Tom McMahon, the popular and amiable co-defensive coordinator at
the University of Colorado for the past three years, lost a 24-month battle
with lung cancer early Sunday morning at his home in Superior. He was 53.
"We have lost a great coach and a great man," CU head coach Gary Barnett
said. "Everybody in the Colorado football family is mourning."
"Our students have lost a mentor and our family has lost a friend," said CU
athletic director Dick Tharp.
McMahon coached the secondary as well as the kickoff coverage unit on
special teams in addition to his duties as co-defensive coordinator, whom he
shared with Vince Okruch.
"I'm heartbroken," said Robbie Robinson, a senior safety on last year's team
who spent three years learning under McMahon. "I don't know what it's like
to lose a parent, because I'm fortunate to have both my mom and dad around,
but I can't imagine it feels much different than this. Coach McMahon was my
father away from home, and I can't begin to describe what he meant to me,
meant to us on the team. I can't remember respecting a man more than Coach
Coaches and staff members made numerous calls to inform those closest to
McMahon of his passing before word became widespread. Robinson was reached
in St. Louis, where he is a mini-camp with the St. Louis Rams. CU's 2001
defensive MVP, strong safety Michael Lewis, was in Philadelphia when he
received word and was devastated by the news.
McMahon was first diagnosed with inoperable cancer in June 2000, and at that
time was given only a 10 percent chance of survival. He courageously fought
the disease, saying later he plotted a strategy to fight it as if it were an
opponent offense. "Once you find out (where you stand), you make a plan and
go forward, just like coaching," he told the Boulder Camera following
spring. In fact, he credited coaching, doing what he loved most, as a way
he combated dealing with the disease.
Treatments worked to the point where he overcame the odds and was able to
undergo surgery in September of 2000, at which time he had the shrunken
growths and his right lung removed. He and his family were proud of the
fact that he missed only two games that season due to the surgery, as he was
back on the field coaching less than a month after the operation. He just
wasn't supposed to push himself too hard or to raise his voice.
"I'm not supposed to yell, and my wife's taken my whistle away from me," he
said after his second practice back. "I talk loud. I don't consider it
yelling, but other people probably do," he laughingly told the Denver Post.
He received a clean bill of health later that fall.
He joked at the time that beating cancer reminded him to stop and smell the
flowers on his way to work, but just not after losses. "I enjoy every day.
I enjoy every second. I enjoy every person. You just hope there are more
wins and less losses ahead. I'm never going to skip through the tulips when
we don't win."
But as is often the case with cancer, it left him weakened and other
ailments occasionally surfaced. He battled through a scare last November,
in which he was hospitalized for breathing problems and fluid in his
remaining lung. He rebounded quickly, again missing just two games and
returning in time to coach in CU's Big 12 Championship win over Texas, one
of his admitted top thrills in coaching. The cancer reappeared earlier this
spring, but this time the chemotherapy wasn't successful.
This is the second time in five years that tragedy has hit the CU football
staff. In April 1997, running backs coach Ben Gregory passed away after
suffering a heart attack, also at his home in Superior. He, too, was taken
young, dying at the age of 50.
McMahon joined the CU staff on Feb. 8, 1999 from the University of Notre
Dame, where he spent the previous four seasons as secondary coach. He was
the final hire to complete Barnett's first Buffalo coaching staff.
McMahon had firm roots established in Colorado as well as the Rocky Mountain
region. A native of Chicago, he lettered twice as a receiver at Montana,
where he graduated with his bachelor's degree in health and physical
education in 1971. Montana won 20 straight games during his tenure as a
player. He began his coaching career on defense at Colorado State in 1973,
where he spent six seasons under Sark Arslanian. While at CSU, he earned
his master's in administrative education in 1975.
He went on to coach at Wyoming (1979), New Mexico (1980-82), South Carolina
(1983-88), East Carolina (1989), Arizona State (1990-91), Wisconsin
(1992-94) and Notre Dame (1995-98). He was defensive coordinator for East
Carolina in '88, when the Pirates posted their best record in 10 years, and
was the secondary coach for Wisconsin's '93 Big Ten co-champion team that
defeated UCLA in the Rose Bowl. He always coached the secondary throughout
his entire career, and also coached defensive ends at New Mexico and East
McMahon coached several All-Americans and players who went on to play in
the National Football League, including Nathan LaDuke, and Phillippi Sparks
(Arizona State), Jeff Messenger (Wisconsin) and Allen Rossum and Shawn
Wooden (Notre Dame). Among others at CU, he tutored Lewis, a second round
draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in this past April's NFL draft, and
Robinson, a free agent signee with the Rams.
He was born Nov. 13, 1948 in Chicago, and graduated from Tustin (Calif.)
High School, where he lettered in football, basketball and track. He
lettered twice in football at Golden West Junior College (Huntington Beach,
Calif.), winning the Rustler-of-the-Year Award.
He is survived by his wife, Marilyn, and two teenage sons, Kyle and Kevin.
Funeral and memorial service arrangements are expected to be finalized