With BYU in the Big 12, athletic director Tom Holmoe reaches ‘legendary status’ in Provo

Over the past 11 years, Holmoe has helped the Cougars navigate independence and move into a Power Five conference.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University athletics director Tom Holmoe, left, and university president Kevin Worthen, wait for the start of a press event to announce BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Tom Holmoe couldn’t stay still.

Minutes before BYU and Utah ran out of the tunnels at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday night, the Cougars’ athletic director rushed to get down to the field himself. Holmoe paced while waiting for the elevator. Once in the elevator, Holmoe continued bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet and soon shuffled over to get a clear view of the small TV in the elevator.

BYU had just run out onto the field to deafening cheers from the crowd when the elevator doors opened up and Holmoe took off running again. After 11 years of chasing a Power Five conference and 12 years of chasing down a win against Utah, Holmoe was done waiting patiently.

In a 48-hour span last week, BYU accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference and followed that up by taking down rival Utah for the first time since 2009.

Provo hasn’t stopped celebrating.

It’s a party that wouldn’t have happened without the Cougars’ longtime athletics director who, after 16 years on the job, has seemingly cemented his legacy.

“I think that Tom Holmoe’s name will be synonymous with the advancement into the Big 12,” former BYU lineman and Utah sports radio host Hans Olsen said. “I think that, when he decides to lean back in that La-Z-Boy and sip his lemonade in the sun, I think he’s going to be of legendary status. I think that he’s done everything he needs to do at BYU and I think that the reins to the entire athletic department will rest in his hands until he’s done with it. And I think it should rest in his hands until he’s done with it.”

Taking a chance in independence

Unhappy with the situation at the time, and seeing Utah get picked up by a Power Five Conference, BYU made a bold move 11 years ago: it announced the Cougars would be leaving the Mountain West Conference in search of better opportunities.

The majority of BYU’s sports moved to the West Coast Conference, but football opted to go independent. At the time, BYU Football felt it had outgrown the Mountain West and had hoped to make a move to a Power Five alongside Utah. However, only the Utes were taken into the Pac-12.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Current BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, left, greets his predecessor Rondo Fehlberg as BYU hosts their eighth-annual football media day at the BYU-Broadcasting Building on Friday, June 22, 2018.

Just as the Cougars were starting their first season in independence, BYU was suddenly in the middle of a conversation that could have changed everything. BYU was in talks with the Big 12 Conference. Texas A&M announced it would be leaving the Big 12 by 2012, and the Power Five conference was looking into how to best maintain membership (Missouri also left the conference in 2012).

Instead, TCU — which had been in the Mountain West with the Cougars — and West Virginia were brought in.

It would take a decade of waiting, but those close to Holmoe believe it was a matter of time before he found BYU a home in a Power Five conference.

“It’s the relationships that he has and the people that will listen to him,” BYU football coach Kalani Sitake said. “The sincerity and the genuineness that he has as a person that can connect with people. I think he’s able to really represent BYU well and I think he’s able to bring to the table the things that people probably don’t think about enough, which is our fanbase. … He’s done a great job as a leader and it’s an honor for me to be a head coach under his leadership.”

Keeping the Cougars afloat

Even as BYU’s first hopes for a Big 12 invitation fell apart, Holmoe had already come up with an eight-year deal with ESPN to get BYU football games in front of national audiences. And soon enough, Holmoe built up schedules that rivaled those in P5 conferences.

In December 2015, Holmoe made a new hire that would change the face of BYU football: Sitake. With a new coach at the helm, BYU once again found itself trying to get into the Big 12.

The conference was considering expanding, and BYU was at the forefront of that conversation. Once again, Holmoe led the charge in getting the Cougars a more permanent home in a top conference. Ultimately, the Big 12 presidents opted to not expand, but the decision stung more when it was disclosed that the reason the presidents voted against expansions.

“When we walked out of the room, I looked at (BYU president Kevin) Worthen and said, ‘We’re in. There’s no question we’re in,’” Holmoe told The Athletic last week. “Then, you know, it didn’t happen. It didn’t work out that way. They decided they didn’t want to expand. …

“When that happened, it wasn’t like a breakup. We didn’t kick the ground and curse at them. It was just like, ‘OK.’ It was a good experience for us. … Some people were a little upset, but to me, it was, ‘We didn’t get in. But we discovered during that process how much strength we have. Let’s go, look at what we have and try to build on it.’ That’s basically been the last (five) years.”

Current men’s basketball coach Mark Pope wasn’t with the program when BYU was looking to get into the Big 12 in 2016, but said he could see the Big 12 being impressed with how Holmoe handled the situation.

“The fact that he builds relationships like that, he does it with players and universities, he’s done it throughout the country,” Pope said. “Him serving on the NCAA selection committee, I can’t tell you how many different people throughout the basketball world that worked with him have come back and just talked about how extraordinary he is and what a leader he is and his integrity, his kindness, and I think that’s a massive reason, not just why this decision was really easy for the Big 12 ... but also why the department is flourishing at such a level right now is because of his leadership. We’re really blessed to be able to work for him.”

Even after that second strike, Holmoe wasn’t giving up.

“We just have to keep fighting,” Holmoe said in 2017. “I don’t know if it will happen or when it will happen. But I’m not planning on it not happening. Let someone else do that.”

Instead, Holmoe went into the upcoming football seasons with renewed vigor. Holmoe helped the Cougars weather a 4-9 campaign in 2017, followed by back-to-back 7-6 records.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University athletic director Tom Holmoe, right, is joined remotely by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, right for the announcement of BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference at a press conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic completely shattered the Cougars’ original 2020 schedule. No longer was BYU playing six Power Five programs. Instead, it was fighting just to put together a schedule at all.

Somehow, Holmoe pulled it off. At times, it was with mere days notice, but BYU played an 11-game regular schedule and went on to win the Boca Raton Bowl to finish the season with a near-perfect 11-1 record.

The Cougars not only played, but were one of the first teams to do so and were the first team in the West. By the end of it all, BYU ended the season ranked and produced seven NFL draft picks, including the No. 2 selection in Zach Wilson. In March, as the school year was nearing an end, Holmoe was named the athletic director of the year.

The right man for the job

Last week, Holmoe welcomed BYU to the Big 12.

But the athletics director said his work wasn’t done.

“Ten years ago, we charted a new course, on our journey, a new way forward. It was during those years that BYU was able to learn and to grow and to change in the WCC and as an independent in football. We are thrilled to be joining the Big 12,” he said. “Cougar Nation, we didn’t reach our destination today. The journey will still continue.”

The next night at LaVell Edwards Stadium, some of the Cougars’ most prominent alums praised their athletics director for getting them this far.

“He cares about BYU,” former BYU tight end Dennis Pitta said. “He cares about the sports programs. He wants what’s best. He wants to position BYU as best as he possibly can on the national stage. And you get that sense from him, as a guy being around him, that he’s genuine and authentic. That’s truly who he is and he absolutely cares. I think, as a player and seeing him being an AD, you realize he has a track record of success, but he kind of walks the walk and talks the talk at the same time. You just appreciate everything he’s done and you understand that it’s coming from an authentic place.”

That’s what makes Holmoe who he is.

“For me, just those little conversations, pulling me aside and saying ‘hey, you’re doing a great job, keep working, you’re our leader,’ just those little conversations that he has with you makes you feel at home, makes you feel like a family,” former BYU quarterback Max Hall said. “He gives you confidence that you can go out and play well and perform.”

By now, Sitake has been with the program for six years. But he continues to be impressed by how connected Holmoe is to his coaches and student-athletes. Sitake values the friendship and relationship he’s built with Holmoe, but also loves the example the longtime athletic director sets for his athletes.

“He knows every one of them by name,” Sitake said. “He hangs out and talks to them, collaborates with them.”

However, along with being able to set a good example and build relationships, Holmoe is known for being funny and competitive.

Former BYU athletics director Val Hale has two favorite stories when it comes to his successor Holmoe.

First is knowing how, after playing in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, which was tape delayed, Holmoe and a few other players went to a convenience store following the game. Seeing that a worker was watching the game on TV, Holmoe and his teammates started calling plays.

Surprised that the group of guys were getting each play correct, the store employee eventually learned they were BYU players.

The second story speaks to how competitive Holmoe gets.

On his letterman ring from BYU, Holmoe had a red stone put in to signify that he never lost to Utah.

All of those characteristics are why Holmoe has won over, not just the BYU fanbase, but the Big 12.

“On a personal level, I enjoy working with people that I trust, and that I like and that I know share the values that I have for intercollegiate athletics,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at Friday’s announcement.

Olsen, the former defensive tackle who played for the Cougars from 1996-2000, believes Holmoe has influenced the makeup of the university and has had a vision for the growth and direction of BYU. BYU was already at the academic level to join a Power Five, and had multiple sports competing at a Power Five level. Another could have gotten BYU over the finish line, Olsen said, but Holmoe was the right guy to do so.

Whether Holmoe will stay at BYU for another 16 years remains to be seen. But his legacy will stay with the school long after he decides to step down.

“My confidence going forward is heightened considerably by the fact that we have Tom Holmoe here,” Worthen said on the morning the Cougars announced their move to the Big 12. “He’s agreed to stay at least as long as I do — he hasn’t said that yet, not even to me for that matter. But he really is the one single person that this could not have happened without. And I think that will be true going forward.”