From a distance, Tom Holmoe watched as Cal's football season imploded in 2013. It brought him no joy.

"Really tough to see," said Holmoe, even if recent developments in Berkeley did take him off the hook for a dubious record.

Until this past season, Holmoe had the distinction of being coach for the worst season in Cal football history. That happened in 2001 when the Bears went 1-10. The worst "honor" now belongs to Sonny Dykes, who coached Cal to a 1-11 record this autumn.

Holmoe submitted his resignation even before coaching his final game of that miserable 2001 season, ending a five-year losing experience at Cal. He then became an administrator at his alma mater, Brigham Young University, where he serves as athletic director. But the Cal portion of his life left a mark.

"I had a great experience there," Holmoe said. "I know some people might think that's strange. But I loved the people there. It's a great, great place. The affinity for the school was so strong. I wanted to have success. But as time passes, I'm way more well-aware of the mistakes and errors I made at Cal. ... Sonny's got a good temperament for that job. I think he can get it done."

Holmoe can have this reasoned perspective because he is now well into the third act of his career -- from Act 1 as a 49ers player and Super Bowl champion, followed by Act 2 as a football coach and on to Act 3 in academia. You would have to call the third act a rousing success. He has been in charge at BYU since 2005, hiring coaches who win championships and bowl games.

That's what brings Holmoe back to the Bay Area. The Cougars play Washington in Friday night's Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park.

This is only BYU's second football trip to the Bay Area since Holmoe became athletic director. And while Holmoe downplays the homecoming aspect -- especially because other BYU teams visit Northern California often -- he conceded in a phone interview that returning for the bowl game is "a big deal" for his family.

"We raised our kids in the Bay Area," Holmoe said. "We have so many good memories there."

Among the best memories, of course, would be the three Super Bowls by the 49ers when Holmoe played safety for the team under Bill Walsh, plus another ring won in 1994 as defensive-backfield coach for George Seifert.

Not among the best memories would be the 43 games he lost as Cal's head coach, against only 12 victories. The Bears community's general verdict about Holmoe was this: great guy, hard worker, sincere as the day is long -- but far better suited to be an administrator than a coach.

"I think that's pretty accurate," Holmoe said with a chuckle . "It's easier for me to say that, more than 10 years after I left . . . I was probably a little over my head. ... In hindsight, I wasn't prepared for the job."

In 1997, that hardly seemed to be the case. Holmoe was 37 with assistant-coaching experience at the NFL and college levels. He was working as Cal's defensive coordinator when coach Steve Mariucci was hired by the 49ers. Holmoe was promoted. But he found himself facing off against Pac-10 coaches with far more experience -- John Robinson at USC, Dick Tomey at Arizona, Bruce Snyder at Arizona State -- and was not entirely ready for the job's extra baggage. Some academic stuff slipped through the cracks, leading to NCAA probation. He also lost five in a row to rival Stanford.

Holmoe was taking careful notes, though.

"The mistakes I made at Cal, they've helped me a lot in my job now," Holmoe said. "When I'm meeting with a BYU coach, in any sport, we might be in a discussion about an issue or a player and I can say: 'I've gone down that road before and we're not going to do it that way.' And the coaches know I'm not saying that because I think I'm more important than them, but because I've been there. It's more like, 'I screwed up on this kind of thing once and I don't want it to happen to you.' "

One of Holmoe's smartest moves right out of the gate in 2005 was to hire coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has reached a bowl game every year and owns a .713 winning percentage. Three years ago, the Cougars left the Mountain West Conference to become a football independent. Other BYU sports compete in the West Coast Conference.

It's tricky stuff to navigate for Holmoe, especially in terms of football scheduling. But as future opponents, he has signed up the likes of Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin and Stanford. Philosophically, Holmoe believes it would be no easier or tougher for BYU to reach a BCS bowl game or the new four-team playoff as a conference member.

And make no bones about it, Holmoe seeks that sort of excellence. His seven seasons as part of the 49ers dynasty in the 1980s rubbed off on him.

"Being on that team with Eddie DeBartolo in charge and Bill coaching and all of those teammates I had, it changed my life," Holmoe said. "Seriously, there's not a day that goes by when I don't think back on something that happened during that period in relation to what I'm doing now. It's part of me."

Holmoe cannot attend Monday night's final 49ers regular-season game at Candlestick because of Fight Hunger Bowl commitments. But he made a private pilgrimage to the stadium last winter when BYU's basketball team played at USF. Holmoe drove his rental car to Candlestick that afternoon and was allowed a solitary visit behind the locked gates. He walked through the locker room, stepped across the field, breathed in the memories.

"The walk from the locker room down that long tunnel to the field ... I made that," Holmoe said. "I liked that."

One day, he hopes to close another Bay Area loop by visiting a stadium in Southern California, when Cal finally ends its ongoing 54-year Rose Bowl game drought. Holmoe was always inspired by former Cal quarterback and coach Joe Kapp's passion for the event.

"When the Bears hit Pasadena ... somehow, some way, I'll be there, along with Joe," Holmoe said. "It will be a great day. I'll be at the parade, for the game, the tailgates, the whole deal. I'll find a way."

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.