Former BYU Coach LaVell Edwards Passed Away at Age 86
LaVell Edwards, the last mid-major coach to win a national championship passed away on Thursday. Let’s look back at his long legacy in college football.
Five days after breaking his hip, innovative longtime BYU Cougars head coach LaVell Edwards has passed away at age 86 on Thursday. He will be remembered as one of the preeminent offensive masterminds of the last decades of the 20th century, turning BYU into a national name thanks to a groundbreaking aerial attack.
Born in the Beehive State, Edwards consistently made his mark at programs in Utah. He played at Utah State as an offensive lineman for George Melinkovich and John Roning. After his playing days, Edwards completed a master’s degree at Utah before spending eight years coaching at Granite High School in South Salt Lake. Then Hal Mitchell brought him onto the Cougars’ staff in 1962, and the rest was history.
Edwards ended up remaining in Provo for the rest of his life. There he spent the next four decades and beyond in service to the university. Though Mitchell was let go in 1963 after compiling an 8-22 record over three seasons, Edwards was kept on the BYU staff by incoming head coach Tommy Hudspeth. Yet the Cougars were still a sleeping giant in the west, waiting to be unleashed. That time came in 1972, when Hudspeth resigned as head coach and the school promoted Edwards into the position.
In 1972, his first season at the helm of a program in the college ranks, BYU went 7-4 and finished second in the Western Athletic Conference. The following season saw a sophomore slump as the Cougars fell to 5-6. It would prove the only time in 29 seasons that an Edwards-coached team ended the year with a losing record. By 1974, BYU won the first of 19 division titles the program won under its iconic leader.
That coincided with a shift in offensive philosophy, as Edwards dragged college football out of the era of “three yards and a cloud of dust” to promote a more dynamic pass-oriented attack. The Cougars responded by winning 10 consecutive WAC titles from 1976 through 1985. BYU really burst on to the national scene in 1980. In the Holiday Bowl that year, the Cougars came back from a 17-point deficit in the final four minutes of the game to take down SMU and the Pony Express:
That breakthrough served to put BYU on the national map, as the 1980 Cougars team paved the way for future squads to come. None would be bigger than 1984, when BYU ended the season as the only undefeated team in the country. A showdown against 6-5 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl opened the door for the Cougars to sneak into the top spot of the polls.
In that game, quarterback Robbie Bosco was injured early and played the rest of the game on a balky left leg. After leaving the game for several drives, Bosco was taped up and reentered the game in the second quarter. His return rejuvenated a listless BYU offense. “Winning the national championship was our goal all year,” Bosco continued. “That’s why I went back in.”
Methodically moving downfield against Michigan late in the game, Bosco led BYU on an 83-yard drive that chipped away at the remaining yardage and time. Completing pass after pass, the Cougars worked down into Wolverine territory. BYU had the ball on the Michigan 13-yard line with less than a minute and a half left.
Bosco, lined up under center, took the snap and went into his drop. As the pocket pinched around him, he stepped up toward the line of scrimmage and fired left. Smith, who had caught the first touchdown of the game, hauled in the go-ahead score with 1:23 left on the clock. Johnson punched through the extra point, and BYU held on for the 24-17 victory:
Edwards addressed the barbs against his team, telling the New York Times after the Holiday Bowl victory over the Wolverines, ““It gets tiresome after a while defending yourself week after week. I don’t know if we’re the best team in the country, how does any coach know? But we’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do. We’re 13-0 and deserving of the national championship.”
A few weeks later, they did indeed receive the national championship. Edwards would respond again, arguing, “As long as we were number three, fourth or fifth, nothing was said. Everyone felt comfortable with that. But as soon as we were ranked number one, a lot of people became uncomfortable. I think the team handled the pressure well. We were always having to defend our ranking.”
The Cougars enjoyed another run of success under quarterback Ty Detmer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A creative marketing campaign brought BYU its only Heisman Trophy when Detmer brought the award back to Provo in 1990 after a year where he threw for over 5000 yards and 41 touchdowns.
In the end, Edwards’ won more games than all but five head coaches in the FBS ranks. Over his career he coached six different All-American quarterbacks, including Jim McMahon and Steve Young. And he became one of just four I-A head coaches to manage a game in a venue named after himself when BYU renamed its home stadium the week before his retirement in 2000.
Edwards will be remembered as an offensive innovator and a coach who took pride in elevating a small parochial school to national prominence. He will be remembered as a quick wit with a gregarious sideline demeanor. And he will be remembered as the patriarch of a storied coaching tree which includes NFL head coaches Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, and Brian Billick along with college coaches such as Steve Sarkisian and Kyle Whittingham.
He is succeeded by his wife Patti and three children Anne, John, and Jim, who were with the venerable former coach in his final hours on earth. There is undeniable sadness, both in Provo and throughout college football, as one of the game’s true greats passes on. But Edwards’ legacy will live on thanks to the thousands of individuals he inspired and guided throughout his decades in charge.
More from Saturday Blitz