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Forever young: Arizona Wildcats reunite to celebrate Dick Tomey’s 75th birthday

Dick Tomey has a new hobby: Stand-up paddling.

Picture it. The former Arizona Wildcats football coach, nearing his 75th birthday, taking on the Pacific Ocean with a surf board and a paddle during those times when he’s home in Hawaii and not traveling all over the mainland to dote on his eight grandchildren.

Tomey was introduced to the sport by one of his star players at the University of Hawaii, Rich Miano.

“He and I used to go out, and I was awful,” Tomey said in an interview with TucsonCitizen.com.

“The only exercise I got was getting knocked off the board and climbing back on. I can’t handle the really, really rough water or the high surf. It took six to eight months, but I got a lot better.”

Life is good.

Tomey is healthy, happy and he’s back in the desert for an Arizona alumni weekend, wrapped around the Wildcats’ spring game on Saturday, eager to bring some of his grandchildren to watch Rich Rodriguez’s team at Kindall/Sancet Stadium.

“I’m totally excited about what he has done at Arizona,” Tomey said. “I’m excited to see a bunch of old friends and help celebrate what Rich Rodriguez is doing at U of A.”

Dick Tomey coaches during a game at Washington in November 2000, with only a few weeks left in his Arizona career. Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

He’s being humble. The alumni weekend isn’t really about Rodriguez. It’s about players from Tomey’s era (1987 to 2000) — and even those from before and after — gathering for the keynote event of the weekend, a Friday party to celebrate Tomey’s 75th birthday. (It’s actually on June 20, but who’s counting?)

More than 160 former Arizona players and coaches, as well as current and former administrators, are expected to attend. Many players also are helping Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs at his youth football camp at Tucson High on Saturday.

The player list for the weekend reads like a who’s who of Tomey-era football: Briggs, Tedy Bruschi, Bobby Wade, Dennis Northcutt, Chris Singleton, Joe Tafoya, Chuck Levy, Ortege Jenkins, Richard Dice, Dan White, Warner Smith, Glenn Parker

So many more, such as College Football Hall of Famer Rob Waldrop, wanted to be here but couldn’t.

Rodriguez will be right in the mix, too.

“They have alumni weekend every year, and there has been some lackadaisical attendance the last couple of years,” said former player and assistant coach Heath Bray.

“I have been around Coach Rodriguez a number of times. I love the guy. He’s a guy I would want my kids to play for some day. There is a lot of excitement about RichRod, but I’ve got to tell you, most are coming because of our guy, Dick Tomey.”

* * *

From a distance that is strewn with the wreckage of too many losing seasons, fondness for the Tomey era grows.

He was 95-64-4 at Arizona, developed one of the great defenses in college football history (Desert Swarm), produced 10 first-team All-Americans and delivered a couple of the finest seasons ever at UA.

At some point Friday night, the Cats are sure to resurrect the old debate: Who would win a game between the 1993 Fiesta Bowl-winning team and the 1998 Holiday Bowl champs that went 12-1?

But the celebration isn’t about the numbers. It’s not about wins. It’s not about certain games, specific players.

“If I could put one word on my tombstone when I die, I would want that to be ‘loyal,’” Bray said.

Coach Dick Tomey with Chris McAlister (left) and Barrett Baker celebrating the win over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images Sport

“I learned that from him. The loyalty thing breeds so much of the successful attributes of what you want in a football team. You’re loyal to each other, you know the coach has your back and you have his back. It makes average players good, it makes good players great and it translates into a damn good football team.”

Tomey’s loyalty didn’t go away when the business side of the profession unceremoniously shoved him out of town following the 2000 season. The University of Arizona, and Tucson, remained entrenched in his DNA, even as he took on other coaching pursuits, including being the head coach job at San Jose State from 2005 to 2009, helping to save that program from near extinction.

“What we did was more appreciated outside of Tucson than inside of Tucson. I think that is often the case. I’ve seen that happen to others,” Tomey said.

“But in all the places I’ve been, especially at Arizona, because I was there so long, the thing I’m most fortunate to have is relationships with young people. Whether they were first-stringers or walk-ons or guys who played in the NFL, the human part of it is the most fulfilling.”

Five years ago, Tomey helped with a fundraising event in Phoenix for former All-American Tony Bouie, who was battling stage-four lymphoma. Next month, Tomey is hosting a golf tournament/dinner/auction in Chandler in support of ex-Cat Donnie Salum, who has been fighting a tumor in his skull and spine.

His tenure in Tucson ended; the relationships never did.

“I coached for 50 years,” Tomey said.

“Almost not a day goes by when you don’t get a contact from somebody who has made a difference in your life and, hopefully, you have made a difference in theirs. That’s the amazing thing of it.”

* * *

Tomey has been back to Tucson several times, including twice to help coach in the Casino Del Sol College All-Star game in the past two years. He calls it his coaching fix.

But he has not yet seen the nearly completed Lowell-Stevens Football Facility in the north end zone of Arizona Stadium, the kind of facility that was sorely lacking during his stay as head coach.

“I’m very excited Greg Byrne has brought the understanding that Arizona had to do something about the facilities in order to keep up and insert themselves into the college football rat race as a viable contender,” Tomey said.

“We were so far behind in that regard. The arms race in facilities is incredible. Whether that’s a good thing or not for the game, I don’t know. It’s spending a lot of resources. But Arizona is getting caught up.”

* * *

Tomey’s eight grandchildren range in age from 2 to 9. He spent time this week in Phoenix with his son, Rich, who has three children. Other grandchildren live in Washington, D.C., New York, northern California, which means frequent visits to the mainland for Tomey and his wife, author Nanci Kincaid.

“We spend a lot of time traveling to see them,” Tomey said.

“It’s fun to not be working full time. I just enjoy playing with the kids. We’re playing basketball, tennis, football, playing with race cars. I just enjoy all of it. When we’re in Hawaii with the kids, we just get in the water, spend a lot of time in the ocean.”

Bray chuckles at the thought of Tomey, a midwestern kid who attended DePauw University in Indiana, stand-up paddling off the shores of Hawaii as he nears 75.

“That’s the sign of a successful life,” Bray said.

And that’s what Arizona will be celebrating tonight.

Tomey is more than a dozen years removed from coaching his last Arizona Wildcats game, but he remains the strongest bridge we have to UA’s football past.

“Tucson will always be a tremendous part of my life,” he said.

“I enjoyed it all. I didn’t just enjoy coaching football, but I enjoyed playing summer-league baseball, playing golf with my friends, just being a part of the community. I have so many good friends there still. I have no regrets about any of it.”

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