EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth in an eight-part series celebrating the 25th anniversary of BYU's 1984 national college football championship.
TODAY: How Cougars head coach LaVell Edwards accomplished the next-to-impossible — guiding BYU to the national title.
SATURDAY: Reliving the national championship season through memorable quotes from around the country in 1984.
PROVO — Little did anyone know at the time, but a decision made by then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks in 1972 laid the groundwork for BYU's national championship season 12 years later.
President Oaks took a chance by promoting the defensive coordinator, LaVell Edwards, to head coach, though Edwards had never been a head coach before. Edwards was handed the reins of a mediocre program that had experienced only a handful of winning seasons in its history. The goal back in '72 was to compete for a conference championship. What about the thought of winning a national title?
"Not even in my wildest dreams," Edwards says now.
So how did it happen?
Robbie Bosco, the quarterback of that '84 team, says that though Edwards was a defensive-minded coach, his ability to be forward-thinking by embracing the forward pass paid huge dividends for the Cougars.
"The one thing that really set LaVell apart was looking into the future and knowing that the passing game would be what it is today," Bosco says. "He didn't grow up throwing the ball. But he knew if we were going to be successful and win a lot of football games, and the types of players we had at BYU, it was going to be through the air that we were going to get this done.
"It didn't start out great for him, but he stuck with it. That's what made him so successful — being level-headed, being calm when things aren't going good and making the right decisions. Sticking with the passing game was the best thing that ever happened to BYU."
Trevor Matich, an offensive lineman on the '84 team who is now a college football analyst for ESPN, explains that BYU's national title 25 years ago was partially a product of the system the Cougars ran — a dizzying passing scheme that confused opposing defenses.
"One thing that helped BYU at the time was that the offense was so innovative," he says. "In college football, people weren't doing that. We had an edge because we played so many defenses that didn't quite know what to do about it. We ran our offense with a very high level of execution.
"In the beginning, LaVell's system put athletes who weren't as fast and strong as their opponents into positions where the opponents couldn't quite catch them because of the scheme. We could make plays and we could compete with anybody. We were able to do that in '84. Then Steve Spurrier started slinging the ball all over the field in Florida. Pretty soon, everybody was doing it."
Despite his laid-back persona, Edwards — who is the sixth-winningest coach in college football history with 257 career victories — was firmly in control of the program, Matich says.
"For any football program, especially for one on the path to a national championship, there's a lot of stuff swirling around. To keep that many guys focused in terms of preparation, practice, academics and playing the games, every single week, is the hard part," Matich says.
"When you're dealing with college kids, you never know what you get from week to week. You can lose a game when a few guys aren't focused. LaVell had control of that team, but he exercised that control and implemented it in a way that was perfect for that team and that group of guys."
People tend to forget that 1984 was not some sort of one-year fluke for BYU, Matich adds. The Cougars had been gradually building toward it for several years. BYU entered the '84 season on an 11-game winning streak (the Cougars eventually won 25 straight games, a streak that was snapped in 1985). Some of the players on that '84 squad were freshmen when Jim McMahon engineered one of the most amazing comebacks in college football history in winning the 1980 "Miracle Bowl." BYU's record the five years prior to 1984 was 53-9 — and four of those losses came in 1982.
Like an effective CEO, Edwards, who earned the Kodak Coach of the Year award in 1984, surrounded himself with talented, driven people on his coaching staff.
"LaVell deserves every bit of credit for being the architect of that season. He had the confidence in himself to let the (assistant) coaches go coach," Matich says. "He assembled one of the finest coaching staffs in the history of college football. When you look at the coaches that were on that team, you're talking about guys who went on to the NFL and coached in the Super Bowl."
That would include '84 quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren. Edwards hired Holmgren from San Francisco State after receiving a recommendation from a friend.
"He didn't have a lot of college experience," Edwards recalls. "He was with us for four years. He did a great job."
Later, during his years in the NFL, Holmgren played a key role in developing quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre. He guided the Green Bay Packers to victory in Super Bowl XXXI and later led the Seattle Seahawks to their first Super Bowl berth in the 2005 season.
Holmgren once said of his four seasons (1982-1985) with Edwards: "Coach Edwards took a real chance in hiring me as a high school coach basically to coach the quarterbacks at BYU. And a lot of my philosophy today is based on the way he treated people, the way he did things. It was an honor to work for him."
Though his title was receivers coach, it was Norm Chow who called all of the plays that '84 season. He went on to coach three Heisman Trophy winners — Ty Detmer (BYU), Carson Palmer (USC) and Matt Leinart (USC). Chow currently is the offensive coordinator at UCLA.
Matich played for 12 years in the NFL for some great offensive line coaches, but insists that BYU's O-line coaches he played for in 1984, Roger French and Mel Olson, "were among the best coaches in the country." French also held the title of offensive coordinator.
Running backs coach Lance Reynolds joined the staff full time in 1984 and has remained at BYU ever since, currently serving as assistant head coach and running backs coach under Bronco Mendenhall. It was Edwards who convinced Reynolds that coaching was his true calling in life.
Others on that staff included defensive coordinator Dick Felt, defensive line coach Tom Ramage, inside linebackers coach Jim Paronto and outside linebackers coach Ken Schmidt.
A couple of years earlier, in 1982, BYU had a graduate assistant named Andy Reid, who is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"They were phenomenal coaches. LaVell coached the coaches," Matich says. "He made sure that they knew and implemented his vision. But then he allowed them to implement his vision at the tactical level in terms of X's and O's and practice drills. When things needed to be adjusted, LaVell adjusted them with the coach, then he let the coach go out and coach. He commanded so much respect, his presence was in everything, but he didn't limit the talents of his coaches and flourish with their talents. He didn't have the ego that said everything has to be me-me-me-me-me. Some coaches are like that. They have to be 'the guy.' LaVell was 'the guy,' but never felt like he had to be.
"If somebody writes a book about leading a large organization that requires intricate interaction for success, I suggest they look at LaVell first. He pulled in the right people and kept them focused on his vision. Then he allowed them to flourish with their talents."
Vai Sikahema, a kick-return specialist on the '84 team, says Edwards trusted his assistants.
"LaVell's great genius was allowing people to do what they did best. In the process, the reason why so many of those guys became great coaches was because they were able to flourish in LaVell's program. At other places, the head coach pretty much does everything. How else are you going to learn?" Sikahema says.
"It was always a joke among the players that the only decision that LaVell made on game day was whether we go for it on fourth down or punt. And sometimes, LaVell didn't even make those decisions. He let his assistants make decisions and call plays and make adjustments. Some may say, 'What kind of head coach can you be?' Well, his system worked great for him because he delegated responsibility. And he made people accountable for their decisions and how things turned out."
For his part, Edwards has credited his assistants for their role in BYU's success, including the '84 national championship, during his 29-year tenure in Provo.
"I've always said we put together a really good staff for a lot of years. We had a lot of guys who went on to great things after," he says. "In order to make things work the way I wanted them to, we had to have good people."
Nine years after his retirement, Edwards' impact still permeates BYU football. For starters, the venue where the Cougars play their home games now bears his name — LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Not long after he was hired in 2004, Bronco Mendenhall sought out Edwards for counsel and advice. Their first meeting, which was scheduled to last 30 minutes, lasted three hours. They continue to talk, and Edwards has addressed Mendenhall's BYU teams over the years. Edwards' approach has served as a blueprint for Mendenhall as he's restored the program's proud tradition.
"Coach Edwards is BYU football," Mendenhall says. "We want to make him proud with how we conduct ourselves on and off the field."
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