Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a profile by John Shuff of LaVell Edwards published in Salt Lake magazine at the peak of the Brigham Young University coach’s reign. Hall of Famer Edwards, who coached the BYU Cougars for 29 seasons, died Dec. 29. He was 86.
The genius of LaVell Edwards vaulted the Blue and White of Brigham Young University to national football prominence.
What do Gary Sheide, Gifford Neilsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer all have in common? If you’re a Brigham Young University football fan the answer is easy. Each was an outstanding quarterback for the Cougars succeeding one another with the constitutional regularity common to those in political office. Few will articulate that behind their success and subsequent rise to national acclaim is one man: LaVell Edwards, the person who designed the innovative pass offense that each ran to perfection.
The unflappable Edwards has methodically built a national football power at BYU without a stockpile of great talent. Much of his success can be attributed to his assistant coaches to whom he delegates a great deal of authority. In fact six of his nine assistants have been at with him at least ten years (Dick Felt and Tom Ramage have been with him since 1972). Edwards, who’s coached at BYU since 1962 was appointed head coach in 1972.
Prior to his reign, the school had a dismal football record, losing more games than it won. But with the promotion of the mild-mannered and resourceful Edwards to head coach, the football fortunes of the floundering BYU football program dramatically changed. Immediately after assuming the head coaching job the visionary Edwards, a man who approaches life with great equanimity, made a bold move. No more three yards and a cloud of dust. Instead he decided to throw the football. He says, “When I was appointed head coach I looked around and realized we were never going to recruit certain kinds of talent to BYU. Therefore, I elected to install a passing game because it’s the one equalizer in football.”
This decision evolved from his recognition that BYU’s success in the 1960s resulted from Virgil Carter’s passing in 1965-66 season. And, he took note of Stanford‘s consecutive Rose Bowl victories with Jim Plunkett and Don Bunce moving the ball via the airways. This strategic decision put BYU football on the national map and elevated the Western Athletic Conference to national recognition.
Over the last 20 years, LaVell Edwards is college football’s third most winning active coach with a 75 percent won/lost percentage. Only Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and Penn State’s Joe Paterno have better percentages. The football team’s performance over this 20- year period has enhanced the financial coffers at BYU (not a dime of LDS Church tithing money is spent on football). Under his leadership Edwards has guided the Cougars to 16 postseason bowl games. And, to confirm the football program’s rise from the ashes under his leadership, the capacity of Cougar Stadium was increased in 1982 from 35,000 to 65,000 amid dire predictions that the team would be lucky to draw 40,000. In fact, attendance has exceeded 63,000 for every home game since expansion.
The 62-year old, cherub faced, Edwards was born and raised in Orem, a stone’s throw from the BYU campus. Contrary to his public image of a man with a chronic wrinkled brow, he has a great sense of humor complimented by a dry, self-effacing wit. He jokingly told me the worst advice he ever received was from his wife Patti who told him, “Stay at Granite High (he had coached football there for eight years) and don’t accept the offer to go to BYU.” He shunned this advice and joined the staff at BYU in 1962. The rest is history.
Edwards attended Lincoln High in Orem and college at Utah State. At Utah State he played center and linebacker. Ironically this offensive genius played single-wing quarterback once in college during his senior year. He called the signals, never touched the ball, just blocked. Go figure. If you visit the physical education building at the Y, there’s a plaque that says the following, “The human body is sacred, the venerable tabernacle of the divine spirit that inhabits it. It is the solemn duty of mankind to develop, protect and preserve it from pollution, unnecessary wastage and weakness.
At this Mormon institution this is a statement of belief in a morality-based approach to physical fitness. Some may deride Mormon values, like they take pot shots at other religions and value-oriented philosophies. But don’t scoff at the school’s honor code that every student must sign and obey. This agreement enjoins sex outside of marriage, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. The standards expressed in it are not window dressing. The school takes them seriously and expects its students to do the same.
In the 1990’s the ethics set forth in The Code of Honor are not the easiest recruiting tool, especially to non-Mormons who comprise about a third of the team. Therefore Edwards, a former Mormon bishop, must merchandise himself and the school to potential recruits. Those who identify with him discover a caring, dedicated and religious person. He isn’t a yeller, or a screamer. Rather he’s a unpretentious individual who leads by example and spends a time communicating with his players. He’s concerned about them, their families and their future. He quietly says, “Most of the time when I talk to a player it’s never about football. It’s about other things. It’s about life and what they’re doing and not doing, what they need to do. I talk to them about their values. I personally feel responsible for each of my players.”
The view of the Wasatch Mountains from Edward’s office in Smith Fieldhouse may be one of the reasons he has made BYU his permanent home. It’s compelling and inspirational. Undeniably it motivates the introspective Edwards to reflect upon himself and question his role in life. However, on football Saturdays, at a school noted for its unremitting social conservatism and penchant for order, exciting things happen. No question Coach Edwards and his team praise the Lord before taking the gridiron. But when the referee’s whistle blows, his Cougars pass the football and their opponents dizzy to the delight of its fans. That’s BYU football, LaVell Edwards style.
The Ten Most Winning Active Coaches by Victories/Percentage.
1. Joe Paterno (PennState) 240/.782
2. Bobby Bowden (Florida State) 216/.737
3. Hayden Fry (Iowa) 189/.572
4. Tom Osborne (Nebraska) 186/.808
5. LAVELL EDWARDS (BYU) 183/.744
6. Lou Holtz (Notre Dame) 172/.674
7. Jim Sweeney (Fresno State) 169/.574
8. Johnny Majors (Tennessee) 168/.618
9. Don James (Washington) 167/.688
10. Grant Teaff (Baylor) 163/.527