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Provo • Reared on a dairy farm and an orchard in Orem with 13 siblings, LaVell Edwards emerged from humble circumstances to revolutionize college football for nearly three decades with a wide-open offensive approach and dominant passing attack that turned BYU's football program into a consistent winner and brought the school one of the most unlikely national championships in the sport's history.
He was a soft-spoken, gentle man with a wry sense of humor and self-deprecating style that won him legions of admirers throughout the world. Edwards died Thursday at age 86 due to complications related to old age, and after a fall on Christmas Eve that fractured a hip and worsened his condition, according to his daughter, Ann Cannon, a Salt Lake Tribune columnist.
Edwards, who celebrated his 65th wedding anniversary with his wife, Patti, last summer, was so successful in turning BYU football into a national brand after years of mediocrity that the LDS Church-owned school named its football stadium after him following his retirement in 2000.
Edwards compiled a 257-101-3 record in 29 seasons at Brigham Young University, a tenure that ranks him fifth all-time for coaches at one school. The Cougars won or shared 20 conference titles in his 29 seasons, went to 22 bowl games, winning seven, and were crowned the 1984 national champs. His 257 victories rank him seventh among coaches in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history.
But his on-field successes pale to what he accomplished as a friend, role model, mentor and father figure, many former players and coaches said.
"LaVell's greatness was in the way he took care of his players and assistant coaches," said former BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who worked under Edwards for 26 seasons in Provo. "He loved them, simple as that. … He wasn't a scheme guy. He left that up to the rest of us. He was a guy who took care of the program and everybody in it."
Tributes poured in from all around the country Thursday as news of Edwards' death spread, and national television outlets such as ESPN and Fox Sports dedicated entire segments to the passing of the legendary coach.
"He didn't invent the passing game, but it was LaVell who really brought it into college football in a big way," said former BYU offensive lineman Trevor Matich, now an ESPN college football analyst. "He was truly an innovator, but he did it out of necessity. He needed to maximize the [limited] talent that he had."
Another ESPN analyst who played for Edwards, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, said Edwards' genius was finding the best in people and showing them how they could become even better without damaging their self-esteem.
"He had the ability to see things in people that were better than they saw in themselves," Young said. "What he really did was he saw ahead, saw into the future. It was a gift. He was a visionary."
In the home of a prized recruit, in a locker room full of eager players or at a crowded news conference filled with skeptical reporters, Edwards had the amazing ability to take over a room, Young, Chow and others said Thursday as they fought to hold back sniffles and tears.
"He would walk into a house and absolutely capture the room," Chow said of Edwards' recruiting techniques. "He would close the deal, absolutely."
Chow recalled a time after BYU lost badly in a game and a new secondary coach was dreading the traditional Monday morning meeting, expecting a good chewing out from Edwards. Instead, "LaVell walked up to him and asked, 'Why would anybody want to be a secondary coach at BYU? I will never understand that,' " Chow said. "That was how LaVell was."
Edwards was also famous for his dry one-liners, including the time he warned revenue-hungry bowl organizers that frugal BYU fans would show up for an out-of-town game with the Ten Commandments and a $100 dollar bill and break neither. He had very few enemies, except perhaps for folks in Wyoming when he uttered that he would rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie after the Cowboys pummeled the Cougars in a blizzard on the high plains.
He once said he preferred both speed and quickness for his wide receivers, "but if they had both, they would be at USC."
And there were dozens of other quips, jokes and witticisms, even to the very end, Cannon said.
Many came at weekly media gatherings in Salt Lake City, where he sat at a table with the state's other major college football coaches and regaled reporters with tales and anecdotes and formed lifelong friendships, including one with his biggest rival, former University of Utah coach Ron McBride.
The two famously teased each other in popular bank commercials after McBride's Utes beat Edwards' Cougars by identical 34-31 scores in 1993 and 1994. They more recently appeared on a weekly sports radio program together, often reminiscing and still playfully poking each other for two hours.
Edwards did more to soften the often-bitter Utah-BYU rivalry than any person in the past century, several former players said. He had a 6-5 record against McBride and was 22-7 against Utah. Before Edwards became BYU's head coach, the Cougars were 5-37-4 against Utah.
Only Penn State's Joe Paterno (409) and Florida State's Bobby Bowden (304) have more wins at one Division I school than Edwards had at BYU (257).
"I was saddened to hear that LaVell passed away this morning," said current BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who played for Edwards and has said he wants to stay at BYU as long as he can and become the "Polynesian version" of Edwards. "As I have expressed many times, LaVell had a tremendous impact on me, not only as a player and as a coach, but even more importantly as a person. That is LaVell he had an impact on so many lives, and not just as a coach, but as a person."
Matich, the ESPN analyst, said he got a little rebellious after his freshman year at BYU. He grew a mustache and let his hair fall below his collar, both Honor Code no-nos at the time. Edwards called the young offensive lineman into his office, looked at Matich for a few moments, and then said: "Do you have that out of your system yet?"
Matich got the hint and headed straight to the barbershop.
"That's all LaVell had to say," Matich added, "and I walked out of there like I had been rebuked by the host of heaven."
Edwards coached Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer in 1990, along with two Outland Trophy winners, four Davey O'Brien award winners, 31 All-Americans and four College Football Hall of Famers. He was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 1979 and the AFCA National Coach of the Year in 1984 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
"I love LaVell Edwards," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who played under Edwards before moving on to a professional football career and a head coaching job at California.
"He came into my life, and the lives of many others, at just the right time. I had the influence of a great coach, a wonderful person, a disciple of Christ, a loyal family man and a true friend, from the day I met him until the day he passed away. LaVell had a pure heart."
Edwards was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, named the state's Coach of the Century, and coached seven quarterbacks who became All-Americans: Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and Steve Sarkisian.
In a 2010 interview with The Tribune marking his first 10 years of retirement, Edwards said he had no regrets even as others passed him on the all-time coaching wins list.
"That has been the interesting thing," he said. "I have never, ever had any second thoughts about whether I should have retired, or whether I should have waited. There would be moments that I would think, 'Man, it would be pretty good to still be coaching.' But then I would think of all the other aspects that went with the job the day-to-day grind, all the issues like players' grades, and the players' conduct, and all the other things that go with the job. Then I would say, 'There's no way I would want to go back to that. No way.' "
Born as Reuben LaVell Edwards in Orem on Oct. 11, 1930, Edwards worked on the family farm in central Utah County throughout his teenage years but chose to attend Utah State University, rather than nearby BYU, because he wanted to get away from milking cows every morning.
After graduating from Lincoln High in Orem, he was an all-conference lineman at USU and was named a member of the Aggies' All-Century Football Team in 1993.
He earned a master's degree from the University of Utah before coaching at BYU, where he earned a doctorate.
The list of notables who played or coached under Edwards includes former Washington and USC coach Sarkisian, former Hawaii coach Chow, current Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, former Oregon State coach Dave Kragthorpe and NFL coaches Brian Billick, Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid.
"It was heartbreaking to hear the news of coach Edwards' passing," Whittingham said in a statement. "I have many fond memories of coach Edwards and was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play under his tutelage as well as coach under him as a graduate assistant. He made such a positive impact on so many lives and to me that is what his legacy is all about, and what is most important."
Edwards is survived by his wife, the former Patti Covey of Big Piney, Wyo., and three children: Cannon, John (an orthopedic doctor) and Jim (an attorney).
Cannon said a public memorial service is being planned for Friday evening. More details will be published when they become available.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @drewjay LaVell Edwards' coaching record
Year • W-L Bowl Result
1972 • 7-4
1973 • 5-6
1974 • 7-4-1* Lost to Oklahoma St. in Fiesta Bowl, 18-6
1975 • 6-5
1976 • 9-3* Lost to Oklahoma St. in Tangerine Bowl, 49-21
1977 • 9-2*
1978 • 9-4* Lost to Navy in Holiday Bowl, 23-16
1979 • 11-1* Lost to Indiana in Holiday Bowl, 38-37
1980 • 12-1* Beat SMU in Holiday Bowl, 46-45
1981 • 11-2* Beat Washington State in Holiday Bowl, 38-36
1982 • 8-4* Lost to Ohio State in Holiday Bowl, 47-17
1983 • 11-1* Beat Missouri in Holiday Bowl, 21-17
1984 • 13-0** Beat Michigan in Holiday Bowl, 24-17
1985 • 11-3* Lost to Ohio State in Citrus Bowl, 10-7
1986 • 8-5 Lost to UCLA in Freedom Bowl, 31-10
1987 • 9-4 Lost to Virginia in All-American Bowl, 31-10
1988 • 9-4 Beat Colorado in Freedom Bowl, 20-17
1989 • 10-3* Lost to Penn State in Holiday Bowl, 50-39
1990 • 10-3* Lost to Texas A&M in Holiday Bowl, 65-14
1991 • 8-3-2* Tied Iowa in Holiday Bowl, 13-13
1992 • 8-5* Lost to Kansas in Aloha Bowl, 23-20
1993 • 6-6* Lost to Ohio State in Holiday Bowl, 28-21
1994 • 10-3 Beat Oklahoma in Copper Bowl, 31-6
1995 • 7-4*
1996 • 14-1* Beat Kansas State in Cotton Bowl, 19-15
1997 • 6-5
1998 • 9-5 Lost to Tulane in Liberty Bowl, 41-27
1999 • 8-4* Lost to Marshall in Motor City Bowl, 21-3
2000 • 6-6
Total • 257-101-3
* Won or tied for conference championship
** Won national championship
• Raised on a farm in Orem with 13 siblings before becoming an all-conference lineman at Utah State University.
• Served as BYU's head football coach for 29 seasons (1972-2000).
• Guided Cougars to a 13-0 record in 1984, winning the school's only football national championship.
• Won 257 games, seventh all-time among NCAA Division I coaches.
• Won 20 conference titles and one national title.
• Two-time national coach of the year.
• Produced a Heisman Trophy winner, Ty Detmer, and 31 All-America players.
• Only Penn State's Joe Paterno (409) and Florida State's Bobby Bowden (304) have won more games at one school.
Most Wins, NCAA Division I Football Coaches
Wins Coach, School(s) Years
409 Joe Paterno, Penn State 1966-2011
377 Bobby Bowden, Samford, West Virginia, Florida State 1959-2009
336 Pop Warner, Georgia, Iowa State, Cornell, Carlisle, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Temple 1895-1938
323 Bear Bryant, Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama 1945-1982
314 Amos Alonzo Stagg, Springfield, Chicago, Pacific 1890-1946
278 Frank Beamer, Murray State, Virginia Tech 1987-2015
257 LaVell Edwards, BYU 1972-2000
Note: Bowden had 304 wins at FSU, 12 were later vacated; Bryant had 232 wins at Alabama; Beamer had 238 wins at Virginia Tech; Stagg had 244 wins at Chicago