At the time BYU hired me as the head football coach, I had been coaching 18 years and had been associated with just four winning seasons. I’ve jokingly said over the years, “That shows you how bad the job was. I had no more credentials than that and they still hired me.”
My coaching style and philosophy was influenced by a lot of people. I was fortunate to play for some great men that influenced my life.
Sanky Dixon was my high school coach at Lincoln High in Orem, Utah. He had played at BYU in the 1920s and had a major influence on me wanting to be a coach. He was very passionate about the basics. We’d start from scratch every practice. Even before the final game of the season—the state championship game—we’d start practice with stance, and starts, and blocking, and tackling. Basic things like that. It carried through in my mind about the importance of the basics.
After high school I played football at Utah State. They had won the conference championship two years earlier and it looked like they had the best in-state football program at the time. I played varsity football for three seasons—‘49 through ‘51. The funny thing is we lost to BYU two of those three years.
After college I was in the military for a couple years. I was stationed in Japan when I got my release. I’d only been home about a week and I was set to go back to Utah State as a graduate assistant coach. My wife Patti had gotten us an apartment in Logan. She had gone home to visit her parents in Wyoming, and I was in the dorms with the players because we were about to start fall camp.
The day before camp I got a call from Lorenzo Hatch, the principle at Granite High School. He asked me to come to Salt Lake City and interview for the head-coaching job at Granite. I went down and met with him. He told me to come back that afternoon at 2 p.m. When I came back he offered me the job and we signed the contract. Then he took me out to the field and introduced me to the football team.
Here I was, just released from the military and I didn’t know a soul. My wife was in Wyoming, I had an apartment in Logan, and I had a job in Salt Lake. Needless to say, there was a lot of scurrying around for a while before we got settled.
I didn’t have a lot of success with regards to wins and losses at Granite. We ran the single-wing. I was one of the few coaches still running it at the time. We ran it at Utah State under coach John Roning. He had a big impact on my thinking as a coach. He spent a lot of time talking to players individually, trying to build a desire in them to be successful. He stressed that the team can’t be successful unless each man does his job.
I was at Granite for eight years. Towards the end of that time BYU hired Hal Mitchell as the head coach. He had played at UCLA and was a great football player. Hal played for a guy named Red Sanders who was one of the great single-wing coaches in the country. So Hal ran the single-wing at BYU. After his first year Hal had an opening on his staff and he hired me. I’ve often said jokingly—and there might be a lot of truth to it—that I may have been the only Mormon in the country running the single-wing. That’s why he hired me.
When I got to BYU we had a running back named Eldon Fortie. I had coached Eldon at Granite. He was a great player. In fact, he made first-team All-American at BYU his senior year. After a couple years they released Hal and brought in Tommy Hudspeth. I was with Tommy eight years before he left and they offered me the job. It’s crazy how it all worked out.
I learned a lot from Tommy. He was very organized and detail-minded. He knew what he wanted to accomplish. Ironically, for a couple of years we had a kid named Virgil Carter and we threw the football a lot. In 1965, we won the first football conference championship ever at BYU. When Virgil left we got away from throwing the football—went back to running the wishbone and different things.
When Tommy left and I was appointed the head coach, I decided we were going to try something besides running the football. I figured I was probably going to get fired at some point anyway because everyone else had, so I decided that if the ship went down we were going to go down trying something different. That’s why I decided to throw the football.
Looking back on it, we weren’t trying to reinvent the game; we were simply trying to find a way to win football games.
Ironically, my first season as head coach we had a kid named Pete Van Valkenburg who led the nation in rushing. We didn’t have a quarterback who could throw and I think we were picked to finish last in the league. We ended up going 7-4 and finished tied for second.
After the season I sent Jim Criner, who was on our staff, to Tennessee to watch spring practice and learn more about the Volunteers’ defense. While he was there he met Dewey Warren, who was coaching the freshman team. Dewey had been the starting quarterback at Tennessee in the mid-60s and had a really good mind for throwing the ball. We hired him to work with the quarterbacks and help define the passing attack. At that point, I decided to stick with the plan and focus on the passing game, not the run like everyone else was doing.
I knew we were not going to compete in recruiting against the big football powers to get big lineman and quick running backs. I thought maybe we could create an edge by passing the ball.
We had recruited a kid out of California named Gary Sheide who had a good arm and could really throw the ball. Coming out of high school he wanted to play baseball so he went to junior college. He got hurt both his freshman and sophomore seasons and didn’t play much. After his sophomore year we flew him to Provo for a recruiting visit. I think he liked what he saw—that we were committed to throwing the ball. He decided to come and that’s really where we started throwing the ball well.
Gary really had a Joe Namath kind of style. He was sort of slouched at the shoulders, and his form—the way he threw the ball—really looked like Joe. He was one of those streaky guys who would go two-for-eight, or something like that, and then hit about 10 or 12 passes in a row. He was a very good quarterback.
I’m not sure there was a single moment when I realized our concept of throwing the football was going to work, but I’ll tell you there was a time when I really had doubts about what we were doing.
It was 1974, my third season. We lost the first three games and we hadn’t got a lot of offense going by throwing the football. We had the fourth game won at Colorado State. All we had to do was take a knee with six seconds left and run out the clock, but we ended up fumbling the ball and they threw a touchdown pass on the next play and tied it up. Fortunately, they missed the extra point and the game ended in a tie.
At that point we were 0-3-1. That week a couple of the players came in my office and wanted to have a players-only meeting. I told them that would be fine. I don’t know specifically what was said in that meeting, but whatever was said it worked. We got on a winning streak and won seven of the final eight games. That was the only time I can ever recall having any doubts about what we were trying to do.
I’ve often thought about that players’ meeting. It probably affected my whole career and really the course of my life. If they had not gotten together and turned the season around, I probably would have been gone. If not that year, some time soon. It seemed to change everything.
A couple years later, we brought in a guy named Doug Scovil as the offensive coordinator. He had coached Roger Staubach at Navy. I was looking for an offensive coach, and I called Bill Walsh to see if he might have any recommendations. He’s the one who told me about Doug.
I invited Doug to Provo and ended up offering him a contract. At the time he said there was no way he could come for the money we offered. Later Bill and I talk and I told him what had happened. He said, “Don’t give up on him just yet. Let me talk with him.” Apparently whatever he told Doug worked because he decided to come to BYU.
He was the perfect guy for us at that time. We were doing some good things, but he helped us tie everything together into a nice package. We really opened up the offense. We started throwing to the backs and attacking the seams. Doug defined the philosophy of why we did certain things. We were radically different from the norm in college football at that time.
I’ve been fortunate to have some of the best coaches in the game come work in the BYU system. When Doug left, we brought in Ted Tollner. When Ted was hired to be the head coach at USC we got Mike Holmgren, who later led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl. Eventually guys like Roger French and Norm Chow took over.
Each one of them built on and added to the basic concept first designed by Dewey Warren, and revised and expanded by Doug.
Another key ingredient in our success over the years has been the string of All-American quarterbacks. They certainly had a variety of contrasting styles, but those who thrived in the BYU system had a great understanding and feel for the game. I think you either have it or you don’t. It’s not something you can coach.
It’s a common quality shared by guys like Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer
, John Walsh, Steve Sarkisian, Kevin Feterik, and Brandon Doman.
When Ty won the Heisman Trophy it had a lot to do with Gary, Gifford, Marc, Jim, Steve, and Robbie. They helped pave the way and increase the credibility of the program over the years. When Ty had that fantastic season in 1990 he was able to stand on the shoulders of the all the great BYU quarterback who came before him.
I get asked all the time about my favorite moments, games, plays, but there are so many great memories that it’s hard to choose. I do know the most relief I ever felt in my coaching career was after the 1980 Holiday Bowl.
It was our fifth bowl game and our third straight Holiday Bowl. The whole week leading up to the game the bowl guys were running around in their red Holiday Bowl jackets telling us we really needed to win for the bowl game to take off. Everyone was telling us this was our year.
Well, SMU had Eric Dickerson and Craig James. They had a heck of a team—by far the best team we had faced in a bowl game. When McMahon completed the Hail Mary pass to Clay Brown and Kurt Gunther kicked the extra point for the win, I don’t think I ever felt any more relief over winning a game than I did over that one.
How we won that game, I’ll never know. I don’t remember all the details about the decision to punt late in the game. I know Jim came off the field and was mad. He said a few choice words and was telling us that we had quit. We didn’t have much time so we were trying to get him to calm down. The thing that was stunning to me, if you’re honest with yourself, is he was right. Subconsciously, you just think that it’s not going to happen—down 20 with about four minutes to play — but Jim was out there trying to win.
So I just figured what the heck, we’ll go for it. Jim went out and completed a pass and we went on down the field and scored. I think there was 18 seconds remaining when we got the ball back after Bill Schoepflin blocked the punt. We ran a couple plays and there were three seconds left when Jim threw the final pass. When Clay came down with the ball I about died. It was just amazing. To have it happen the way it did was unbelievable.
Of course one of the more exciting wins was the National Championship game in 1984. That night had been so frustrating because we had pretty well dominated the game in the sense of moving the ball, but we had turned it over five or six times. Robbie Bosco got hurt and it was just not going our way. To come back the way we did and have those two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter, with Robbie hitting Kelly Smith to give us the lead was a huge relief.
My last game was probably one of the most unreal. By that time, with all the years and all the games, you could probably say it didn’t matter a whole lot—and it probably didn’t really—but it did. It was Utah and it was my last game. To win it the way we did was pretty special. We didn’t name Brandon Doman the starting quarterback until the last two games of the year. As I look back, that was probably one of the big mistakes I made by not naming him the starting quarterback before we did. He won both games for us and sent me out a winner. Then, of course, he won the first 12 games the next year. He just had a knack for winning. Brandon was a little unorthodox in throwing the ball, but he would get it there. He was such a great leader—what we call in the coaching profession “a winner.”
From a personal standpoint, when I look back at my coaching career one of the things I feel the most satisfaction about is we made football a presence at BYU. It had always been a basketball school. When you talk about being a Cougar, and talk about BYU football, there is a certain amount of satisfaction about what we accomplished.
Football to me was always more about personal relationships with players and what they eventually do with their lives. That was paramount on how I approached coaching.
I was an LDS Bishop on campus for six years and that was a special time for me. I really enjoyed working with the students and helping them grow and overcome challenges. I pretty much did the same things as the head football coach. I always had a lot of personal interviews with the players to make sure they were okay. I knew what we were trying to accomplish with football, and I let the coaches do their jobs. I would try to observe the players and talk with them if it seemed like they were struggling.
A lot times what we talked about had nothing to do with football. We would talk about what was going on in their life. I always had an open door. I rarely ever closed the door to my office. Those private moments with the players were really important to me.
LaVell Edwards was the head football coach at BYU from 1972-2000. His 257 career victories ranks sixth all-time in division I football history. He led the Cougars to the National Championship in 1984 and was named national coach of the year in 1979 and 1984. Edwards led BYU to 22 bowl games, including 17 straight from 1978-1994. During Edwards’ amazing run, his players won a Heisman Trophy, two Outland Trophies, four Davey O’Brien Awards, and seven Sammy Baugh Trophies. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Five of his former players have also been enshrined. Edwards had 137 of his former players selected in the NFL Draft and 57 have played in the Super Bowl. In his final home game on November 18, 2000, Cougar Stadium was renamed LaVell Edwards Stadium in his honor.