Dick Tomey, who coached the University of Hawaii football team from 1977 through 1986, passed away this past Saturday at age 80. Tomey is largely credited for helping put the UH program on the college football map, bringing in near-sellout crowds to Aloha Stadium and going toe-to-toe with perennial powers such as USC, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Michigan, West Virginia, South Carolina and Arizona State. ESPN Honolulu Web Editor Lance Tominaga, who collaborated with Coach Tomey on the 2017 book, Rise of the Rainbow Warriors: Ten Unforgettable Years of University of Hawaii Football (Watermark Publishing), reflects on his experiences with the legendary and beloved coach.
“Coach, I know you want to protect your players, but…”
“You’re damn right I want to protect my players!”
In the spring of 2017, I had the privilege of working on Dick Tomey’s book, Rise of the Rainbow Warriors: Ten Unforgettable Years of University of Hawaii Football. Through interviews with dozens of his former players and coaches – Blane Gaison, Gary Allen, Jeff Duva, Falaniko Noga, David Toloumu, Jesse Sapolu, Walter Murray, Nu‘u Fa‘aola, Rich Miano, Bob Wagner and Rich Ellerson, to name just a few – I became privy to a number of great stories from Coach Tomey’s tenure at the university. Some of those anecdotes were hilarious. I couldn’t wait to include them in the book.
But Coach wasn’t too keen about it. He thought the stories might be embarrassing to a particular player or coach. Most of all, he said, they didn’t accurately reflect the character of the program that he worked so hard to establish.
None of the stories in question would be considered scandalous or against NCAA rules. Not even close. But Coach Tomey was being the protective father looking out for his sons – even thirty to forty years after the fact. He wasn’t about to allow anything that could be construed as embarrassing to his players, book sales be damned.
Now, co-authoring a book is a collaborative process. There’s a lot of give and take. In the end, Coach relented on some of the stories I pushed to include. He stood firm on the others. I understood. The bottom line was that we both wanted the same thing: We wanted to cross the goal line with a winning effort, and we did.
I felt uniquely qualified for this project. I was thirteen years old when Coach Tomey made his UH debut in September 1977, against New Mexico. My Uncle took me to the game. On Hawaii’s very first offensive play, the team executed a reverse flea-flicker: Duva lined up under center, took the snap and pitched the ball to tailback Gerald Green, who, in turn, handed it off to Gaison, who promptly fired a 30-yard pass into the waiting arms of flanker Jeff Cabral. What a way to begin the Tomey Era!
The Rainbow Warriors lost that game, 35-26. But I remember leaving Aloha Stadium that night with a feeling of, “Wow, this team is fun to watch.”
Hawaii’s version of “Saturday Night Fever” was born.
The Tomey years could be regarded as the golden era of UH football. There were big wins over South Carolina (twice), Arizona State and West Virginia. There were the near misses, too, with the likes of USC, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Michigan all escaping Halawa with narrow victories. Under Tomey, UH football brought a national ranking, home attendance records, nationally televised games and the start of a bitter rivalry with BYU.
And I got to witness it all. My family and I attended almost every one of Hawaii’s home games under Tomey’s tenure.
I was a junior at UH when Tomey announced that he was leaving Manoa to coach the Arizona Wildcats. I remember spotting Coach in Hamilton Library, reading a newspaper. I walked up to him, shook his hand and thanked him for everything he did for Hawaii football.
I had no idea that, more than thirty years later, I would get to work with Coach Tomey to chronicle his ten years as the Rainbow Warriors’ head coach.
One thing was clear from our time together: Coach Tomey never lost his passion for University of Hawaii football. When he spoke, I could feel the pride he had in his players, assistants and the UH administration. He was also quick to credit the UH fans for the success the program enjoyed. During his book signings, he always took time to chat with every person in line. “You were a big part of this,” he would tell them. “You made it happen.”
That was just the kind of man Dick Tomey was: gracious, humble and exceedingly loyal. He also loved being part of our local community. As he mentioned in his book, “[My family and I] will never again come to these shores and feel like a stranger. We will always feel like kama‘aina.”
He concluded, “Coaching the Rainbow Warriors was one of the greatest experiences of my life. That entire decade that we all shared together – every coach, every player, every fan – is a time that I will always cherish. It was special. It was magic.”
Aloha, Coach Tomey. Mahalo for the memories.
ESPN Honolulu Web Editor Lance Tominaga shares a moment with legendary UH football coach Dick Tomey at a 2018 book signing at Barnes & Noble Ala Moana.