Edwards, Nehlen Built Winners

Former Brigham Young head football coach LaVell Edwards was the fifth annual speaker Wednesday for the Don Nehlen visiting lecturer series.

Edwards, who won 256 games in a 29-year career, won one national championship (1984) and coached former NFL quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim McMahon and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. He morphed a single wing offense into the original west coast passing attack many team utilize today.

"There has never, ever been a better job done anywhere than what Edwards did at BYU," Nehlen said. "He may be the most respected guy in America."

Nehlen, a 20-year head coach at West Virginia, met Edwards when both served on the AFCA head committee. Both coaches were AFCA presidents.

"I don't know how he did what he did," Nehlen said of Edwards. "Nobody has heard of BYU football before. He won 20 championships, 11 in a row. They probably all hated him. But what a great guy and great coach."

Edwards, in talking with student-athletes - including WVU football players Owen Schmitt, Jahmile Addae, George Shehl and Phil Brady - touched on his willingness to change for success and how he related to people in the profession.

Edwards said he was never big on rules because "at BYU you had so many rules just to go to school there." But he handled quarterbacks from McMahon to Detmer, and refocuses offenses yearly to play to the signal callers' strengths.

Edwards never had a winning record in eight years at Granite High, in Salt Lake City. He was hired at BYU as an assistant when the Cougars' new coach, Hal Mitchell, needed coaches who knew the single wing.

"I might have been the only Mormon running the single wing, but that didn't work, and he was fired," Edwards said. "Then another guy was brought in for a few years, and he was fired. Then they hired me."

Edwards had just four winning records in 18 years of coaching by 1973.

"That gives you an idea of how bad the job was," Edwards said. "Nobody wanted it. We had a 10,000-seat stadium, and we never filled it except every other year when Utah would come. And if we had a game during deer season there would be 2,500 women and children in the stands."

Edwards, too, tried the run the ball. He had a winning record his first season, but couldn't fathom BYU being able to recruit the nation's top athletes - much like Nehlen.

"I knew we had to do something different," Edwards said. "So we decided to start throwing the ball all over. I just thought 'What's it matter? It's when, not if, I will be fired.'"

So Edwards, who had completed his Master's from Utah following his undergrad at Utah State (where he was a captain and played center), worked on his Doctorate. He thought perhaps he could teach after he was fired.

That time never came. Edwards' BYU teams appeared in 22 bowl games (the only ones the school has competed in upon Edwards' retirement), won a national title, produced numerous consensus All-Americans. He was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 1979 and the AFCA National Coach of the Year in 1984. He won the Neyland Trophy for lifetime achievement in 1988 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in August.

"We had to think outside the box," Edwards said. "That's something I will tell every future coach. Nobody threw the ball then. But sometimes one has to do what works. You must establish a philosophical base. But there is no right and wrong, just consistency."

Edwards also stressed intensity in every aspect of a program.

"The guy after me must have known every single football play ever," Edwards said. "But there was no intensity there because none of the guys knew where to go or what to do. You can do all the Xs and Os you want. But it doesn't matter. We had four running plays and two passing plays on my high school team that won the state championship. Now, you have to have more than that, but we were always very simple in what we did. Our players knew what to run and where to go. We just did it out of different formations.

"To be intense, you don't have to be a hollering guy. I wasn't. I mainly walked around and watched. But some of the most intense guys were quiet guys. If they are concentrating and being intense, you are getting something out of them."

Detmer, Edwards said, was joking around constantly, but never lost focus.

"Nobody ever had more fun playing than that guy," Edwards said. "It worked for him. Just like with Young. We never thought he could play quarterback. We were going to move him to defensive back, but he just kept at it and threw and threw. He couldn't throw it between a wide door way from 12 feet. But a year later, he looked better than the guy we thought was going to be our quarterback."

Edwards also adapted his offenses to the quarterbacks. With Young, for example, it utilized more rollout passes and QB keepers. Detmer was more of a classic, drop-back style. And McMahon was, well, McMahon.

"McMahon, he never would have made it if he had been (at BYU) how he was when he left," Edwards said. "He really became a free spirit. But at that time he was different. He went to school, and knew what he had to do to stay eligible."

BYU even redshirted McMahon after his sophomore season while playing senior Marc Wilson, an All-American to-be. McMahon, Edwards said, might never have accepted that later in life, but dealt well with it then.

All four - Young, McMahon, Wilson and Detmer - became All-Americans. BYU never had a consensus All-American before 1979 and had very little football history before 1980. Nehlen took over a floundering Mountaineer program in 1980 and had two undefeated seasons and a Heisman Trophy finalist as well as coaching numerous professional players while building an unknown into a consistent program.

"It's amazing how much our careers paralleled each other," Edwards said, "except that he was a successful high school coach and I wasn't. Nehlen is one of the giants of the profession."

Both coaches finished as one of only 17 Division I-A coaches all-time to win more than 200 career games. Nehlen and Edwards both retired in 2000, Edwards with a 256-101-3 record. Nehlen won 203 games. BYU renamed its 65,000-seat stadium for Edwards before his final game.

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