Episode 66: BYU athletic directors Tom Holmoe and Liz Darger on excellence in sports, BYU’s Honor Code, gospel principles; featuring Sheri Dew as guest host

Brigham Young University sports fans had plenty to cheer about in 2021. The women claimed second-place finishes in soccer and cross-country and a Sweet 16 appearance in volleyball. Fans also enjoyed national rankings in football and men’s and women’s basketball, and individual national recognitions in cross country and track and field.

BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe and Liz Darger, BYU’s senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator and a member of the Young Women general advisory council, join this episode of the Church News podcast. The episode also features guest host and avid BYU sports fan Sheri L. Dew, executive vice president and chief content officer of Deseret Management Corporation and a former member of the Relief Society general presidency. They talk about BYU athletic programs and athletes and the role they play in the university and, by extension, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Transcript

Tom Holmoe: Most people in sports, if they follow closely in collegiate athletics, know that Brigham Young University is associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, there’s a great responsibility that anyone at BYU, when you perform, you have a responsibility to represent ourselves, our team, our individual families. But we’re also going to represent BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and people notice that. I love that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

BYU sports fans had plenty to cheer about in 2021. The women claimed second-place finishes in soccer and cross-country, and a Sweet 16 appearance in volleyball. Fans also enjoyed national rankings in football and men’s basketball, and individual national recognition in cross-country and track and field.

Tom Holmoe, BYU director of athletics, and Liz Darger, the senior associate athletic director, senior woman administrator and a member of the Young Women general advisory council, join this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about BYU athletic programs and athletes and the role they play in the university and, by extension, the Church. They will be joined by guest host Sheri Dew, executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp., a former member of the Relief Society general presidency and BYU’s No. 1 sports fan. As I say welcome to the Church News podcast, to all three of you, I’m excited to turn the microphone over to Sheri and sit back and listen to this conversation about BYU sports.

2:08

Sheri Dew: Thanks, Sarah. I’ll bet I’d have a lot of competition for BYU’s No. 1 sports fan, by the looks of a filled football stadium and Marriott Center and so forth. Tom and Liz, today, I feel like I won the lottery. I love BYU. I love sports, which makes me nuts about BYU sports. And, on top of that, I have such admiration for both of you. So we’re excited and really grateful that you would join us this morning and just talk to us about what you see from your very unique catbird seats, as it were, with all that’s going on inside of BYU athletics. Welcome this morning.

Tom Holmoe: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you, Sheri. And just in anticipation of this opportunity, I thought back to, I think, when I first met you. It was probably 20 years ago, when we had two split departments, a men’s and women’s department. And you were helping us out back in those days, and you’ve been with us every step of the way. So we consider you a dear friend of BYU athletics.

Sheri Dew: Well, thank you so much.

Liz Darger: Just grateful to be here. Thanks for having both of us. It’s gonna be a fun conversation today.

Sheri Dew: So, let’s just dive right in. When I think about your roles as athletic director and senior associate athletic director at BYU, those have got to be two of the most distinctive, unusual, perhaps unique athletic administrating roles in the country, just because BYU has its own uniqueness. So from where you sit and from what you do, talk to us about your roles, and maybe about how they likely differ from similar positions in other universities.

3:51

Liz Darger: Thank you, Sheri. So my title is interesting. It’s senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator, and people often ask me about the second part of that title. The senior woman administrator portion of the title is an NCAA designation that is given to the woman in every athletic department across the country who’s the highest-ranking woman in the athletic department, which seems a little funny. But that designation was instituted a few years after Title IX passed. Title IX has done excellent things for female participation in sports, and certainly we’ve seen that for student-athletes; we’re so grateful for it. But there were a lot of separate departments at the time, and as many departments then decided to combine to better utilize resources and comply with Title IX, they found that there were not many women in administration. And so that designation was created to ensure that every athletic department across the country had at least one woman working in the athletic department to help make sure that there was a variety in perspectives given as decisions were made. And so that designation still remains across the country. I feel at BYU that that designation is not necessary. I absolutely know that my voice is heard and feel very much empowered by Tom and by my other wonderful colleagues. But with that designation comes some specific responsibilities from the NCAA, to be involved in the governance structure through your conference and through the NCAA, and also to help oversee gender equity. So that’s that portion of my title. But we are a combined athletic department, and Tom is the athletic director over all of our men’s and women’s sports. And I’m grateful for the chance to help him and be a sport administrator for a number of our men’s and women’s sports, and to also help with many of the internal operations of the department.

5:44

Tom Holmoe: Sheri, I love the question about roles. And Liz is smiling because she knows I talked about roles all the time here, and I think that that’s one of the great things about Cougar Nation, is that everybody in the nation has a role. Inside this building here at BYU, we have more significant roles having to do with the actual day-to-day sports. But one of my favorite things is, people want to ask me, come talk to me about their future careers. I get to talk to a lot of BYU undergrads that want to be in my position, and when I talk to them, I think they think that my role is to have great seats in every game, and get to go up and hug coaches and players after every game. And I think they have a really distorted view of what my job is. But I would say the best part of my job is that it’s different every day. Every day is a new day, and I just love that opportunity. 

I had the opportunity to work at two other beautiful, brilliant schools: Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. And so there were a lot of similarities between Stanford, Cal and BYU. But there’s no question that there’s mostly special opportunities at BYU on a day-to-day basis, with a few tough wrinkles that we need to work out a little bit every week.

Sheri Dew: So, can you give us an example of a special opportunity, as opposed to a wrinkle, let’s say.

BYU’s Kenzie Koerber hits the ball against Utah during an NCAA volleyball game at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021.
BYU’s Kenzie Koerber hits the ball against Utah during an NCAA volleyball game at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

7:21

Tom Holmoe: OK. I would say special opportunities are when Liz and I have the chance and take the time to meet with individual student-athletes. They are what I call the secret sauce. They’re the reason for our success, and I wouldn’t keep out our coaches. But I tell all of our people in employment here, our team members in athletic administration and staff, that we work at BYU for the student-athletes. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have jobs. We might be faculty members working with students on campus, but student-athletes are the secret sauce. And so Liz and I and [deputy athletic director] Brian Santiago and some of our other leaders in the department, we take the time every day to talk and meet with the students, our student-athletes, and those are the special opportunities. They come from all over the country, they come from all over the world. And when they’re here, you have the special opportunities, or when the Spirit of God matches the student-athletes coming in here, and they get tested and they have challenges, there’s difficulties to overcome. We get to be involved a little bit in that, and the Spirit kind of dictates how it goes. And usually in the end, things work out beautifully.

8:48

Liz Darger: And Sheri, I want to jump in here, and Tom’s not going to like this because Tom doesn’t like people talking about how great he is. But Tom talking about our athletic department being student-athlete centered — you might think that that happens across the country at every institution, and it’s talked about a lot. But in terms of actually following it up with action, the reason our department is like that is because it starts at the top with Tom being student-athlete centered. And when he says he meets with student-athletes every day, he means it, whether it’s in his office formally, whether it’s going down to practice, whether it’s running into them while they’re studying in the academic center, every day there are touchpoints with student-athletes, and a lot of athletic directors around the country talk about doing that and try to do that. But the nature of the job is such that there’s so much going on, it’s really easy to get stuck in the business of running a department. But Tom sets the best example for all of us of making sure that we are connecting with student-athletes every single day, that we know their names, that we know what’s going on in their lives outside of their sport, and that there’s not a better example in the country than Tom Holmoe, as athletic administration of doing that.

Sheri Dew: I love that because I’ve thought to myself, I mean, I think about, from the position of a fan who’s fairly plugged in and watching what’s going on, and I can name you a lot of student-athletes that are performing on the field or on the court or whatever right now. I know that I get an attachment to them; I start to feel personally invested in [Fousseyni] Traore really coming alive as a true freshman out of Mali, or all these things that are happening. So I can only imagine what that feels like for the two of you, where you are developing personal relationships and trying to help these young men and women really achieve their highest heights, right? You’re trying to help them really develop. You want to say something about what that feels like for the two of you?

10:41

Tom Holmoe: One of my favorite things is the first day of school, the first week of school, I get to see the young freshmen come in from all over the country. And I look at them and go, “Oh, boy, they’ve got a lot to learn.” And they are brash, and sometimes they’re scared, and then they’re cocky, and then they’re anxious, and there’s so many different kinds of emotions. And then I’m going to fast forward to — at the end of the year we have this graduation banquet for every one of our student-athletes that are graduating. We invite their parents and siblings, and we come and we’re all together in one room with our coaches. I stand up every year to speak, and I look out there and I look at these seniors, and there’s two feelings. One is: “Oh my goodness, what are we going to do now? What are we going to do without these great leaders, without these incredible people that have blazed paths for all these teams and the successes you talk about?” But then the other feeling is I look around, and I know that most every one of them has struggled to get to that point. And so we know from our experience that that road traveled, that the journey that they take at BYU is going to be difficult, rewarding, hard, and there’s all kinds of emotions that they’re going to feel. And we feel so blessed to be able to be part of it. Like you said: When you come to the Marriott Center, or LaVell Edwards Stadium or Smith Fieldhouse, and you get to see those student-athletes up close, you can feel the emotion. And it’s a special opportunity for us because we get that every day. And so I tell people all the time, I have not one of the best jobs in America, I have the best job in America.

12:30

Liz Darger: And if he has the best job, I think I have the best job because I have him as a boss to set an example for me. But I’ll give you an example that I think sums up how incredible it is to be a part of these student-athletes’ lives. Mikayla Colohan is on the women’s soccer team that went to the national championship game, she’s the best soccer player in the country, and to get to know her as a soccer player is one thing, but to be able to get to know her as a person — you know, she came and met with me a couple of years ago and said that she hoped to play pro soccer, but also was thinking about getting into athletic administration and wanted to talk a little bit about that, and was hopeful to have some opportunities to maybe learn more about it. And so this year, she, in addition to playing soccer and finishing up her studies, also did an internship of sorts on the third floor with us and got to know a little bit of what it looks like to be an athletic administrator. In addition to that, she’s engaged, at the time, to Jackson Cluff on our baseball team, and they were sealed in the temple just last week. The same day that they were married in the temple, she missed the ceremony to announce the Hermann Trophy award [for top collegiate soccer players], and Tom, Brian and I were all at her wedding reception. And so in a matter of a couple of weeks, we were able to watch Mikayla play in the national championship game, we were able to work with her up in administration in terms of getting her some experience in that, and be able to celebrate her marriage in the temple to another student-athlete, and then also talk with her about their future about playing pro sports for a while, transitioning to another career, starting their family, and these student-athletes invite us to be a part of every part of their lives, their spiritual development, their intellectual development, social development, physical development, and it’s just an absolute privilege and pleasure and honor to be able to be a part of every aspect of life.

Sheri Dew: I just totally love that. Let me segue to a question I think is related here, because I’m picturing the picture of the soccer team in their dresses standing out front of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse the day before the national championship game, and those girls look so good. They just looked good, and I found myself thinking, and in fact, I didn’t know we’re going to do this podcast at the time and I thought, “Boy, I’d love to talk to Liz and Tom and just say: ‘What comments do you get from other athletic administrators representing other schools about our athletes? Do they stand out in a unique or a different way to some of the other schools?’”

Brigham Young Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe watches the game during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16.
Brigham Young Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe watches the game during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

14:55

Tom Holmoe: It’s a very good question. To start with, part of our mission is to be aligned, our athletic department, be aligned with BYU, the university, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From when I first got here and worked with President Cecil Samuelson and also with President Kevin Worthen, I’ve learned and it’s just part of our DNA right now that if we veer off alignment with the university and the Church, we’re going to have troubles, and the closer that we stay aligned to their respective missions, it’s really all the same mission. And so one of the things that makes it easy, because of that alignment, is that our teams, they actually will be hopefully aligned, also, and then the players, the student-athletes, are aligned also. 

So it’s not uncommon for us to see our teams praying before games. But to get to your question: I can remember precisely — we were playing at Gonzaga in women’s basketball, I happened to be on that trip with them, and we had to get up early after a Saturday night game. Sunday morning, we got up, and Jeff Judkins, the coach, his team, when they travel on a Sunday, they dress in church clothes. And so we show up at the airport, and they’re all in a line to get their boarding passes. And it’s not crowded, but there’s a fair number of people there, and I was just going through like, “I’ve done this 100 times.” And I was walking a little separate. About 10 minutes later, and a woman came up to me, kind of pulled my sleeve and said: “Excuse me, are you with that group of women over there? Who are they? They are radiant. What do they do? Can you tell me?” and I said, “That’s the Brigham Young University women’s basketball team; we’re on our way home.” “You’re on your way home?” And I said, “Yeah, and they travel on Sundays since it’s the Sabbath day to travel on Sunday in their Sunday best. Some of them will return home and be able to go to church when we land back in Utah.” She was flabbergasted. She said, “I’ve never seen a group of such beautiful women.” And that was it, and I just gulped. We don’t do it to get that response, but those young women, and our men, let their light so shine before men that they may see their beauty. That’s how it is, and we see it a lot. Sometimes we take it for granted, but there’s times too when we get emotional about it, because it’s really special, and I hope that I’ll never forget those moments.

Sheri Dew: Liz, anything on that topic?

17:38

Liz Darger: Just to add to what Tom said, in particular with that week at the College Cup with the women’s soccer team, it was a really special week. And that Sunday, if you looked at our itinerary and what filled our itinerary that Sunday, it was very different than Florida State, and different than any other team, probably, typically what a Sunday would look like with our student-athletes and our coaches. They want to be at church, they want to worship with other Saints, and it was a fast and testimony meeting, and it was a neat meeting. And a few of our student-athletes felt prompted to share their testimonies in that meeting, and did, and it was neat to see the interactions afterward from members there who were expressing gratitude, not only that they would come and be a part of their congregation that day, but that they would share their light in their testimony and set an example for youth around the world of the importance of making and keeping covenants. And, you know, that day was also the day of the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional, and so we were able to watch that as a team and decorate Christmas cookies, and sing those Christmas hymns together as well. And there’s really a wonderful freedom we have here at Brigham Young University to be able to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and there’s not that freedom at very many universities, and I’m really grateful to be able to work at a place where I can openly share my testimony and openly hear the testimony of my colleagues and of these student-athletes, because I learn so much from them and their strength. They really are remarkable, remarkable disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sheri Dew: Liz, I bumped into you at a women’s basketball practice in December — and by the way, they’re doing great, holy cow. Anyway, and you were telling me about some of the young women on the soccer team that were getting ready to leave on missions and that one of them even had to start home MTC there in the Bay Area while you’re still there. Just tell us a little bit more about that.

19:34

Liz Darger: Yes, quite the unusual situation. But she’d received her mission call and her assignment to report to home MTC, and that date happened to be the date of when the national championship was moved. The national championship was supposed to take place on the Sunday, but the NCAA honors our policy not to play on Sunday. And so, as soon as we won our game on Friday, then we knew that game would move to Monday. Well, that was the day she was to report to home MTC. Her stake president worked directly with the MTC leadership to find a solution, and it was decided that she would tune into home MTC from our team hotel. So, she hadn’t been set apart yet, but she tuned in and began her home MTC experience from the team hotel, and did that in the morning and afternoon and then came over to be with the team as they competed in the national championship game. And then, the next day, flew home and then was set apart by her stake president to then continue home MTC at home. So, a very unique experience, and one that it was really neat to chat with her and hear about that, and it’s unexpected. We’re so grateful for the MTC leadership and her stake president, who were thinking outside the box to find a way for her to be able to finish that season with her team, and also be able to participate with her district starting out the MTC.

Sheri Dew: Boy, what a distinction. She’s probably going to be an n of one person who’s ever had that experience. That’s remarkable. OK, let’s expand this even a little bit further. I have personally long believed — and look, I know there are plenty of people that probably wouldn’t agree with me — but I have felt for years that BYU sports was not just important to BYU, but to its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I’ll tell you when it dawned on me, and this is years ago: the fall after BYU won its national football championship in 1984, and Tom will remember this for sure, and maybe you do too, Liz, or at least have seen it. I’ve still got a copy of the article, major article that Sports Illustrated ran, featuring athletes, football players who didn’t get to play on the team because they were serving missions. It was a six-page spread, it was a huge spread, and I remember reading that piece and thinking, “OK, there’s only one reason Sports Illustrated is writing about Latter-day Saint missionaries at length, and that’s because BYU football just won the national championship.” So to me, there is something — BYU sports, when they do well, have a chance to do something for the Church that’s very unique and very unusual. I’d love to know your point of view about that. What do BYU sports do to help the Church? I guess that’s the point-blank question.

The BYU Women's Soccer team poses for a team photo outside a Church building in Santa Clara, California on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.
The BYU Women’s Soccer team poses for a team photo outside a Church building in Santa Clara, California on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. Credit: BYU Women's Soccer Twitter

22:21

Tom Holmoe: Sheri, I think that most people in sports, if they follow closely in collegiate athletics, know that Brigham Young University is associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The [Church is] the sponsoring institution of our school. So there’s a great responsibility that anyone at BYU that is a performer, whether it’s in the performing arts of theater or music, or athletics — when you perform, you have a responsibility to represent. And unfortunately, maybe not unfortunately, but there’s a lot of our competitors, or people that might oppose the Church that look for missteps with BYU athletes or performers. And so, I don’t think it’s stressful, I don’t think there’s pressure, but there’s certainly a responsibility. And we talk about that, we call it “repping the Y.” And sometimes that’s a little bit of a cool way to say, “Hey, when we’re out there, we’re going to do everything we can to represent ourselves, our team, our individual families, but we’re also going to represent BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” 

So, do every one of our athletes feel that way every time they’re competing? No, not really. But like you said, I think that our athletes do a very good job of holding up the light and the flame, and that’s really important to us. And we’re talking in this podcast right now, how beautiful and confident and loyal and all these great parts of them, and they’re service-oriented off the field and their service to the Church. But when they take the court, Sheri, they’re going to be warriors, they are going to be strong, they are going to be super competitive. And it’s amazing to me sometimes that they can transition so smoothly from on the field to off the field. And I think what you’re saying, what a lot of people realize and talk about is people notice that. How can you be meek and strong? Well, we learn about that in the gospel. When you are meek, you are strong, and the Savior is such a great example, and our kids know that. And so, I think that it’s just so much a part of who they are. 

I’m so grateful for — most of our student-athletes here are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So they’ve been raised in the Church. They have leadership capabilities, because they’ve grown up in Young Men and Young Women, and they have leadership opportunities and they have responsibilities. A lot of them are preparing for missions, so their ideals are different. But when they get here, they have to make incredible changes with their emotional level and their spiritual thoughts, and they have to balance that. It’s a super difficult situation, and tough to do, and some of them struggle with it, but most of them by the end of the journey, they’re way stronger, and they’ve grown a lot, and they’ve learned a lot, and they’re ready to go take on the world. I love that.

25:54

Liz Darger: Tom mentioned our mission statement earlier as an athletic department in being fully aligned with Brigham Young University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another part of that mission statement talks about that we want to build a distinctive, exceptional athletic program. And those two words: “distinctive” and “exceptional,” we talk about every year at the beginning of the year with our student-athletes. And I think they really take that personally. We believe in being exceptional. If we’re going to have an athletic program, we want to be the best, we want to do it as well as we can. And we also are distinctive. We’re going to do it differently than other programs, and our student-athletes that sort of embrace that, of knowing that we are a little bit different here, but seeing that as a strength and seeing the strength that comes from being in a place where we can combine our our spiritual progression with our athletic progression, and academic and social progression, and seeing things through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how we treat others. Tom talked about the competitiveness in our football team and coach [Kalani] Sitake’s mantra of love and learning, and you will not find more competitive guys on the field that will knock you down and tackle you hard. But then you see them offer a hand and help them up, and you hear the way that our players and coaches talk about rivalries. There’s no doubt that we want to win, and we want to win at the highest level, but when that game’s over, we hope that we are also leading out in treating people as disciples of Jesus Christ would.

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake walks the sidelines prior to a game in Logan on Friday Oct 1, 2021.
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake walks the sidelines prior to a game in Logan on Friday Oct 1, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

27:22

Tom Holmoe: Sheri, I want to jump in and give an example to the listeners. We’ve been talking about success on the field and off, but sometimes it’s not that way, and we lose games, and we lose matches, and we sometimes struggle to reach our goals.

Sheri Dew: We sometimes lose athletes, or we have athletes that do fall, fail to live up to the creed and standards that we’ve set. We see all of that, right? It’s just gonna happen.

27:49

Tom Holmoe: Yeah, exactly. So here’s an example of something that I love to hear and see, and what some of our student-athletes experience. After every game, our teams will pray, and I just want to share: After our last bowl loss, it was a tough loss when we lost to UAB. But the conversation, and I’m gonna say “conversation” that Kalani Sitake had with the team was something that, it just — it was the perfect thing to say. He talked about how our team, our young men that play on the team, they’re not just football players. They’re sons, they’re brothers, some of them are husbands, they have other roles to live up to. And when they left that locker room, that they couldn’t be in a funk, that they have opportunities ahead of them, starting right now. So when that game ended, and everybody wanted to go kick their trash can, Kalani was already repairing and preparing for the future. And it’s not uncommon where after a Saturday night game, where it’s late at night, we’re in LaVell Edwards Stadium, and we oftentimes don’t get out of there after a game till 11 p.m. or 11:30 [p.m.] One of the last things Kalani will say before they adjourn is: “Hey, everybody, great job. Now make sure you get up and go to church in the morning.” I always love to hear that. But the players always cheer, and then they leave, and that’s kind of the last word, and that’s special to me.

Sheri Dew: So let’s talk for a second, building on what you’ve both just said — there are a fair number of scholarship athletes who are not members of the Church, some of them very high profile, and do a great job for our teams. So, what is their experience like? And I realized that’s not really a fair question because every experience would be unique, but can you talk about in general terms about what the experience is for the non-Latter-day Saint student-athlete?

29:58

Liz Darger: We love our student-athletes that are from other faiths. We’re so grateful that they choose to have their student-athlete experience at BYU. They add a richness to the whole athletic department. They bring a different perspective and background that is really important for us all to learn from each other, and we find that there are unique challenges for student-athletes of other faiths as they come. Sometimes just cultural in terms of coming to a place that is so predominantly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some are more familiar with the Church than others when they come. We have a lot of resources that we have put in place to help those student-athletes, including hiring a new position, associate athletic director for diversity and inclusion, student-athlete development, Whitney Johnson, to work with our student-athletes that are the minority, racial minority, LGBT, from another faith, international student-athletes, to make sure that they have the support that they need. But our teams, our coaches, really put their arms around those student-athletes, and we find that the majority of them have an absolutely wonderful experience. And there are those that it’s a transition, and we do everything we can to help this be a place where they know that they belong, that they know that they can thrive, that they can thrive in their own faith tradition, they can thrive academically and socially and athletically as well.

31:23

Tom Holmoe: I would add to that, Sheri: I have always talked to our coaches now, knowing that I’ve been in the program at BYU since 1978 when I was a freshman — and I wasn’t here for every year through that, I had other parts of my career, but I certainly observed — but I often say that one of the core parts of the culture of BYU athletic teams is that the vast majority of them are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and most of them are from Utah. And I think it’s sometimes a mistake when our coaches try to change that structure, and feel like the young men and women that are high school kids in Utah aren’t going to be good enough for BYU. But I think that there’s something to the fact that when we take the kind of the blue-blood member of the Church, Utah kid, man or woman, that’s kind of legacy members of the Church, meaning that their parents, and maybe their grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles have all gone to BYU, it’s in their DNA. BYU is something special. That’s why Brigham Young University has one of the highest yields in the country. It’s because these kids have opportunities to go other places, but they want to be at BYU. 

But the other thing I’d say and I make sure I don’t leave it out, is the history of success at BYU has been combining the members of the Church with complementary student-athletes that come from all over the world and all over the country who are not members of our faith, and they add great diversity, and they add a great spiritual component that’s different from ours, but when you put it together, and it fits, it’s magic.

Sheri Dew: So the minute anybody starts to talk about what’s happening with the football team, or the basketball team or any of the teams, and especially if something isn’t going well, the conversation with lightning speed goes to recruiting, and the problem is the Honor Code. So talk to us about the challenge of the Honor Code, recruiting with the Honor Code and the blessing of recruiting with the Honor Code.

33:41

Tom Holmoe: It sure is a challenge, because the Honor Code is so different. It’s so unique. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, except for perhaps the U.S. military academies at this point, and it’s different. It’s quite different from there. But it is who we are, and I always say to people that I describe what the Honor Code is, when they go, “Man, that must be somewhat difficult to recruit to that.” I always say: “We have 33,000 students at BYU, and a large number of faculty and staff and support groups on this campus. People come here to BYU, those legacy people I talked about earlier, they come here because of the Honor Code. They love the Honor Code. Here at BYU, because of the Honor Code, it’s safe.” And when I say “safe,” I’m not not talking about safety, but it’s safe because people know what the culture is like at this school. It might be very different from the culture they’re used to, but you know what you’re going to get. I think that is interesting when I talk to friends that have kids go into different parts of the country, of our faith and not, and they get to schools and they go, “Wow.” It wasn’t what they thought it was going to be, and then they transfer somewhere. Well, I think at BYU, what you see is what you get. And we have to be very honest when we’re recruiting student-athletes that are not members of our faith, because we have to be able to tell them how it is. We can’t tell them exactly how it’s going to be, but they have to know what the Honor Code is. They have to know that the standard that everybody’s going to be living up to. It’s unifying. And so I’m going to give you a great example. 

Jamaal Williams was an African American athlete from Southern California, had good success in high school, and when we recruited him, we felt that he was a good fit here. His mother came on the visit, and she felt that BYU would be a good experience for her son, she felt that BYU might be something that he might need. Now, I don’t know exactly what that meant to him and to her, but when Jamaal got here, I could see right away: He had this, like, inviting smile, and he had this certain warmth that I hadn’t seen from anybody that came to BYU football in a long time, even though we’ve had remarkable people. And it just grew. He was loving, he cared, he sacrificed, he worked extraordinarily hard. Now, it was difficult at times, and I know some of the difficulties that Jamaal endured, and so do some of our other student-athletes that are not of our faith, but he just kept trying, and trying, and he tried to add, and that’s the beautiful thing, it was additive. And when he left BYU, we gained so much more from having Jamaal be part of our family than he did being part of us. And he was so grateful, and still to this day now playing with the [NFL Detroit] Lions — he’ll come back, and he just wants to be here at BYU and share and hug and feel that love that we have for him and he has for us, but we got so much more out of that deal than he did from us.

Sheri Dew: That’s great. Liz, anything to add on that?

37:18

Liz Darger: With the Honor Code, one of the things that we talked about is that by living the Honor Code, as a student-athlete, it really helps you to limit the distractions in your life. And, frankly, Division I student-athletes don’t have time for distractions. There are so many demands on their time with their studies and with their sports, and then their families and their callings and their social life, but by living those principles of the Honor Code, it helps student-athletes to be able to focus, and focus on getting excellent education, on being the best they can be at their sport, and to focus on building healthy relationships and, hopefully, growing spiritually as well. And so, certainly, there can be challenges with it because it is so unique, but student-athletes that see it as something that will help them in their progression development. We have so many student-athletes that talk about, they’re so grateful for the Honor Code and how it helps them to guide them in their life choices.

Sheri Dew: I’m looking at the clock, and I have three more hours of questions I’d love to ask you, but we’ve just got a few more minutes, so I’m going to try to slip in two final questions. The first is: We have to say something about the Big 12. The invitation to join the Big 12 is just remarkable. Anything you can tell us behind the scenes about things that you needed to do to get ready, so that when the moment struck, and the Big 12 was looking for additions, when Oklahoma and Texas says they’re going and now they’re looking to make some changes — what had you done to prepare so that it looked to be sort of a no-brainer that BYU is included in that complement of four schools that were added to the Big 12, or will be added in the season after next?

BYU associate athletic director Liz Darger poses for a portrait at the Student Athlete Building in Provo on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.
BYU associate athletic director Liz Darger poses for a portrait at the Student Athlete Building in Provo on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

39:00

Tom Holmoe: Yeah, I think it’s a good question, that a lot of people ask or are curious about how quickly it went. I think it goes back to the fact that six years ago, we did a lot of that work. We did a lot of homework. We spoke with a number of people that had gone into what they call Autonomy Five or Power Five conferences to see what it was like and we did a lot of work. We went down to this quote-unquote “audition” in Dallas before the commissioner and legal counsel and some important people in that conference. And, at that time, we presented everything. We had done work about Sunday play, and we helped them to understand that BYU had been in conferences forever. We were in the Skyline Conference, we were in the WAC [Western Athletic Conference], we were in the Mountain West Conference and we’re in the WCC [West Coast Conference] and each one of those conferences was able to make it work with BYU not playing on Sunday. And so, we explained that it’s not — we don’t play Sunday, but other teams in the conference can certainly play on Sunday. And so we went through all of the details, and we showed them how schedules can be worked out. And I’m not going to get into the details, but there was a lot of discussion on that, because they didn’t know, they hadn’t planned it. And so that was something that we went through years ago. 

At that time, there were some questions about social issues regarding Brigham Young University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that people that might not have known the Church very well, they just had to ask those questions. So we answered a lot of questions six years ago. And then I think, a lot of what has happened — and Liz can maybe get into this a little bit, it’s a big subject, but Liz has worked very closely with Common Ground in the NCAA — and we’ve worked very earnestly to address issues in society and questions that people have about the Church. But I think the Church has done a really good job of teaching and proclaiming, and through the public relations, being able to help people learn more about the Church. And so this time around when Texas and Oklahoma left, and there were spots available, and they wanted to fill, they didn’t have to start from scratch, and that’s why I think it went a lot faster than people expected.

41:21

Liz Darger: Tom mentioned NCAA Common Ground, and that’s an initiative that I’ve been able to be a part of for a number of years now, and it brings together athletic administrators from mostly faith-based institutions, but also some public and private secular, and then LGBTQ advocates from around the country, to seek to find common ground on how we can create safer, athletic environments for student-athletes of all sexual orientations, gender identities and religions. And, really, that’s been a remarkable journey, and much of it has been about simply seeking to understand the perspectives of others, and then helping people understand our beliefs and who we are. And as we’ve been able to welcome guests to our campus as a part of that Common Ground initiative as well, and have them get to know, not just me, but our administration, our coaches and our student-athletes, and our school administration and general students — we don’t agree on everything, but there has been an open understanding of wanting to find ways that we can seek that common ground and really create an athletic department where all of our student-athletes feel that they can thrive. And so it’s been neat to be a part of those efforts, and we have learned a lot along the way and are continuing to learn a lot on this journey.

Sheri Dew: Now, to the last question, and I think it really builds on what the two of you just said, and that is: You both have been in your current roles for enough years now to have seen a lot. What do you know today that you didn’t know before you took these current roles that you’re in?

42:50

Tom Holmoe: A lot. Well, I think what I know now is I didn’t know very much before, and I think that’s kind of the secret of anything in life, is that you have to be able to be humble enough to be able to listen, to learn and to grow. And right now, our teams are doing very well, but we can’t rest on the fact that we’ve had success, because right now, we want to continue to thrive. And we have an incredible, difficult journey. We can see this path that’s leading into the Big 12, and it’s going to go down some deep and dark jungles, and there’s going to be a lot of caves and cliffs and a lot of things that we’re going to get into that we do not know about. It’s not just talking about competition. Right now, the NCAA is at a crossroads between NIL, which is name, image and likeness, and the transfer portal and the constitutional convention where right now the NCAA is in disarray, and where’s it going to go? And then you just happen to throw something called COVID into the mix of that — we just have to keep our footing, and we have to keep our scruples, we have to keep our faith. And that’s why it’s so important that the people that we bring on board, whether they’re student-athletes or coaches or administrators, that we have to unify and unite and be able to bring in different kinds of ideas, and be able to learn and do things differently. We do things a lot differently than how we’ve done it at BYU 30 years ago, 20 years ago. It seems like we’re constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing, but we always have our sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to help guide us and to shine a light on where that path goes. So, when we see something dark coming up, we usually talk to the Brethren, or they’ll speak with us and they’re not involved in the day to day, but sometimes it’s just a matter of reviewing general conference talks, or making sure that you’re staying up with your scripture reading, or doing the things that are part of our culture. And if we do those things, we’re going to be successful.

Sheri Dew: Liz, you’ve got the last word.

45:23

Liz Darger: Something that I have learned since taking this role is that I had a very narrow perspective before. I coached college basketball for a number of years, and so coming into this role, I had that perspective of a coach, and I very quickly learned that there are so many important, valuable perspectives when making decisions for an athletic department. And I have loved my experience here, in particular, as the council settings, as we counsel together as administrators, as we counsel with our coaches, as we counsel with student-athletes. And to understand the different perspective, as we seek to make wise decisions for the department, I have loved that. President [Spencer W.] Kimball gave an address in 1975 called “The Second Century of Brigham Young University,” and we’re now about the second half of the second century now. And so we have been reflecting on that as a university and in the athletic department, discussing it quite a bit. And in that address, he talks about that Brigham Young University can become an educational Everest, but he also talks about that as sometimes you don’t see the next peak until you hit one. And we are in this time, as Tom discussed, of this transition with the NCAA and with us moving conferences, to where we’ve hit some high mountains, and then at the top of some high mountains, and when we gotten to the top, we’ve noticed, “Wow, there are even bigger mountains to climb.” And that’s really exciting. It’s exhilarating. 

I think COVID was one of those mountains. Watching Tom, the way he led this department and watching our coaches and student-athletes throughout this COVID, that we’re still experiencing, has just been absolutely inspiring, because there was no playbook for it. There’s a bunch of coaches and athletes and administrators that used to say: “Where’s the playbook? What do we do?” And we had to write a playbook. And to see the success that we’ve been able to have through that; I know so much of that is because of inspired leadership and people coming together to counsel together and being wise and trying to help put our student-athletes in a great position to be successful in their sports and academically and socially and spiritually, in every part of their lives. But being a part of Brigham Young University athletics, again, Tom said earlier, it’s the best job in the world. And I agree with that. It is — I can’t imagine, now, working in an athletic department where I couldn’t share my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It would be very difficult now to work in a place where I couldn’t feel like I could do that. It adds so much richness to every day at work, to be able to discuss the weighty matters and discuss the gospel of Jesus Christ and what we’re doing, hopefully, to help move the work forward in missionary work and other ways to represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a way that would be pleasing to our Savior.

Sheri Dew: Liz and Tom, we are in your debt. We thank you for being so generous with your time, for giving us a peek behind the curtain inside of the BYU athletic department. And, gee, I’ve always wanted to end a podcast this way: Go, Cougars. 

Tom Holmoe: Go, Cougs. 

Liz Darger: Go, Cougs.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.