Nearly half-a-century ago, when I was a fledgling sports writer and he was a fledgling football coach, I first met LaVell Edwards.
It was the fall of 1971, BYU had fired head football coach Tommy Hudspeth and LaVell, one of Hudspeth’s assistants, was interested in replacing him. He invited Dave Gunn, sports editor of BYU’s student newspaper The Daily Universe, and me, the assistant sports editor, to his office in the Smith Fieldhouse.
In his understated but persuasive way, he lobbied for our support, and we didn’t even know it.
For the next two-plus decades LaVell and I interacted often during the golden age of BYU football he orchestrated. I was there when he went to the forward pass. I was there at the Miracle Bowl in 1980. I was there for the national championship in 1984. I was there for those 10 league championships in a row. I was there when Ty Detmer won the Heisman. I was there when he was named national Coach of the Year.
I covered 15 straight Super Bowls, from 1980 through 1994, largely thanks to LaVell — because a Cougar graduate was in every one of them.
But it wasn’t until after all that that I gained a firsthand appreciation that LaVell was who they said he was.
In his last years as head coach, Deseret Book wanted LaVell to write his memoirs and asked me if I’d be interested in helping him. I went again to his office in the Smith Fieldhouse — a much bigger one now — to discuss the project. The subject of money came up. He opened his desk drawer and produced a check. It was a royalty payment from some sort of previous book deal he’d been a part of. The total was $1.87. He’d never cashed it. It was worth way more than that as a gag.
The stage thus set, I said, “Well, how do you want to split up our losses?”
He said, “Whatever you think’s fair.”
I said, “How about two-thirds, one-third?”
He said, “Only if you get the two-thirds.”
For the next three months we met every week as he told me about his life and I recorded our conversations. One day as both of us stared at the tape recorder in total silence, we took it as a sign we were probably done. As I walked out the door he had one request.
“Try not to make me look like a P.E. major from Utah State.”
About six months later I’d finished the book. I printed a copy of the manuscript and sent it off to LaVell. A week went by, another week went by. No phone call.
Finally, I called him.
“Hey, did you get the manuscript I sent you?”
“I thought it was fine. Good job.”
That was that. No marked-up copy, no changes, no additions, no “you missed the mark on this one.” On a book written in first-person. His first-person.
Once again I was speechless. Who does that? Nobody does that.
Deseret Book published “Airing it Out” the following autumn. It was a big seller. I think it would have been a big seller if it just had LaVell’s face on the cover.
All those stories about him delegating assignments and leaving people alone and letting them do their jobs? And the ones about him not caring about fame and fortune and getting all the credit? And the ones about him honestly not thinking about any of it too much?
After World War II, Winston Churchill once observed about Dwight Eisenhower that he’d never met a man who could deflect the credit everywhere else and still have all the acclaim and admiration come back to him.
That was the LaVell Edwards I got to know, admire and love. He was who they said he was. A P.E. major from Utah State, and a whole lot more.