Back when I was a teen and allowed to be a fan out of sheer loyalty, or whatever other reason I wanted, Dick Tomey, who passed away last night, was my coach.
He was not my coach as in playing for him, of course, but as in me rooting for his team. Same with Les Murakami and Dave Shoji. The teams they coached at the University of Hawaii when I was in high school here, and then later when I attended school at Manoa after transferring home from a mainland college, were special to me; I cared if they won or lost for personal, and not yet professional reasons.
The other two always had winning seasons and were national championship contenders in the 1970s and 1980s. Tomey did not and was not, but you could tell he had something special brewing with the UH football program, and he took it to a significantly higher level before moving on to Arizona in 1986.
When I became a journalist, I learned I couldn’t be a fan anymore. Tomey and the others were no longer my coaches, but they were people I interacted with at my job. I had to figure out how to deal with that.
I was in awe of all three of them when I first tried to relate to them on a working level, interviewing them and writing about them and their decisions that led to wins and losses. Eventually I got used to it with Murakami and Shoji, but never quite, for a long while, with Tomey.
Maybe part of it was because I only interacted with him a handful of times before he left after the 1986 season. But there was something else.
It wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling, just different. Murakami, and to a lesser extent, Shoji, had a way of (at times) making even a college student or young professional reporter feel like an equal, if even for just a few minutes during an interview. Murakami would give you a beer after you asked him why he chose to have his batter bunt with one out. Shoji would throw a funny quip into his answer of a tough question once in awhile.
When I interviewed Tomey he wasn’t all business, but pretty close to it. More than any other coach at UH that I’ve dealt with in nearly 40 years, he possessed the bearing most like that of a CEO, or a high-ranking military officer. That’s why I often say he would’ve been an excellent athletic director, mayor or even governor. In addition to that powerful boss persona, Tomey had a deep love for Hawaii.
Of course he wasn’t perfect. He threw a cup of soda on an impatient columnist once, and he used a four-letter word during one of those walking-off-the-field radio interviews.
But 99.9 percent of the time he was extremely professional and extremely inspirational.
In 2005, Tomey was starting his first season as head coach at San Jose State. At the time, he was 67, and the career leader in coaching victories at BOTH Hawaii and Arizona. Think about that for a second … this was a man who knew how to deal with all kinds of different people, and make large groups of young people work together successfully.
Ken Margerum, who was a former NFL receiver and UH assistant, was on Tomey’s first staff at San Jose State. I think he captured Tomey’s interpersonal style best when he told me, “He treats people with respect and not intimidation.”
On that same day, a couple prior to his Spartans taking on June Jones‘ UH team for the first time, I met with Tomey in his office at the San Jose State athletic offices. He showed me a picture on the wall of his 1977 UH team, his first as a college head coach.
We went row-by-row, naming names and comparing notes on how great they were, and what they had gone on to do. This was the first time I got to see the real Tomey, the CEO veil removed, as he smiled through memories of his first UH team.
I always knew Tomey had plenty of gravitas. The few minutes shared over that photo confirmed he had plenty of aloha to go with it.
We’re not really supposed to care about what coaches think about what we write about them. As long as we are fair and accurate and don’t quote them out of context, it’s all good.
As a writer, I always try hard for the unattainable perfection. But there was something about Tomey that made me try even harder; when I wrote about him, I always made that fourth check of a tricky spelling, or that extra phone call to verify an already verified fact through a third source.
He was never my boss, he never taught me a writing or reporting technique. I was never “on his team,” literally or — after those pre-reporter days — figuratively.
But — through his examples of professionalism and caring for others — Dick Tomey will always be someone I consider my coach.