For long-time Cougar fans, the name LaVell Edwards likely conjures images of the stoic guy on the sidelines who in 1981 put a nail-biting damper on Washington State’s first bowl invitation in 50 years. For Leach, though, Edwards was a high priest of the aerial arts who fueled the young rugby player’s fascination with football.
Leach was a student at BYU when Edwards had the Provo Cougars perennially flying high in the polls.
“It was the golden age at BYU at the time,” said Leach. “When I got there, Gifford Nielsen was quarterback, then it was Marc Wilson, then Jim McMahon for two years, and Steve Young was just coming in.”
Toss in Robbie Bosco on the back end of that list and you have a full half-a-generation of national quarterbacking supremacy.
“As far as football, it had a big influence (on my thinking),” Leach said of the offense Edwards ran at BYU.
The value of “getting the ball out and into everyone’s hands,” he said, was one of the indelible memories of Edwards’ genius.
In their 2013 book, The System, Jeff Benedit and Armen Keteyian write of the Edwards impact on the young Leach:
During Leach's freshman year he had entered his name in a drawing and won season tickets on the forty-yard line. From that perch he began studying BYU's offensive scheme: a controlled passing game with a somebody always in motion before the snap; lots of receiver running a combination of vertical routes and crossing patterns; throwing to the backs in the flat. Edwards's innovative system was a forerunner of the West Coast Offense ... To the casual fan BYU's system looked pretty complicated. And to a certain extent, it was. But Leach had figured out that the genius of Edwards was the way he packaged his plays. He used an endless number of formations to disguise about fifty basic plays.
From BYU, Leach went on to earn a law degree at Pepperdine, but he knew coaching — football, not rugby — was his true passion. “I didn’t wanna get old and wish I’d coached, so I thought I’d coach for a few years and get it out of my system, and I’ve been coaching ever since,” he said. “I felt like I could go back (to law) if coaching didn’t work out.”
Leach is one of the few coaches in the nation who didn’t play college football. Coaching is a skill, he said — one that’s completely different from playing and one he’s been developing for nearly his entire life.
“I started coaching little league baseball from age 15 through sophomore year in college, and I kinda got the coaching bug there,” he explained.
The jump into college football — first at Cal Poly and then at College of the Desert — wasn’t intentional.
“Originally I would've gone to high school to start out, but it was funny. I had a law degree, I had a master’s degree, but I didn’t major in education,” he said, so being a high school coach wasn't an option.
Coaching is a remarkable profession, he notes. “You love it, you hate it, but you think about it all the time.”
He believes the nature of college coaching, with greater continuity and more creativity with schemes, is superior to the NFL.
“Staffs (in the NFL) aren’t as stable as they used to be. They’re constantly unplugging them. It’s kind of like if a farmer were to go out and plant corn and it grows nine inches instead of a foot, and they just plough it all under and start over again, where if they let it be, it’d probably grow into pretty good corn.”
He said it’s no coincidence that the most dominate team in the NFL — the New England Patriots — have had the same head coach since 2000.
“There was a point when I was growing up, coaches were getting older and older, and there were a lot of coaches in the NFL that were like 70 … you weren’t gonna catch (their players) lining up wrong, you weren’t gonna catch them unsound.”
AS FOR THE COLLEGE GAME, GUIDING A roster of 125 against high-level opponents isn’t easy, he says, but in simplest terms it’s about leading young men to develop good habits on and off the field.
One habit he holds especially dear is hustle.
“Anybody’s capable of giving great effort, and if somebody doesn’t give great effort, I’ll get on them just as quick as you do as the worst walk-on, and don’t apologize for it, either,” he said.
The end goal is seamless execution on Saturdays — something he believes is actually impossible to attain.
“In football, you’re always in a state of mass confusion. I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a perfect play," he says matter-of-factly.
“When you have 11 guys going 11 different directions, somebody always probably could have done something better. So there’s a lot of moving parts and they’re different shapes and sizes, with different roles, significantly different roles, and it’s flowing. Once the ball is snapped, everybody’s flowing, and the 11 guys on their other side of the ball are following.”
On a final note, Leach talked religion — the real kind, not the gridiron variety. While he doesn’t come across as overtly devout, he does say that his Mormon faith still informs him and keeps him humble.
“I’m not perfect. All religions pick their sins, but you do the best you can,” he said. “I’m pretty good with the Ten Commandments … If you get too perfect, they’ll close the churches down.”
Jim McMahon wouldn’t want it any other way.
COUGS VS. COUGS AT 1981 HOLIDAY BOWL: RICKY TURNER SCORES ON LaVELL EDWARDS' BYU SQUAD: