PROVO — Roger French delivered something to BYU football that may never be repeated.
The former 21-year veteran assistant to the late LaVell Edwards was a 24-hour-type coach who devoted almost all of his time to the job of protecting BYU quarterbacks.
French, 86, passed away last Saturday morning near his home in Maple Grove, Minnesota, in an assisted care living center, according to his daughter Gail Luedke.
Three things stand out about French and his legacy: He was a perfectionist; he put in the time; and his peculiarities endeared him to his players and peers.
During a remarkable run of averaging 10 wins a season, WAC championships, national rankings and a national title, French churned out All-American offensive linemen and NFL players.
“He was obsessed with football, with winning, and he was dedicated to his players, to the idea of making them the best players they could be,” said Mel Olson, a longtime assistant coach with French.
French was like former NFL coach Joe Gibbs in that Gibbs would spend one day with his wife and family and the other six days was football. Only French gave BYU more than half a year at a time away from his family in Minnesota. From summer camps, the season and recruiting he was in Provo. He took his family to a bowl game for a week as a reward.
How French lived in Provo is a topic of lore.
Dedicated to his players, known as “The French Legion,” he never established a residence in Provo through two decades that began in 1980. He slept in the basement of his Lutheran minister’s house. He towed a motor home up Provo Canyon and stayed there at times. BYU found him a hotel for about 10 bucks a night where he laid his head. Many times, he slept in the football office.
After one of the many mornings French arrived to the football offices with his hair disheveled and no shower, offensive coordinator Doug Scovil nicknamed him “The Creature.”
At times, after a night of breaking down film, he’d sleep on the couch in the offensive team meeting room. One morning at 4 a.m., student custodians cleaning the office came in the room, flipped on the light, and were met with screams from The Creature.
It was French who, in 1980, changed the way BYU’s offense called out pass protection. During a loss at New Mexico, Jim McMahon struggled to identify blitzes designed by Lobos D-coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. McMahon was sacked and threw interceptions in his worst game as a Cougar.
The next week, French worked tirelessly to establish new protocol: The center would identify and call out blocking assignments and protections from that day forth. It became a staple for decades.
French excelled because he paid the price watching enemy film. He was a passionate master teacher. He cared about details. He knew tendencies, formations, blitzes. His pass protections were exact. He prepared his players, and during games, when tweaks and adjustments were needed, he made them based on real knowledge and could do it in real time.
“Those quarterbacks were very good, but they all needed to be protected,” said Olson. “Roger’s value to BYU football through all the coaches was that he gave stability. LaVell loved him and would never have gotten rid of him.”
That kind of knowledge doesn’t come with a title, money, bonuses or fame. It comes from paying the price of putting in time. French spent more time preparing BYU players than any coach who ever worked at BYU before or since.
BYU O-linemen became famous and pride in their own work soared. French graded every lineman on every play with a plus or minus system. He believed if his linemen graded out at 95 percent in pass protection they’d win. If they graded out at 85 percent in run blocking, they’d win.
Players accepted the challenge. Soon, because of their prowess in execution, opponents complained they had an unfair advantage. Critics would say they were too old and many were married. It wasn’t fair.
French’s quirks and superstitions and sayings became endearing treasures for his players.
One such tale is that French ate pregame meals with the team at the Cannon Center and then would walk to games, his head down. He was looking for coins. Once he got to the press box, he’d show the money he’d found and put it in his shoe, declaring his finds as good luck.
Deep snapper Regan Andrews heard about the ritual and started to chum French — dropping coins on the sidewalk leading to the stadium. French was excited to announce his treasures — dimes and quarters and pennies. Certainly, they’d win that day.
More often than not, they did just that.
Visitation will be 3 to 5 p.m Sunday, Feb. 11 at Washburn McReavy Glen Haven Chapel, 5125 WestBroadway, Crystal, Minnesota, 55429. Monday visitation at 11 a.m., with funeral services at 12 noon followed by lunch at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 7401 County Road 101, Maple Grove, Minnesota. Cards and wishes can be sent to Gail Luedke/Kathy Cottam, 7300 Pioneer Trail, Loretto, Minnesota, 55357