By the time this column is published, there will have been dozens of articles and columns written about former BYU football coach LaVell Edwards, who died on Dec. 29 at the age of 86. Many people were closer to him or knew him much better than I did. But I need to share my Coach Edwards story.
On Sept. 16, 1972, my “relationship” with Edwards began. I think it did for a lot of us.
I had transferred to BYU from a junior college in California, and frankly, until I arrived in Provo in 1972, I knew nothing about the Cougars’ football reputation, or lack thereof. Except this – they usually lost. On that beautiful Saturday night, BYU was hosting Kansas State of the Big 8, a powerful football conference even though the Wildcats were, much like the Cougars in the Western Athletic Conference, perennial football doormats. The old Cougar Stadium was filled, and BYU got a quick lead and continued to build on that. I remember that midway through the fourth quarter, with the Cougs up 32-9, the students and fans around me began murmuring something – that BYU was actually going to win the game. They did.
That was Edwards’ first game as head coach. BYU was a running team in those days, like most college football teams. The next week, nationally-ranked Utah State came to Provo, and amazingly, the Cougars led the Aggies 16-7 at halftime. Could another miracle be in the offing, and was LaVell Edwards a magician who’d turned the BYU football fortune around? Well in the second half, Utah State outscored BYU 35-3. The final score: USU 42 BYU 19.
But Edwards still had the team headed in the right direction. They finished that season 7-4, despite a sound 49-17 thrashing they took at home to long-time WAC bully Arizona State.
ASU trounced the Cougars 52-12 the next year as well. The Cougs finished 5-6 in 1973, which turned out to be Edwards’ only losing season at BYU. In 1974, things started terribly, as BYU lost its first three games and suffered an embarrassing tie at Colorado State when the Cougars fumbled a snap as they were trying to run out the clock. The Rams weren’t much luckier, however. CSU scored as the game ended and only needed to kick an extra point to win the game. But a 15-yard penalty resulted in CSU missing the kick. So BYU was 0-3-1 after four games.
That’s when the magic began to happen. Edwards had shifted the Cougars to a pass-oriented offense, and JC transfer Gary Sheide began to assert himself at quarterback.
BYU won its next two games at home against Wyoming and UTEP, but then faced traveling to Tucson to take on 16th ranked Arizona. The Cougars won 37-13, and then followed that with a road win over Air Force 12-10 the next week. And suddenly, a WAC title and a bowl game berth seemed a possibility as the new 16th ranked team, Arizona State, came to Provo on Nov. 9.
I remember that game because a friend of mine who lived in my dorm convinced me to dress up in a devil costume he had and to arrange to arm-wrestle the Cougars’ mascot Cosmo at halftime. I agreed. I made plans with the cheerleaders, and at halftime left my date in the stands and went into the BYU locker room to put on the outfit. When I came back onto the sideline, the student body booed me very loudly, even as Cosmo kicked my tail in the arm wrestle. I was hit by a few thrown objects (the only one that hurt was an apple in the ribs), and it wasn’t until I got back to my seat that the girl I’d taken realized her date was the devil. (No jokes, please). Edwards said after the game that he’d heard about the Cosmo-Devil duel at halftime and that it had invigorated the home crowd. I don’t know if that was true or not, but it’s been fun thinking that maybe he did say it.
But the good news was that BYU beat ASU 21-18 that afternoon, secured a berth in the Fiesta Bowl that year after easily beating New Mexico and Utah the next two weeks, and the Edwards’ championship legacy really began.
Of course BYU under Edwards went on to win many championships and bowl games, and won the National Championship in 1984. I had season tickets in Provo for 20 years, watching some great games. After the Holiday Bowl win over Michigan in 1984 but before the national polls had been finalized, I ran into Coach Edwards at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. We actually met at the package claim area. I told him congratulations on the unbeaten season, wished him well in the polls, and he was gracious and thanked me. We never crossed paths again, but I loved the legacy he created and that he has left – both as a coach and a person.
On that September night 44 years ago, neither LaVell Edwards nor I ever thought anyone would be discussing his football coaching career decades later. But many of us are, along with the pleasure we had to know him or follow him. Thanks for those memories, coach.