College football lost a true legend on Thursday, as former BYU head coach LaVell Edwards passed away at 86.
Even casual football fans who live far away from Utah are probably aware of the highlights of Edwards’ career. He was the coach of the last non-power-conference team to win a national title, BYU’s 1984 squad. He coached Ty Detmer to the 1990 Heisman Trophy. He won so many games (254, seventh in college football history) they named the stadium after him. His high-flying passing attack permeated football on multiple levels, influencing Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, and more.
Just looking at the top line of Edwards’ resume ignores the context of what made his accomplishments truly great.
Edwards didn’t just build a dynamite program and lead it to title contention. He might have produced the most surprising contender of all time.
There was nothing on paper to suggest Edwards would become a legendary coach. Before joining the Cougar coaching staff in 1962, he had an undistinguished high school coaching career, never amassing a winning record in seven seasons. He would later credit his assistant gig at BYU to the fact that he was the “only Mormon in the country” that was running the single wing, a run-first scheme that was mostly obsolete by the early-’60s, and ironic, given his later passing offenses.
Most fans acknowledge BYU is a hard job, given the school’s location, roster attrition due to LDS missionary service, academic selectivity, and more.
But before Edwards, the job might have been impossible.
In 1970, the state of Utah barely had more than a million residents, and BYU had to share that limited recruiting base with Utah State and Utah, a rival that completely dominated the Cougars (before 1965, BYU had beaten the Utes exactly twice, despite playing nearly every season).
BYU’s administration hadn’t made the institutional commitments needed to compete in the Skyline and WAC conferences (in a biography, Edwards would complain about having to recruit against rumors the school would drop the football team), and the religious affiliation of the university made recruiting non-LDS athletes harder. Plus, prior to Edwards, many players who left to serve missions were not encouraged to return to the program, making recruiting even more difficult.
The Cougars had never been invited to a bowl game, let alone won one, before their trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 1974, Edwards’ third season. They had just 16 winning seasons from 1922-1971. Edwards himself expected to be eventually fired. Heck, everybody else was.
And all he did was build a champion.
After discovering that BYU found success while constantly throwing the ball with future NFL QB Virgil Carter in the mid-’60s, he centered BYU’s offense around a dynamic, passing-first attack, starkly apart from what the rest of the country was doing. He hired quality assistant coaches and delegated, building a tree that included future NFL coaches Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, and Andy Reid. He recruited players who would go on to become college head coaches, like Steve Sarkisian, Kyle Whittingham, and Kalani Sitake.
And boy howdy, could they throw the dang ball. BYU’s QB run from the ’70s and ’80s rivals some of the best in the history of the sport, including Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Robbie Bosco. They were mainstays on the Heisman Trophy voting lists, until Detmer finally won the award. And these weren’t just two-star QBs hit with a pejorative “system QB” label. Several were NFL QBs.
What’s perhaps even more unlikely is that he stayed at BYU.
He turned down a chance to coach the Detroit Lions. He turned down multiple other more lucrative offers. He stayed with the Cougars until 2000, still producing elite teams as late as 1996.
Those are impressive accomplishments anywhere, even at resource-heavy, elite recruiting schools like Ohio State or USC. That he was able to do so at a place isolated from major media markets, with athletes leaving to pursue church service, without running afoul of the NCAA, and over multiple decades, is astonishing.
Edwards didn’t just produce winning football. He produced exciting football.
It didn’t deviate, even as it recruited better talent that wouldn’t necessarily require resorting to underdog tactics. Mumme, in an interview with SB Nation, said:
I had a guy tell me one time when we first started that he never turned off a BYU game. He had no connection to BYU or even the state of Utah, but if BYU was playing on TV he was going to watch the game. That always kind of struck a chord with me, because that's a way to get everyone excited about your football program: the fans, the players, the people who needed to get excited about your program.
You didn’t need to be a Mormon or a Utah resident to appreciate a relentless devotion to throwing the ball all over the field. Sure, it worked, but it was also fun! And to build a strong program out of nothing, sometimes you need to be fun.
There have been a few other dramatic rebuilding jobs in recent history, like Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, or Bob Devaney at Nebraska. But perhaps nobody was able to accomplish as much, with less, and with more flair, than Edwards.
His legacy — as an evaluator of coaching talent, developer of overlooked players, servant of his church and community, and tireless innovator in the sport — is probably still undervalued.
RIP to a legend.