as the 49ers played a Monday Night Football game.

Fehlberg was so impressed with what he saw that when it was time to return to Provo, he told Tom Holmoe that he had moved to the top of a short list of candidates for the BYU job.

But Holmoe wasn’t nearly as excited as Fehlberg was.

“No, Rondo,” Holmoe said. “I want your job. I want to be an athletic administrator. That’s my long-term goal.”

Nearly 10 years later, after compiling a 16-39 record coaching the Cal Bears for five seasons and working in the BYU athletics department a couple more, Holmoe realized his dream. On March 1, 2005, his interim tag was lifted and he was named BYU’s new AD, replacing men’s athletic director Val Hale and women’s athletic director Elaine Michaelis, who had been dismissed the previous September as part of consolidation move by BYU administrators.

Having just surpassed 15 years on the job, Holmoe, who turned 60 on March 7, said he isn’t even thinking about passing the baton.

“I live up here on Grandview Hill (above BYU),” he said. “I have about a seven-minute drive to work. And every day that I drive to work, I am so happy. This is my bliss. I love coming to work every day. … As long as I can come to work every day with a passion in my heart, knowing that I get to work with these student-athletes and coaches, and knowing that we have something good going, I will keep going.”

A memorable milestone

Suffice it to say, Holmoe will never forget this particular milestone as he approaches similar tenures to some of his predecessors, Glen Tuckett (1976-1993), Eddie Kimball (1937-1963) and Lu Wallace (women’s AD from 1972-1995).

But this month hasn’t been about what any of the 21 intercollegiate teams or 620 or so student-athletes he oversees has done. Instead, it was made memorable by announcements about what they haven’t been able to do: play or practice this spring.

Holmoe said these are “unprecedented” times in a message to “Cougar Nation” last week as he explained the reasoning for canceling the remainder of the spring sports seasons at BYU and throughout the country due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus fears interrupted one of the more successful school years in Holmoe’s tenure, with the Cougars sitting at No. 5 in the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup standings before that measurement of a school’s overall athletic success was canceled last Thursday by the NACDA board of directors.

A national championship in men’s cross country, a second-place finish in women’s cross country, a fifth-place finish in women’s soccer, a 17th-place finish in women’s volleyball and a 51st-place finish in football had propelled BYU to its highest standing ever last fall.

BYU men’s volleyball was ranked No. 1, women’s indoor track was ranked No. 9, women’s gymnastics was ranked No. 15, and men’s basketball was ranked No. 14 in the country when their seasons prematurely ended. Men’s golf had been ranked as high as No. 5 in the country. Women’s golf was starting to peak. Baseball and softball were looking like West Coast Conference title contenders, and BYU’s men’s and women’s outdoor track and field teams were gearing up for top-25 seasons.

Biggest accomplishments?

The success of BYU’s lesser-followed athletic teams — especially its Olympic sports — and the perceived slow decline of the football program during his tenure would seemingly be among Holmoe’s biggest accomplishments and disappointments in his 15 years, but in January he didn’t mention either when asked for them by the Deseret News.

“One of my greatest accomplishments is my relationships with these student-athletes and coaches,” he said. “I think everything else comes as a result of that. Not that they are all great, but I think I have done a very good job of just being able to relate to these young men and women and help them to achieve their dreams and their goals.”

Holmoe said his own experience as a student-athlete at BYU from 1978-1982 and a coach at BYU, Stanford and California prepared him for the AD job.

“So I saw what it means for kids’ dreams to be washed or slapped away,” he said. “And so what I try to do here is create a pathway where these guys have a clear road to success. … I think my greatest disappointment will be along those same lines — that we lost some student-athletes that have left or quit. Or they are here, but they gave up the ghost. And that should never happen. And it is my responsibility to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Holmoe said he has “a few” mentors that he continually checks in with regarding his job performance and enthusiasm for the position.

“I say to them, ‘Hey, look, the minute that I start to slip, you grab me and let me know,’” he said.

Been there, done (some) of that

If there are two men on the planet who know what Holmoe’s job entails, it is his most immediate predecessors, Fehlberg and Hale. Both former BYU ADs recently spoke at length with the Deseret News about the difficulties of the job, Holmoe’s performance and longevity, and how it is even more difficult than they had it because of BYU football’s move to independence in 2011, the advent of social media, increased scrutiny of BYU athletes and other factors.

“The average tenure of any athletic director is about five years,” said Hale, BYU’s AD from 1999-2004 and now the executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “To be able to stay at one school for 15 years is pretty remarkable in the world of athletic directors, let alone at BYU.”

Recalling the aforementioned weekend in San Francisco, Fehlberg said he’s not as surprised because Holmoe was more prepared for the job and has the “perfect” makeup for it.

“This isn’t a guy who stumbled into it,” Fehlberg said. “He already knew what he wanted and where he was headed. He isn’t just making this up as he goes along as some of us do. He’s had this plan forever.”

Hale said Holmoe’s lack of a “volatile personality” has enabled him to maintain the job.

“He’s a low-key guy. He doesn’t need the publicity and I think at BYU, that is important,” Hale said. “I think the powers-that-be would rather have an athletic director who stays out of the limelight and lets the coaches be in the forefront in that regard. I think he can play that role well, and I think he has surrounded himself with some good people.”

Hale, a former journalist who was BYU’s director of sports information before succeeding Fehlberg, said Holmoe has increased his longevity by limiting the media’s access to him. Indeed, Holmoe rarely grants one-on-one interviews with local reporters, and only meets with them in a group setting — he calls them roundtable discussions — about once a year.

“He does not speak very often to the media, and so therefore he is less likely to get in trouble with something he says,” Hale said. “In this day and age, you have Twitter and other methods if you want to make a statement. … People nowadays will take offense at anything you say, and so the less you say sometimes the easier your life will be, especially in a high-profile position like that.”

Himself a former BYU athlete, a wrestler, Fehlberg says some former players who move into administration can’t shake the impulsiveness that served them well on the playing fields and courts. Holmoe can.

“Tom is a thoughtful, methodical guy,” Fehlberg said. “He thinks through things. He doesn’t make impulsive decisions. He is very measured. Those traits have served him well in a stressful, high-impact job.”

Hey, independence isn’t easy

Hale likes to tell people that the job of athletic director at BYU “is a great job when the Cougars are winning, and it is a horrible job when the Cougars are losing.”

Holmoe has never described his job as horrible, even in 2017 when the football team posted a 4-9 record and some folks started calling for coach Kalani Sitake’s job. He stayed the course with his second football hire — Holmoe was also mostly responsible for picking untested defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall in 2005 to replace Gary Crowton, a Hale hire — and last fall extended Sitake’s contract through 2023.

“Being around the him, being around the team, being around all aspects of the program, and the organization, I believe he is the right coach for the job,” Holmoe said.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announces going independent in football and joining the WCC for other sports and their contract wit ESPN. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Hale and Fehlberg both said there is “no question” that BYU leaving the Mountain West Conference, a conference it dominated in most sports, and going independent in football in 2011 made Holmoe’s job much more difficult.

Holmoe must find 12 football opponents a year, in addition to landing a bowl agreement when most postseason opportunities are tied to conferences.

“Tom’s job is to schedule football opponents, very good opponents, and then compete in a way that furthers the mission of The Church (of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and he does a magnificent job of it,” Fehlberg said, adding that Holmoe might have “the most difficult job in the country” as far as athletic director jobs go.

“It is a very difficult job,” Hale concurred. “You are trying to get the administration, and the leadership, to support what you are trying to do, all while raising money and trying to provide the coaches with the resources they need to be successful. And then, of course, you have the added risk of honor code issues with the student-athletes.”

Measuring an athletic director’s success

The most important decisions an athletic director makes revolve around the hiring and firing of football and men’s basketball coaches. In that regard, Holmoe has done well, most agree.

Holmoe was interim AD with Peter Pilling — now the athletic director at Columbia — when they were spurned at the last minute by Kyle Whittingham and eventually promoted Mendenhall in December 2004. Holmoe deserves a good share of the credit for the hire that turned out to be a triple, if not a home run. Mendenhall won 99 games at BYU, the second-most in school history behind Edwards.

As for the hiring of Sitake, who is 27-25 through four seasons, the former Cougar fullback was a popular addition among fans but hasn’t quite lifted the program to most fans’ expectations.

BYU’s new head football coach Kalani Sitake, answers questions as he sits with athletics director Tom Holmoe, at a press conference in Provo Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Bronco Mendenhall made a great run as a coach at BYU, and he is proving (at Virginia) that he is a good coach,” Hale said. “Kalani, his replacement, is a BYU guy, and a hardworking guy, but some people might say the jury is still out on him.”

Holmoe managed to keep basketball coach Dave Rose around when programs with more resources such as Oklahoma, Utah and North Carolina State tried to get Rose in 2011, but the AD could be mildly criticized for extending Rose’s contract a year in November 2018 when it was becoming apparent to most that Rose’s program was treading water, if not slipping a bit.

So far, Holmoe’s hiring of Mark Pope to replace Rose last April after Rose retired at the end of a lackluster 19-13 season appears to be another good one.

“Yeah, I think Tom gets good marks for what he has been able to accomplish in the areas where I think the athletic director has the greatest impact, which is hiring coaches and providing resources through fundraising for those coaches to be successful,” Hale said.

Fehlberg, who resigned in 1999 and never got the chance to hire Edwards’ replacement, did bring in Steve Cleveland in 1997 to replace Roger Reid/Tony Ingle, and Cleveland righted the program while laying the groundwork for Rose’s later success. Fehlberg says Holmoe “has done magnificently” in hiring coaches.

“People don’t realize how small that coaching pool is for BYU,” Fehlberg said. “When I went looking for a replacement for (Reid), I learned how really, really small that pool is.”

Who’s next?

Casual conversations with dozens of the nearly 200 members of Holmoe’s staff, on and off the record, indicate that he is universally well-liked in the department. He’s a good boss is the common refrain.

“I’ve worked closely with Tom for the past 15 years,” said Duff Tittle, associate AD for communications. “He’s a great leader and an even better person. He leads by principle and example. I was also very fortunate to work with LaVell Edwards at the twilight of his career and I see a lot of similarities in the way they lead and their genuine concern for people.”

But one day Holmoe will retire. Who could be in line to replace him?

“They will have big shoes to fill,” Fehlberg said. “Tom has done an excellent job.”

Hale believes BYU’s brass will look in-house first “because there aren’t a ton of LDS athletic directors out there, and because that’s always been their (way of operating).”

The obvious candidates, then, are deputy AD Brian Santiago, senior associate AD Liz Darger, associate AD of development Chad Lewis and Tittle, who is as knowledgeable about BYU’s athletics tradition as anyone on the property.

“You need to be someone who can stand up in front of a crowd and get people excited about the program and open their wallets,” Hale said.

In that regard, the effervescent Lewis, a former BYU tight end and NFL standout, fits the bill.

Fehlberg says Santiago probably has the most knowledge of what it takes to do the job, having been Holmoe’s understudy the past 12 years, but has “just a very, very different personality” than his boss.

If the Cougars look outside the university, candidates could include the aforementioned Pilling, former Weber State AD Jerry Bovee (now deputy AD at Utah State), and Craig Angelos, a former BYU baseball player who is currently deputy AD at Temple.