2024 UTAH VALLEY MAGAZINE PERSON OF THE YEAR
THIS IS Y
Athletic Director Tom Holmoe changed the trajectory of BYU sports — and Utah Valley’s nationwide perception — by roaring the Cougars into the Big 12.
By Jeanette Bennett & Greg Bennett
We met Tom Holmoe for our cover shoot at the northwest gates of LaVell Edwards Stadium. The concrete cathedral to all-things BYU was a far cry from its bustling Saturday nights with 60,000 Cougar Tail-eaters screaming like the blue sky is falling. It’s December, just a couple weeks before Christmas and 12 days after the heart-breaking 40-34 loss to Oklahoma State.
But without the vendors, marching bands and television cameras, Tom still seems at home in the stadium — the same venue where he finished with 13 career interceptions as a defensive back for the Cougars in the early 1980s. Our magazine team moved to Portal H (for “Holmoe”) and set up for our first shot.
“I like to be in the stadium when it’s empty,” Tom says. “It’s a good spot for me. It’s sacred. I think well here. I look up and see those names and the bowls the team has played in, and good thoughts come to me. I can see the long-game.”
Good thoughts — especially amid tough decisions — have been a hallmark of Tom’s almost 19 years at the helm of the BYU Cougars as athletic director, and his crowning achievement of securing BYU’s invitation to the Big 12 has earned him Utah Valley Magazine’s Person of the Year 2024.
Tom recently finished six years as a gospel doctrine teacher in his Provo ward, which is seven minutes away from BYU campus. But he wasn’t a member of the LDS faith when he moved to Provo in the 1980s as a player who was recruited by Fred Whittingham, father of Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham (who was also Tom’s teammate).
Tom’s play clock tAook him to a career in the NFL with the ‘49ers where he earned three Super Bowl rings as a player during his seven-year career. Later, he won the Super Bowl as a coach. He entered the transfer portal and became the head coach at Cal, but when the whistle blew on that position he found himself unemployed.
“LaVell and I had stayed in touch, and he asked me to come and take a fundraising job for the athletic department,” Tom says. “My daughter had just been accepted as a freshman here, so we were excited. Football hadn’t always been synonymous with family time, so I decided to come to BYU and ‘chill out’ in this new position off the field.”
Tom didn’t plan to sit in that seat for long. He thought he would catch his breath and stay close to the game while he found his next opportunity.
“I would drive down the hill on 1230 North from my office in the old Alumni House, and I would see the team practicing. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t coaching football!” Tom recalls.“I learned that if you’re always looking at what the next opportunity might be, then you won’t do well in the opportunity you currently have. I decided I had to get into my job and back into the BYU community. It was a great experience to get to know donors and other fans who are deeply invested in BYU.”
On March 1, 2005, Tom moved seats again to become the new BYU athletic director with a daunting first task — take two athletic departments and turn them into one.
Before Tom was hired, BYU fielded separate men’s and women’s athletic departments. The men’s department was led by Val Hale. The women answered to the legendary Elaine Michaelis. Each department operated independently of the other (Texas and Tennessee were the only other major college programs set up similarly at the time). Marrying the two departments was fraught with potential challenges.
“President (Cecil O.) Samuelson charged me to combine the departments,” Tom says. “I had to be the one who made the necessary decisions with full conviction. I’m not saying every decision I made was right, but every one was the best I could do with the information I had at the time.”
Next on the docket, hiring a new football coach and a new men’s basketball coach. Again, Tom relied on his ability to read a situation, get the best information possible and stand behind his decision with conviction. The scoreboard would later support his conviction as he hired future legends Bronco Mendenhall and Dave Rose.
“Those hires might have been in the top three decisions I’ve ever made,” Tom says.
This now 63-year-old’s ability to hire the right person for the job is noteworthy. In a time where head football coaches last as long as a car lease, Tom has only worked with two football coaches (Bronco Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake) and two basketball coaches (Dave Rose and Mark Pope).
By comparison, Tom is on his third university president.
No decision over Tom’s 19 years has been as much of a minefield as the move out of the Mountain West Conference in 2010 and into independence in football (while the majority of other sports participated in the West Coast Conference.)
“I felt great about going independent, but I knew it was going to be fraught with issues,” he says. “But we had to make a decision that would put us on the road. It’s not going to shoot us down the road, but it put us on the road to where we wanted to be.”
There were whisperings and discussions throughout the 10+ years of football independence — each with its pros and cons, dollars and cents — but it was never about money. It was about access for fans and quality of competition for players.
“I remember President Samuelson saying to me, ‘If money is our No. 1 reason to do this, then I don’t want to have one thing to do with it,’” Tom says. “Money wasn’t the first reason, but I had to articulate the potential financial outcomes as part of the decision.”
BYU’s patience paid off when, in September 2021, it received the invitation to join the Big 12 and join the blue bloods of college athletics. The landmark change gave Tom and his colleagues long-sought opportunities for hyped-up exposure, easier access for fans and an opportunity for players to compete against the best.
Tom is satisfied with the Cougars’ record during Season One in the new conference, even though that’s not his measuring stick.
“The impact of joining the Big 12 remains to be seen,” he says. “The conference is tough and that’s what we asked for. If we can keep the focus on our student-athletes and their growth in all areas of their lives, the rest of it will come.”
Tom notes that, despite missing out on a bowl game this season, the team is better because of what it learned from playing the level of competition in the Big 12.
“We’re going to get punched in the nose,” Tom says. “We’re going to take a knee and then stand back up and keep going. We’re going to get bloodied. It’s going to be hard. But, if you’re looking at the long play, this is great for BYU athletics. The short play is tough, but as athletic director I am looking at the long play.”
And the Credit Goes To
While an invitation to a major conference is a complicated, nuanced endeavor, there’s little doubt how Tom is viewed by others in his profession. Two nights before our photo shoot, Tom was named the 2023 recipient of the John L. Toner Award from the National Football Foundation, which honors outstanding athletics directors “who have demonstrated superior administrative abilities, especially in the area of college football.”
Despite the awards dotting the shelves in Tom’s office and Provo home, he considers himself just a role player on a larger team.
“Growing up, I was always a role player,” he says. “I’ve never been the fastest or most athletic guy, but I knew how to go in and do what the coaches asked me to do and complement the players around me. That’s how I feel now. Every day is different, and that’s what I love about my job. Everyday, I find my role and do it. I don’t let a day go by without thinking about how to make a contribution.”