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How Herm Edwards and Arizona State are disrupting college football without changing it

The new leadership model created by Herm Edwards and Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson isn’t so new, but it could be a success story for an old partnership.

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TEMPE, Arizona — Herman Edwards rolled up to his fourth practice as head football coach at Arizona State just like you think he would, shaking hands and greeting people before hitting the field, introducing himself by name as if the onlookers didn’t know exactly who he was. The day is bright, and defensive lineman Jalen Bates trots on to the field, saying out loud that “this is football weather.”

The practice gets going and Edwards pulls two cornerbacks, Langston Frederick and freshman All-American Chase Lucas, off to the side for a lesson about footwork. He tucks his whistle in his sweatshirt and has Lucas line up facing him. He sinks his 63-year-old hips to show Lucas exactly the stance he wants — but not too deep, his knees aren’t great these days. Now Lucas tries, and Edwards observes. “Yes, yes, yes,” Edwards says. This is the position Edwards played in the NFL for 10 years. This is the position group he exclusively coached in the league for eight more. This is what he knows.

You forget how odd this is supposed to be, because between the white lines of the field it’s not. It’s just a football coach coaching football.

That may sound strange to anyone who saw Arizona State’s press conference announcing Edwards’ hire in December. That’s when fourth-year athletic director, Ray Anderson, announced he would not only be replacing Todd Graham with a man 10 years out of coaching, but also putting into place a “New Leadership Model” to reach “unprecedented heights.” The announcement suggested it would be creating a new paradigm in college football. But as with many disruptors, what was promised wasn’t nearly as revolutionary as it seemed.

The model is more a hybrid of principals than an innovation — a system of running a football team that combines NFL administrative structure with traditional football coaching. In it, the football program and the administration will work jointly, instead of in separate silos like they did under Graham. Though this system may be uncommon in college football, it certainly isn’t unprecedented. Anderson points at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Washington as schools doing various versions of the model that ASU announced. The decision to market it as something new and innovative — and the subsequent criticism — muddied what Anderson and Edwards are actually doing.

It isn’t so much a radical plan as it is a radical bet on the shared vision of two men with a long history together. It’s a bet that says they can make this work in a sport that does not lend itself to programs that try to upset the established order at the championship level.

They’ve known each other for a long time. As Anderson sits in his office, he has to file through his memory bank for the first time he and Edwards met — sometime in the early 1990s, he suspects. Anderson’s tone is measured and he comes across as more business-like and calculated in contrast to Edwards’ vivacious personality.

Anderson is a former sports agent who represented Edwards along with many other NFL head coaches like Brian Billick, Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, and Dennis Green in the ‘90s. They are working together now just as they were as client and agent, once again leaning on one another for mutual success.

But heavy rhetoric and attention invite one thing: pressure. Both Edwards and Anderson acknowledge this is likely their last act as professionals in football. They’re both in their 60s and are taking one last run at it.

“If we get to that point and we’ve tried and not gotten to where we thought we would go, then very frankly I will be in a position where I will hand the keys back to the president and tell him, ‘If you want to go back to doing it a different way, I have no objections to that,’” Anderson says.

If it doesn’t work, then you’ll know who to blame. And that’s exactly what the men in charge want, no matter what the model looks like.

Herm Edwards speaking to ASU linebacker Jay Jay Wilson at practice.
Arizona State

Arizona State shocked college football when it announced Edwards was returning to college to coach the Sun Devils. Shock then ceded to utter confusion at the announcement’s accompanying 2,600-word press release filled with corporate-speak. It appeared the Sun Devils were announcing the new head of a pyramid scheme instead of a football coach.

The lorem ipsum release obfuscated how normal this would all actually be. This is just a sample:

Sun Devil Football’s existing recruiting infrastructure will be upgraded through additional staff support and evaluation resources, by instilling a culture of accountability at all levels, and building long-term relationships in communities across the country to help ensure recruiting quality and consistency. Both the sport and administrative divisions will play key roles in student-athlete development.

The New Leadership Model affords coordinators and assistant coaches more flexibility in how they develop student-athletes on the field, and enables Sun Devil Football to build on the ‘Championship Life’ program already in place through the Office of Student-Athlete Development to better equip student-athletes with the tools and skills necessary to succeed in their respective future endeavors.

The first press conference made things even stranger, from Anderson turning proceedings over to Edwards’ current agent in order to introduce the coach, to the school’s president Dr. Michael Crow teleconferencing in. The issue wasn’t so much what Arizona State’s decision makers said as it was how they said it and the mere fact they said it at all.

In the model, Edwards handles football and recruiting, and is surrounded with people to handle everything else, like Jean Boyd. Boyd’s working title is general manager in charge of the business decisions. He makes sure all the people who are supposed to be working together are, in fact, working well together. He reports directly to Anderson instead of to Edwards, who is the CEO of football.

Nothing will happen without Edwards being in the loop, but ASU doesn’t want Edwards concerned with things like his assistant coach salary pool. It’s up to Boyd and other financial decision makers to observe the market and figure out, for instance, what money a potential new assistant should be offered.

Boyd is an ASU lifer — he played for the Sun Devils before rising up the administrative ranks. When he came over to football administration, two and a half years ago, he found ineffective communication was causing budget decisions made by football to disproportionately affect the entire athletic program’s bottom line. The New Leadership Model, he says, should be able to fix something like that.

Yet Boyd was bothered by the response to the December press conference.

“Number one, some of the shots that were taken at my boss, at Ray, and then number two, some of the things in terms of people’s limited analysis of Herman,” Boyd says. “What people don’t understand is the way that our guys respond to him from a leadership and motivation standpoint, which is really what the head coach role is mostly about.”

When asked if ASU erred in the rollout of the leadership model, Anderson did say there were things he wished he would have been done better and simpler.

“I didn’t anticipate how negative the reaction would be and in some cases how ignorant the reaction would be,” Anderson says. “So I wish I would have done a little more articulating of the model and why sooner. A lot of that was because, very frankly, I also didn’t want to be perceived as trashing Todd.”

According to Boyd, Graham ran things in a way that kept football separate from the administration. What Anderson and ASU announced was something that had been brewing in Anderson’s mind for a long time. Anderson and Boyd both said it was an evolving process that began when Anderson came to ASU in 2014 and evaluated the way the program operated.

It’s also closer to the way Anderson and Edwards are accustomed to football infrastructure operating. They’re both NFL men. Edwards worked as a Kansas City Chiefs scout, then as an assistant before two stints in the league as a head coach. Edwards has said that during his playing career, his old coach Dick Vermeil brought the college model to the pros. Now Edwards says he’s doing the opposite with “a pro-run system.” Anderson’s work as an agent, meanwhile, led him to working for the Falcons’ front office and then for the NFL directly in football operations.

“I don’t feel like an AD most of the time,” Anderson says. “I feel like an educator — like a mentor, like a counselor. It’s not just for the student athletes. You get a chance to do that with all these young coaches and all these personnel folks and the SIDs and the maintenance folks and the facilities and operations folks who are looking at me as ‘here’s a leader who’s been out there and has had these great experiences and he’s bringing all that.’”

They are also both former athletes. Anderson played college football and baseball at Stanford. During Edwards’ playing career, he says he never missed a practice or a game. He wasn’t the fastest or the biggest athlete, but he was oftentimes the most competitive.

Together, Edwards’ and Anderson’s collective competitiveness fuels their confidence that they can pull this off despite any criticism. Edwards believes he found his home to do the thing that feels most natural to him.

“I took this job knowing this: that there’d be questions like why is he coming back?” Edwards said. “And the answer is why not? This is what I do. You don’t ever stop coaching. ... This is about football. This is about your vision is kinda in line with my vision. I missed it. I missed the players. I missed the ball.”

Arizona State is all in on this model, and they’re all in on telling you they’re all in, too, provided you have a microphone or tape recorder. ASU has been inundated with media requests since hiring Edwards, and they’ve been welcoming just about all comers. SB Nation was on campus at the same time as another national media outlet, with yet another scheduled to come the week after. The full slate doesn’t include two other national outlets that had to cancel. Everyone is here for one man.

Edwards is seemingly always “on.” Some personalities are different off-camera, but Edwards has the same persona on the practice field as he does in his office or on a SportsCenter set. He transfers his energy onto whatever audience he has naturally. You hang on his every word because of how he delivers them — with a cadence that fluctuates in pitch from a bombastic yell to an engaging whisper.

Listening to Edwards, it’s easy to forget the transition hasn’t been nearly as polished as he is.

Initially, ASU planned to bring in Edwards and have both coordinators from Graham’s staff stay on. That plan fell apart within a week of Edwards taking over.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett decided to step away for personal reasons, including health, after meeting with the new head coach twice and being offered a job. Bennett’s son is still with the program as an analyst. Offensive coordinator Billy Napier left to become head coach at Louisiana Lafayette with Anderson’s encouragement.

The departures forced Boyd to be involved in coaching personnel decisions earlier than anyone expected. Edwards promoted wide receivers coach Rob Likens to replace Napier, and at Boyd’s initial suggestion, San Diego State’s Danny Gonzales was tapped to replace Bennett.

Boyd noted the latter hire as an example of how the model could work. The crash hiring process went about as well as can be expected. Edwards was reluctant at first to hire Gonzales, who had only served one year as a coordinator. But Gonzales “wowed,” per Boyd, during the interview process with his knowledge of defense and the influence he had on his SDSU unit. The Aztecs held the Sun Devils to 44 yards rushing when they met in 2017, and won 30-20.

Of course, success of the New Leadership Model will be measured in its longevity and how it compares to Graham’s tenure. Arizona State was two games under .500 across Graham’s final three seasons as head coach, with two bowl losses. Those middling results were too much for Anderson to abide.

“Should it not work, we will have no regrets because we would have had tried it because we needed to try it,” Anderson says. “Because what was working before wasn’t getting us anywhere but middle of the ground status quo, boring, unacceptable results.”

NCAA Football: Arizona at Arizona State
Former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham coaching against rival Arizona in 2017. He would be fired the next day.

The beginning of the end for Graham was Nov. 16, 2016, when Anderson announced after a fourth-straight Sun Devils loss that Graham would return for the 2017 season, saying at the time it was Graham’s responsibility to make the changes necessary for the program. Nine days later, rival Arizona beat Arizona State by three touchdowns, setting up a go-for-broke 2017 in Anderson’s mind.

“His chance was essentially last year,” Anderson says. “Because, OK, you’re gonna have to make the appropriate changes. You have to understand what you need to do. There are expectations. Make the changes, man. Because I can’t dictate ‘em after a situation like that this new model I’m gonna impose on him.

“So, did I try [to give Graham a fair chance]? Yeah, I tried by giving him an absolute full year to make the appropriate changes and make enough significant changes whereby we could see that the program was going to advance.”

Graham calls from his truck en route to the home of one of his old ASU donors. The white F-150 still has a Sun Devils logo above the front right wheel. He is not a pariah in the ASU community. In fact, quite the opposite. One Uber ride to Sun Devil Stadium couldn’t begin until the driver confirmed that the destination was the new facility “Todd Graham raised the money for, and then they fired him.”

“That’s one of the things that’s been therapy for my family: The fan base and how appreciative they were,” Graham says.

Anderson didn’t fire a coach who was being pitchforked out of town. He fired someone who had the fanbase’s general approval to get his guy, a decision Graham acknowledges and respects. He calls it “customary” for an athletic director to bring his own guy in.

Graham says he didn’t coach the 2017 season believing his job was on the line, and he was surprised to get fired. In his meetings with the school president, he says it was clear that not making the postseason was unacceptable, and that the team needed to compete for the conference title. He sees 2017 as a rebound season in which the team went back to a bowl game, finished second in the South, and fulfilled the improvements he needed to make. Graham was fired after a 7-5 regular season at the cost of $12 million — the remainder of his salary at the time — and he’ll be on the books through 2021.

It’s clear there was a difference of opinion inside the athletic department. Graham and Anderson were never particularly close, according to Graham.

“I had very little dealings with him,” Graham says. “He would come to practice, you know, and watch a little bit of practice on a Thursday. And then he would come in and I’d see him on game day after the game, and that was about it.”

Now that it’s four months in the past, Graham’s ousting seems more a matter of creative difference about the leadership strategy of the football program than personal feelings. Graham even coached the bowl game, a decision Anderson made so that Graham and his staff could have the chance to earn contractual bonuses. He called it inappropriate to deny Graham the opportunity. And Graham points to Anderson’s original plan to keep his coordinators as evidence that his staff was at least doing something right.

Graham says he’ll cheer for the Sun Devils in the future and “doesn’t have a bitter bone in my body.” He admits that the most difficult part of his job was the external responsibilities — among others, essentially being ASU’s chief fundraiser. He doesn’t really understand the New Leadership Model as it was presented, but says he would have been willing to work together with anyone in the program, and pushes back at the notion that his ways were old school.

Anderson disagrees.

“I didn’t see [Graham] as the personality type who was gonna be genuinely receptive to changing what he knew,” Anderson says. “I didn’t think he had the adaptability or the willingness to be flexible enough. … We needed new leadership, very frankly. New energy, new buzz, new blood.”

To Anderson, that describes Edwards, a man who hasn’t coached college football since 1989, and hasn’t toed a sideline full-time since his three-year stint with the Chiefs ended in 2008. New blood sounds nice, but Anderson wants to compete with USC and Stanford. To do that, he’s relying on Edwards, who is is a high-profile, yet virtually unknown entity at the college level.

In the rush to show how odd the Arizona State situation is and how out of touch Edwards may be, the internet overreacted to some of his statements.

Around National Signing Day, Edwards made a fairly normal observation about the speed of the recruiting process, and the internet bent over backwards to point and laugh. In early April, Edwards said he’d cut players who aren’t good enough and was excoriated by social media, when he was only saying out loud what nearly every program does quietly behind closed doors. Again: It shouldn’t surprise you that the coach that calls his program a “pro-run system” would operate his program, well, like a pro-run system.

Edwards also says he “never will” block a player from transferring (he transferred three times himself during his playing career).

“[A hypothetical player] can go wherever he wants,” Edwards says. “I’ll block no kid. Let ‘em go. I left knowing I had to sit out a year. ... I said ‘I’m good, I’ll bet on me.’”

Critics of the hire point out that Edwards’ time as an NFL head coach produced as many losing seasons as playoff runs. But Edwards says he never lost touch, even when he wasn’t coaching a team day-in, day-out.

Ronde Barber, a former cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says the Edwards who the country saw on ESPN was the same man he saw on the sideline when Edwards was his defensive backs coach.

“Herm is coaching the populace from that seat on ESPN, because that’s exactly how he coached us with those sayings and the mannerisms and that little bit of levity along with the seriousness,” Barber says. “That’s who Herm Edwards is or was as a coach, and that’s who he is and was as an analyst as well.”

But can Edwards really relate to today’s college athlete? Despite what you might think about his upbringing in a military home, Edwards is not a drill sergeant with his team. His father was measured and principled, but let Edwards make his own mistakes and be his own man.

“Ever since I’ve become a coach I’ve said, ‘Never lose sight that you were a player first,’” Edwards says. “Whatever you’re asking these guys to do, does it make sense to you as a player? Don’t just do it because you’ve got the whistle. Do it because it makes sense. Because you can’t trick the players.”

It’s an ethos he developed as a player in the 1960s that will serve him well with a generation of young men who no longer reflexively ask how high when authority figures say jump.

“They told you what to do and when to do it, the why came last,” Edwards says. “In the world I live in, why’s first. That’s knowledge. So when you ask a person why — when I was growing up, a black player with a big afro [to] a white coach? You questioning authority?

“Coach, I’m really not, I just want to know why.”

Edwards grew up during the civil rights movement. He went to Cal against the urging of his father. While there, he was taught by Dr. Harry Edwards and saw Angela Davis speak.

Anderson and Edwards are the third AD-head coach combo in FBS that are both black, and he’s the first black head coach in the history of ASU football. They are making history and inviting scrutiny whether or not it’s their intention.

“You want the best person,” Anderson says. “And I knew the best person here was Herman. Fortunately and by happenstance, he happened to be African-American. But we’d never had an African-American head coach here in football. So I’m proud of the fact that the first one here, we helped make it happen.”

The pressure as “the first black head coach” is not new to Edwards. He was the first black head coach in New York and Kansas City, and was the fifth black head coach in NFL history when the Jets hired him in 2001. Edwards and Anderson may not have actively sought it, but the burden on people of color who break a barrier to be successful is there under the surface.

Between the two, it’s an unspoken thing. So much so that Edwards answers the question before it’s even finished.

“There’s no doubt,” Edwards says. “You don’t even have to say anything. You know.”

Ray Anderson and Herm Edwards.
Arizona State

Anderson has lofty goals for where he wants this team to go, but Edwards is realistic about the timeline and his team in Year 1. ASU ranks 30th in FBS in returning offensive production, but 115th in returning defensive production. Despite Anderson’s dissatisfaction with recruiting under Graham — the team signed zero California high school players in 2017 — Arizona State raised its blue chip ratio from 12 percent in 2014 to 28 percent by the time Graham was fired.

Recruiting will not get any easier because just two hours away in Tucson, ASU’s chief rival, Arizona, fired Rich Rodriguez and hired Kevin Sumlin this offseason. Sumlin won at Houston and Texas A&M running a wide-open spread offense that fits his new personnel. He didn’t have to leave the state often for elite players, but when he did, he picked off some of the best from the Phoenix area.

In many ways, UA’s Sumlin hire was the diametric opposite of the Edwards hire. Sumlin was a good, safe hire that was especially impressive considering the circumstances surrounding Rodriguez’s firing — a reported lawsuit regarding workplace misconduct — that came long after the coaching carousel had died down.

The Wildcats are better suited to win now, with perhaps the nation’s most electric player in quarterback Khalil Tate and a 2018 schedule that bypasses Stanford and Washington in the regular season. If Sumlin wins early and often and Edwards doesn’t, the New Leadership Model won’t look good in comparison.

Edwards is not entering the same Pac-12 South that Todd Graham did, something that’s made clear from the black sign on the wall in Edwards’ office. Edwards points to it and says there are a couple teams up there that the Sun Devils can run the ball on 35 times — not simply because he wants to exert his will in three yards and a cloud of dust, but also to play keep away with offenses that want to go fast and run as many plays as possible.

The Pac-12 South is on an upswing. USC is no longer down, and that changes the equation when recruiting California. And in November, UCLA hired Chip Kelly, a proven college winner with a roster built for a quick turnaround as well.

This is the Pac-12, where nine teams averaged more than 29.5 points per game last season, and Arizona led the league in scoring 41.3. While in Kansas City, Edwards said an offense that scored 30 points was arena football.

Edwards says now he’s “not naive,” and he knows that today’s college football is a much different game than the one he coached. That doesn’t mean his hard-nosed ethos has changed, however.

“You hold them to three field goals, four field goals, you’re gonna win. Those are touchdowns and they only kick two field goals? You ain’t gonna win,” Edwards says. “Because they’re gonna move the ball. People move the ball sometimes.”

On the right side of that same entryway are two more signs. One depicts the Pac-12 championship trophy, the other the national championship trophy. ASU’s goals are as lofty as ever, and they hinge on whether everything an old ball coach believes he knows about football still works.

Despite their bravado, Edwards and Anderson seem to understand all of this — that the road ahead will be hard, and outside observers are skeptical of them. But they got what they wanted: the chance to do this together.

It wasn’t easy for Anderson to get Edwards on board. As Edwards tells it, he was in town for a speaking engagement and Anderson floated the prospect of returning to coaching over dinner.

”We had some dinner and kinda talked, and he says, ‘Would you ever think about coaching again?’” Edwards says. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, it’s gotta be right.’”

Then, last fall, Edwards was back, this time with his wife and kids. Anderson prodded Edwards again, asking him if he remembered that dinner. A month later, after parting ways with Todd Graham, Anderson called once more, this time with a job.

“I said, ‘Herm, you see what we’re doing out here man,’” Anderson says, “‘this is no ordinary situation. It’s special, man. It is a one of a kind. You need to listen to this. You need to understand that there’s a whiteboard opportunity to change the model. To make a difference.’”

No, these men are not reinventing college football, but they are certainly a unique pairing in the game. And there is no walking back their words now: They are betting on themselves and their model. The wager is the legacy of the coach who thinks he’s still got it and the AD who thinks of himself as something much more than an administrator.

“I’ve had opportunities to go back prior to taking this job,” Edwards says. “You know it’s gotta be the right fit for me. Everything’s gotta just be there where I can just look at it and say, ‘Yes.’ This opportunity came up and I looked at my wife and I said, ‘Guess what?’ And she said, ‘You’re gonna do this, aren’t you?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going back.’”

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