From the Archives: Coach LaVell Edwards

(Photo by Artwork by Stephanie Zobell Bodine)

Here are two articles (1979 and 1994) printed before the Internet began and a PDF representing the legendary career of Coach LaVell Edwards.

Cougar Illustrated, September 15, 1979

This was the scene when LaVell Edwards assumed the head-coaching job for BYU in 1972:

It was the year that Mark Spitz was winning his seven gold medals at the 20th Olympiad in Munich, Germany, in record time. College freshmen were now eligible to play with the varsity football squad for the first time.

BYU had graduated Joe “The Toe” Liljenquist, and wide receiver Golden Richards wasn’t coming back. Linebacker Orrin Olsen had been moved to defensive end. The Beehive Boot was in its second year and was in possession of Utah State. The Western Athletic Conference Skywriters had tabbed BYU to finish seventh in a preseason poll, and the Cougars were picked as the underdog going into the season opener against Kansas State in Provo.

By the end of the first half, BYU was leading Kansas State, 17-3, and running back Pete VanValkenburg had 139 yards rushing. The Cougars went on to win the game, 23-9, and LaVell had chalked up his first victory as head coach.

Edwards succeeded Tommy Hudspeth, who had a 39-42-1 record in eight seasons. At the beginning of the 1979 season, Edwards’ seven-season mark is 52-28-1, and he is ranked 21st among the nation’s winningest coaches.

At the end of LaVell’s first season as head coach, BYU finished with a 7-4 record and tied for second in the WAC. LaVell was named WAC Coach-of-the-Year. VanValkenburg led the nation with a 138.6 rushing average.

The 1972 finish was a far cry from the projections of the Skywriters or the four-place prediction of the Dunkel ratings or Kickoff Magazine’s sixth place prognosis.

Now LaVell is the dean of WAC coaches and serves on the Board of Trustees for the American College Football Coaches Association. The 48-year-old Edwards has been a defensive coach for BYU 10 years prior to his selection as head coach.

Edwards is always reserved at the beginning of a season, but has a quick wit to go along with his prowess of the game. For instance, in 1976 BYU had 20 returned Mormon missionaries on the squad and LaVell was quoted as saying, “If we don’t win our first few games, we might start looking for some hell raisers.”

Arizona Republic Sports Editor Verne Boatner wrote: “Edwards was one of the most unlikely coaching candidates the state of Utah ever produced.” Boatner was referring to LaVell being one of a family of 14 kids growing up on a farm in Orem.

But LaVell says, “I used to follow BYU football regularly, often while perched on a fence next to the practice field. My ambition was to be a coach and that dream is now a reality.”

Edwards’ ambition started by way of Utah State, where LaVell was an All-Skyline center.

“If I’d gone to the Y., I would have had to live at home, and my job would have been milking the cows. I was sick of milking those two darned cows. I’d have gone to Utah to get away from ‘em. Well maybe not Utah, but I wanted to get away,” says LaVell.

“LaVell was a great leader,” says John Roning, Utah State’s mentor during Edwards’ senior year with the Aggies. “He led the squad by actually doing things well as a captain of the team. He was a fine snapper and was a good blocker. Probably the only thing he lacked was speed, but he made up for it in other ways.

“I had a hunch he would become head coach some day, and he has proved himself and has done a wonderful job at BYU.”

LaVell entered the military service following his football days at Utah State, but he kept in touch with Roning and was released two months early from the service to accept a graduate assistantship with the Aggies. Following a tip from Cec Baker, then basketball coach at Utah State, LaVell left USU to accept the position as head football coach at Granit High School in Salt Lake City in 1954.

“In those days, football practice began around September 1. I was in a new location, my wife was at her home in Big Piney, Wyoming. Patti had lined up an apartment for us in Logan, and you might say I was spread between three towns at one time,” says LaVell.

During LaVell’s first two years, he was head football coach at Granite in addition to jayvee basketball coach, wrestling coach, and head golf coach.

LaVell came to BYU in 1962 at the recommendation of former Aggie teammate, Earl Lindley, who was serving on Hal Mitchell’s staff (offensive backfield, 1961-67).

LaVell’s first year in Provo was not an easy one. He was made a Bishop in the LDS church within weeks of his arrival to BYU and served in that capacity for six years. Patti gave birth to Jimmy (their third child); and two weeks later, LaVell’s daughter Ann fell off her bicycle and developed nephritis and was unable to walk for the entire school year. Patti had to carry Ann nearly everywhere that first year.

 LaVell put in his apprenticeship as an assistant coach on the Cougar staff; and prior to his selection as head coach in 1972, he was the top assistant and defensive coordinator. But since 1971, the offensive passing game has blossomed.

“The whole idea was to find a way to beat Arizona State and Arizona,” says LaVell of his offensive flair. “About the only way we thought we could compete was to play sound defense and try to pass `em dizzy when we got the ball.”

Gil Brandt, the vice president of the Dallas Cowboys, was quoted as saying, “BYU has as good an offensive concept as anyone—college or pro—in football.” Edwards and the Cougars are known for a wide-open passing offense.

The lowest any of LaVell’s teams has finished is fourth in the WAC.

LaVell considers the most significant thing he has done since becoming head coach is to put together one of the strongest coaching staffs in the country.

Some assistant coaches who have served under LaVell are now doing well with other universities in coaching positions. For instance, Dwain Painter (quarterback coach, 1974-75) is a head coach at Northern Arizona University; Jim Criner (defensive line, linebackers, 1972) is head coach at Boise State; Wally English (1978 offensive coordinator) is the offensive coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh; J.D. Helm (running backs, receivers, 1969-73) is now scouting for the Kansas City Chiefs; and Dewey Warren (quarterbacks, receivers, 1972-73) is coaching in the high school ranks in Tennessee.

Edwards’ staff has helped coach BYU teams to a few national rankings in recent years. The highest UPI ranking football coaches bestowed on LaVell’s teams was 12th in November 1977 when BYU had a 7-1 record.

How long will LaVell stay with BYU, since he was considered for head jobs at the University of Miami and Missouri in 1976 and 1977, respectively?

“As long as we continue to have a good program and as long as I feel good about what I am doing, I will stay,” replies LaVell.

There have only been two other coaches besides LaVell in the history of BYU football who have won eight games or more in a season—Tommy Hudspeth’s 1966 squad was 8-2 and Ott Romney’s 1932 squad was 8-1. LaVell’s past three seasons have been 9-3, 9-2 and 9-4.

Since completing his doctorate last year, LaVell’s spare time is occupied by interests like golf and reading. His golf handicap hovers around 10, and he got excited about reading during one of BYU’s football trips to Japan when he read James Clavell’s Shōgun. He is currently reading James Michener’s Chesapeake.

Cougar Illustrated, September 17, 1994

If football passes left vapor contrails like airborne jets, the a spider web would dome Cougar Stadium in the time LaVell Edwards has been BYU’s head coach.

Follow these contrails like beads of water running down those spider web stands and each tells the story of the 22-plus years for Edwards. Quarterbacks have thrown more than 7,000 passes for Edwards since 1972.

In the coming weeks and months, others will begin documenting the quest for 200 wins in Edwards’ career. Let it not be said that Edwards was not without honor in how own country.

The soon-to-be-bicentennial man is responsible for the expansion of Cougar Stadium, a 65,000-seat monument to his accomplishments. Because of this stadium and BYU’s phenomenal success under Edwards, much has been accomplished.

When Edwards took over the reigns in 1972, you would have thought he was a starry-eyed job applicant if he had promised to lead BYU sky-high to a bowl game (he’s done this umpteen times), would play and beat Penn State before they become a member of the Big Ten, in their first meeting he would sweep the Texas triumvirate of Texas, Texas A & M and SMU, would bring Notre Dame to Provo, would win Outland and Heisman trophies, and a national championship.

LaVell took over a program which registered a 170-231-22 record, including a 38-5-4 series favoring Utah. He has transformed that overall record into a winning mark and closed the gap on Utah to 41-24-4. The Utah State series was 27-17-3 for the Aggies, but is now 33-33-3.

The Edwards-Glen Tuckett (former BYU athletic director) combination made the conversion from five home games a year to a more profitable six with the success each brought to the table. Edwards has a 95-22 record in Cougar Stadium going into today’s game.

Prior to 1972 and LaVell’s tenure, if players left on missions, they rarely returned to the program. He forged that weakness into a useable tool. He drives three to five times a week to Salt Lake City during the season for interviews and appearances.

Honors and celebrated titles have come Edwards' way, long since he was a lieutenant commander for the Sigma Nu fraternity at Utah State (1949-51).

Back in 1972, the Cougars were just happy to beat Utah and have a chance to win the Western Athletic Conference.

“The biggest challenge is to keep everyone headed in the right direction,” says Edwards, who has kept a candy jar stocked with lemon drops on his desk throughout the 22 years.

“I have an ability to concentrate and focus on the game. One of the reasons we stay up in the standings is I don’t ever assume it’s automatic.”

LaVell is the architect of “Air Edwards,” a passing attack that has revolutionized offenses in college football. In August, 1972, when the WAC Skywriter Tour came to Provo, Edwards was the laughing stalk of the media who mimicked then quarterback coach Dewey Warren’s Southern drawl, “we’re going to throw the ball, we’re going to do it all.”

Now, who’s laughing.

One WAC coach summed it up this way: “He has created a formidable power in the Western part of the country. And he’s increased the exposure of the WAC along the way.”

Edwards’ teams have passed for 454 miles during his 22-plus seasons, but there is much more to the man who has brought BYU a national championship in 1984, 16 WAC crowns, 18 bowl berths and invitations to play in the prestigious Kickoff (Meadowlands, J.J.) and Pigskin (Anaheim, Calif.) Classics.

Behind the scenes, people know Edwards is a decent golfer (his handicap is eight and was once down to a four), but they may not know he also enjoys gardening and reading.

Dahlias, zinnias, marigolds, petunias, poppies, daisies and snapdragons adorn the landscape of the Edwards’ home on the Provo bench. These flowers are one of LaVell’s escapes.

“The dahlias are one of the interesting flowers, they won’t keep blooming all summer if you don’t pick the blossoms to they won’t go to seed.”

Not only has he done a good job on these flowers, he has raised his children to be a mother-writer, a father-orthopedic surgeon and a father-attorney as well as be a father-figure himself to more than 600 football players who have passed through the Cougar locker room during his head coaching era.

Here is a pleasant, caring man, one who pauses before he enters the media interview room to stuff a Three Musketeers candy bar in his pocket to give to his grandson or who savors every fork-full of coconut cream pie.

The collection of 16 WAC Championship rings has been mounted in a showcase by his wife, Patti, on a coffee table in their living room. The impressive array of gold and silver rings has four with diamond settings.

These rings are symbols of WAC titles, but embedded in them is evidence of upsets over number-one ranked Miami in Provo in 1990, at third-ranked Pittsburgh in 1984, fourth-ranked Air Force in 1985, 14th-ranked Penn State in Provo last year and 18th-ranked Texas A &  in College Station in 1979.

Edwards has outlasted 37 of the 46 coaches of opposing teams he has faced in the WAC. In state, LaVell as a head coach has gone against six different mentors at both the University of Utah and Utah State. The only coaches to get the best against LaVell in more than one outing were Earle Bruce, Frank Kush, Jim Stanley, George Welsh, Terry Donahue and Joe Paterno.

Bruce bested Edwards twice while coaching at Iowa State and twice at Ohio State. LaVell helped Bruce get to Colorado State where Edwards triumphed three times. Kush had a 5-2 record in head-to-head competition against LaVell. Stanley’s Oklahoma State teams beat BYU in its first two bowl appearances and Welsh’s Navy and Virginia teams beat Edwards in two other bowls.

“I got to know LaVell and his family when we played at the Holiday Bowl,” said Welsh. “Our wives are close. It’s great he is getting close to 200, that’s probably something I’ll never reach. I guess we were just lucky in the bowl games. We timed it right and had a bit of an advantage.”

Edwards is an even-keeled, perceptive man who didn’t get sky-high after key wins and rarely got rock bottom when his teams were bested. Writers wondered why the affable Edwards continues to subject himself openly to fan scrutiny in post-game radio interviews with Paul James.

Rarely is he caught off guard. He was pale and weak on the afternoon before a November, 1986, practice when he was informed by Football Writer’s of America Association President Marion Dunn that Jason Buck had won the Outland Trophy. He appeared stunned, dazed and white when BYU got its first bowl victory in the “Miracle Bowl” over SMU in 1980 after a “hail-Mary” pass.

Vintage LaVell is one who jested with New Jersey media that back in Utah we had paid for all of our roads. LaVell had gone through several toll roads repeatedly making U-turns as he tried not to be late to the Kickoff Classic press conference. He would make anyone feel at ease, even the Japanese tour guides who snickered when he tried to say “chotto matte” for “wait a minute,” during a 1977 Japan Bowl trip.

He’s been a man for all seasons, more aware than some give him credit for, yet showing the outward signs of someone who is aloof.

An oft-asked question is how much longer will the 63-year-old Edwards continue to coach.  He continues to reaffirm as long as he enjoys the challenge of putting a team together, he will remain at the helm.

“I still get excited for each season,” he says. “I can tell when its time for the season to start, its an intuitive thing like a homing pigeon. I start not sleeping as well and lose my concentration on the golf course.”

 Over 10 million fans ill have attended games as Edwards reaches 200 victories. Speaking of 200, that is about the number of Edward’s family season ticket holders represented through his 13 brothers and sisters.

Contrails disappear from the sky after a few minutes, but Edwards has left a legacy that will last for years as a monument to the dynasty he created.

LaVell’s Top Musicals:

1-Les Miserables
2-Phantom of the Opera
3-Evita
4-Cats
5-Black and Blue

LaVell’s Top Novels:

1-Prince of Tides, Conroy
2-The Source, Michener
3- Shōgun, James Clavell
4-Noblehouse Series, James Clavell
5-Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
6-Trinity, Leon Uris

LaVell’s Top Golf Courses:

1-Pebble Beach, California
2-Royal Melbourne, Australia
3-Turnberry, Scotland
4-Augusta, Georgia
5-Cyprus Point, California

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