As praise and remembrances continue to pour in from across the nation after the passing of beloved and iconic Brigham Young University coach LaVell Edwards, it is fitting that we review the lessons he lived and taught about winning in life and in sports.
Like legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, Edwards was much more than a coach. He was a sophisticated individual with a great intellect, a quick wit, a genuine love for his friends and associates and an authentic personality devoid of ego. He was a giant among men, both as a coach on the football field and in life as a mentor, friend and associate.
Here are a few of the lessons he taught every day through his example.
1. People matter most
As former players have responded to Edwards’ passing, the main thread of all their comments is his ability to relate to people. Edwards achieved greatness not because he was a superior X's and O's coach; rather, he took the time to get to know his players personally and genuinely cared about them. He knew their names. He knew their wives’ names. He knew their parents' names. And, remarkably, he remembered those names throughout the years.
Several players talked about encounters they had with the coach many years after they finished their careers. He would ask about their parents and wives by name. He recalled details from their past and would talk about those things. He made every person feel important and respected.
Edwards did very little on-the-field coaching. In fact, at practice he was often off to the side talking to players or observers. Sometimes he would wander out to practice late, probably because he had been talking to a player who needed a course correction or who was seeking counsel on a personal matter. Some fans were critical because Edwards was not more hands-on as a coach. They failed to realize that his vision of “coaching” was much more comprehensive than wearing a whistle and screaming at players on the field. Make no mistake. As head coach, he was in control of the team’s successful strategy, but his concern and love for his players and coaches were the primary motivators that propelled the team to consistent greatness.
A former all-conference BYU player once shared with me his recruiting story, which demonstrates Edwards' ability to deal with people. This athlete became a three-year, first team all-conference selection early in Edwards' career and helped the team win Edwards' first conference title.
The young man was having a difficult time deciding between offers from BYU and Utah. A close friend suggested he call both coaches and tell them he was going to the other school. Then he could see their reactions, which might help him decide. The player agreed that would be a good strategy.
First he called Edwards, who was still an assistant coach but had been assigned to recruit the player. “Coach,” he said, “I have decided to play at Utah.”
An obviously disappointed Edwards said, “I am so sorry to hear that. You are a great young man and a fantastic player. I don’t look forward to playing against you. You are going to go far in life. I wish you and your family well.”
The young athlete hung up the phone and said he felt terrible about disappointing the coach.
Next, he called the Utah coach and said, “Coach, I have decided to attend BYU.”
That coach immediately let loose a tirade against the young man. “You will never play a down at BYU,” he yelled. “You are a lousy player!” On and on he went.
As soon as the young man hung up the phone, he dialed Edwards' number again and said, “Coach, I have changed my mind. I am coming to BYU!”
2. Loyalty always
Edwards was extremely loyal. Some would say he was loyal to a fault. Throughout his 29 years as head coach, he rarely dismissed an assistant coach. Those assistants who did leave usually did so of their own accord and went on to achieve greatness elsewhere. Most BYU fans can recite the Edwards coaching pedigree, which includes the likes of Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, Andy Reid, Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake. When change was necessary, some of his assistants were given new assignments in the athletic department or quietly asked to leave by athletic administrators, but Edwards was reticent to fire those who worked with him.
During the search for his successor, Edwards was primarily concerned about the fate of his assistants and strongly recommended to his replacement, Gary Crowton, that he keep as many of the assistants as he felt he could.
Edwards also was fiercely loyal to his players. Especially early in his career, he frequently played upper classmen over younger players who sometimes were more talented. This frustrated many fans, but Edwards rewarded players who had put time in the program. He also rarely, if ever, revoked a player’s scholarship. Once Edwards committed a scholarship to a student-athlete, he was in it for the long haul, come what may.
Edwards' stubborn, consistent loyalty came back to him in spades. His players and assistants, both as players on the field and as subsequent alumni, would run through a wall for the man if he asked them to. This week we have witnessed the fruits of that loyalty as player after player has come forward to declare their love for their coach.
3. Delegation is key
As mentioned earlier, Edwards didn’t do a lot of hands-on coaching. He was certainly tuned in to decisions and strategies being made by his assistants, but he was more of the team’s general manager and let his assistants do the actual coaching. He gave a lot of freedom to his offensive and defensive coordinators. When things went well, he directed praise their way. When things didn’t go well, he shouldered the blame.
Edwards frequently commented that one of the primary reasons for his success was that he surrounded himself with great assistant coaches and let them do their jobs. Offensive coordinators like Doug Scovil, Ted Tollner, Dave Kragthorpe, Mike Holmgren and Norm Chow designed schemes that helped BYU lead the nation in offense and regularly break NCAA records. On the defensive side, coaches like Fred Whittingham, Dick Felt and Ken Schmidt fielded a defense that played in the shadows of the offense but was frequently responsible for victories.
By delegating to his assistants, Edwards was able to become an ambassador for the football team and the university. The word “no” was not in his vocabulary, so he spent countless hours speaking to service clubs, Cub Scout Blue and Gold banquets and many other events. He never missed funerals of friends or associates. He made appearances that most head football coaches would shun at all costs. For Edwards, no appearance was too insignificant.
And that postgame call-in show? Edwards may have been the only coach in NCAA history to subject himself to abuse from armchair quarterbacks for an hour after every game. Fellow coaches would shake their heads in amazement that anyone, especially a coach as successful as Edwards, would do that.
Part of the reason for Edwards' willingness to be so open with his time, in my opinion, was that he first coached at BYU when football was neither popular nor successful. When he arrived as an assistant in 1962, BYU practically had to beg fans to attend games. The team had a tradition of losing, and, outside the normal cadre of BYU fans, no one cared about the program. Edwards never forgot about those early years of fan indifference. As success and its attendant fame arrived, Edwards never changed his approach. He continued to stump for the program as if the team was 2-10 instead of 10-2.
4. The most talented are not always the most successful
In his many speeches, Edwards would frequently say, “Success does not always come to the most endowed.” By that, he meant that the five-star recruit is not always a better player than a two or three-star recruit. In fact, he built his BYU program on that model. There are many intangibles that determine success. More times than fans would expect, the most talented player ends up watching from the sidelines as a less-heralded player leads the team to victory.
Edwards had tremendous success with players who were not highly recruited out of high school or who walked on to the team. They were the Kurt Gouveias and the Chad Lewises and the Mo Elewonibis. Steve Young came to BYU as a running quarterback. He maintains that he was the last player offered a scholarship that year. Several coaches wanted to move him to safety because he was very athletic. Somehow, he climbed from the bottom of the depth chart, passing quarterbacks who could throw the ball better, were taller and had better football pedigrees. Young’s athletic ability, combined with his keen intellect and a willingness to be taught, made him an All-American and propelled him to the NFL Hall of Fame.
5. Money matters but does not reign supreme
Edwards had many chances to become a wealthy man. The NFL came calling with its millions. High-profile colleges tried to woo him with riches and fame.
He once told me of a wealthy booster from a Texas university who flew to Provo to spend a day “watching practice.” When Edwards took him back to his private jet at the airport, the man pulled out his checkbook and said, “How much will it take to get you to come to our school? You tell me how much to write on this check, and I guarantee it will clear the bank.”
All attempts to seduce Edwards with money failed. When I became athletic director at the twilight of Edwards' career, he was probably the lowest-paid coach in the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference. Certainly, he had a comfortable financial package that included a radio/TV contract with KSL and a Nike deal, in addition to his BYU salary. But considering he was one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history at the time, he could have been making five times what he was being paid at BYU.
Interestingly, I doubt Edwards ever approached the university asking for a raise. He could have and probably should have. He could easily have parlayed the many offers coming his way into a lucrative salary. At some point, he and Patti decided they were comfortable living in Provo and coaching at BYU. They didn’t need a fortune to be happy. They wouldn’t let the siren song of money direct their life. Did it bother Edwards that other coaches made more money than he did? Probably. But, like so many other things he could have let bother him, he never chose to make an issue of it.
6. Humor makes life better
Because of Edwards' serious, outward expression so frequently captured by cameras, many people assumed he was a grumpy fellow. However, those who got to know Edwards found him to be delightfully funny with a quick wit. His one-liners at press conferences and at speaking engagements always had people laughing. He loved a good joke and had a hearty laugh that made his entire body shake.
A lot of his humor was aimed at himself and at his wife Patti. He loved to take humorous jabs at her while speaking to audiences, and she was equally adept at firing off humorous comebacks. Theirs was a sufficiently strong relationship that they could have a little fun with each other in public.
Edwards was also good at using humor to diffuse potentially tense situations. On his radio call-in program after games, he was occasionally asked difficult or inappropriate questions. Frequently, he would say something funny and then brush off the question.
A story Edwards and one of his best friends, Sy Kimball, enjoyed telling was about a taxi ride they took in San Francisco. Kimball and another friend struck up a conversation with the cabby. Kimball said to him, “Do you know who this man is here with us?” The cab driver looked in his rearview mirror and responded, “No.”2 comments on this story
Kimball proudly stated, “This is LaVell Edwards, head football coach at BYU. He is one of the winningest coaches in college football history.”
The cabby took another long look at Edwards in the mirror and said, “Yeah? Well he’s not very big in San Francisco.”
The lessons Edwards taught could fill volumes. He lived life and coached like few others. Management consultants would have gone crazy trying to change his style and make him more “efficient.” Edwards didn’t need any of that. He found his formula for success and he followed it perfectly. The result is that BYU and college football fans enjoyed nearly three decades of a man USA Today once called a “national treasure.”
Val Hale is executive director of the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development. He served as director of men's athletics at Brigham Young University from 1999-2004 and served as president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce.