On the night after Thanksgiving 2000, Dick Tomey told his football team that he had resigned. Everybody had a good cry, and the coach walked with his son Richie across Campbell Avenue to their nearby family home.
After 14 years and 163 games, the coach and his son disappeared into the night. And that was it. There was never a formal goodbye, never a sense of closure, and no way to properly acknowledge the graceful way Dick Tomey conducted himself and the business of Arizona football.
I saw the coach a few weeks later, hitting range balls at Randolph Golf Course. I watched other people watch him. Nobody said a word. It was too awkward and his departure too fresh.
He put his golf clubs into the trunk of his car, presumably next to his old baseball glove, drove off, and a few days later, moved to Hawaii.
I couldn't shake the sense of melancholy that someone so dignified was so easily undone. I worried, but it wasn't necessary.
"What my dad did was start a new chapter of his life, maybe the best chapter of his life," Rich Tomey says now. "He was able to leave coaching on his terms and is at peace with himself. He had a hell of a run."
In the decade since he left Tucson, Dick Tomey has coached in the NFL, helped coach the Texas Longhorns to the Rose Bowl, taken woebegone San Jose State to a bowl game and never wasted a day being bitter about the way he exited Arizona.
"I haven't thought about how I left Arizona for a long time," he says. "Everything for us couldn't have worked out any better. We've been blessed."
In the spring of 2008, Tomey's linebackers coach at San Jose State, ex-Wildcat safety Jeff Hammerschmidt, was predictably curious about an opening on Mike Stoops' Arizona staff. It would mean more money, more status in college football and be a terrific career move for a young coach.
It took an older coach to put his assistant's future before his own; Tomey phoned Stoops and recommended he hire Hammerschmidt. He contacted several influential UA boosters and lobbied Hammerschmidt for the job.
"When I got hired at Arizona, Dick's wife, Nanci, was the first person to call and congratulate us," Hammerschmidt remembers. "She told my wife, Felicity, that Tucson was a great place to live. They both cried. Dick has always been a father figure to me and to the players who were at Arizona. The relationship doesn't end once you graduate."
So much for the bitterness angle.
Tomey, 72, retired last fall after five years at San Jose State. He moved back to Honolulu and keeps busy as a WAC television football analyst, and by volunteering to help the Hawaii athletics department in development and fundraising.
He has Rose Bowl rings, coach of the year plaques and enough money to live comfortably for another 72 years. But the football adornments are inconsequential to what really matters.
"We were watching a WAC game on TV a few weeks ago, and when my dad came on the air, my daughters started yelling, 'There's Papa! There's Papa!' " says Rich Tomey, who lives in Scottsdale and is director of business development for the Arizona Cardinals. "You should see him with our kids. He's so happy."
Tomey got a call last week from Tucsonan Kelvin Eafon, a star fullback on Arizona's 12-1 Holiday Bowl champs of 1998. They talked about life, not about beating Nebraska.
"I was like a kid in a candy store, connecting with Kelvin again," Tomey says. "I loved every single second of my years at Arizona and cherish the times I get to see and talk to our former players. Those relationships last a lot longer than the wins and losses."
Tomey will return to Tucson today, his first official visit to Arizona Stadium since that November night in 2000. He will be honored in a reception by his former players at Ventana Canyon, and will be introduced during the first half of the UA-Oregon State game Saturday, at which time he will receive the Button Salmon Award.
"My dad didn't get the recognition he deserved when he left Arizona, but that's fine," Rich Tomey says. "He feels a little more comfortable with the way things are now. He's pretty informal; he doesn't care so much for the ceremonial stuff, but he'll really be happy to get back and see his former players."
After Arizona rallied to beat Iowa a few weeks ago, Hammerschmidt got a text message from his old coach. The man who coached Desert Swarm to national prominence, the man who coached Arizona to 95 victories in 14 years, sounded as though he had never left town.
"I'm so proud of you," Tomey texted. "Beat Cal!"
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