BYU » Legendary ex-Cougars coach keeps busy with family, friends, golf and garden.
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Provo » He drives by the 64,000-seat football stadium that bears his name almost daily, but 79-year-old LaVell Edwards says he rarely glances at the lettering on the west facade, or thinks about how it all came to be for a small-town boy raised on a farm just a half-dozen miles away, the eighth of 14 children.
"I really don't think a whole lot about it, except when I do, it is still mind-boggling to me, how it all happened," says the former BYU football coach.
After all, he's got 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren with another one on the way to think about. Then there's his charity work, his garden, his church calling, his friendships with former players and those still in the college football coaching profession, and his above-average golf game that keep him occupied.
"It is funny," Edwards says. "I hear people that retire say that they are as busy as they have ever been, and I used to wonder about that. But I guess it is true. It just seems like there is always something I need to be doing, or have been doing. But at the end of the week, I sit down and I think, what did I do?"
Ten years ago this summer, midway through BYU's 2000 fall football camp, Edwards announced that the upcoming season, his 29th, would be his last.
While several of his coaching contemporaries at the time, men such as Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden, are still coaching (Paterno) or were pushed out at the end of the 2009 season (Bowden), Edwards says he has no regrets, even as others have passed him on the all-time coaching wins list.
"That has been the interesting thing," he says. "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.' "
Actually, Edwards said last week that he was planning to retire at the end of the 1999 season. The Cougars were 8-1 after beating San Diego State that year, but star running back Luke Staley was injured in the game. They were upset by Wyoming, then lost to Utah and to Marshall in a bowl game.
"That was a downer, finishing like that," he says. "The more I thought about it, the more I didn't want to end like that. So I made the decision to come back for one more year."
He knew 2000 was going to be difficult with a new quarterback to break in, so he decided to make the retirement announcement before the season started.
"I didn't want to get into the season and have everyone speculate whether I should retire, and whether it was time for me to go," he says. "If we had gone undefeated that year, I still would have done the same thing, because there were other things I wanted to do."
Sure enough, the Cougars struggled, and were 4-6 before beating New Mexico -- on the night Cougar Stadium was renamed LaVell Edwards Stadium in his honor -- and Utah "in one of the more dramatic endings we have ever had" to finish 6-6.
Quarterback Brandon Doman, now BYU's quarterbacks coach, led the Cougars to those final two wins.
"We should have gone to Brandon earlier, now that I look back at it," Edwards says. "He made the difference."
Buddies in the business
Paterno turned 83 last Thursday and is set to begin his 45th season as a head coach this fall. Bowden is 80.
Edwards was described as stoic and even-tempered when he compiled 257 wins, 19 conference championships and the 1984 national championship from 1972 to 2000. But he gets emotional when he talks about the way Bowden's situation was handled last winter, or how Paterno was treated for a time a few years ago by a portion of Penn State's fan base.
"Unfortunate, really unfortunate," he says. "Just an absolute shame, especially with what happened to Bobby. It breaks my heart."
A recent trend in the coaching business for programs to name successors -- as has occurred at Florida State, Oregon and Texas -- is not a good thing for longtime coaches, Edwards believes.
"When they have named the heir apparent prior to the other guy leaving, I don't like that," Edwards says. "I just think that has a built-in potential for disaster. And I am not sure that's not what happened at Florida State."
Along with those programs and obviously BYU's, Edwards says he still follows Ron McBride's career at Weber State, after the two became close friends when McBride coached at Utah.
"He's done a phenomenal job at Weber," Edwards says, recalling a comment from McBride's wife, Vicki, about how staying in coaching is McBride's way of "smelling the roses."
As for Edwards, his way has been more literal. Since stepping away, he has found more time to nurture his flower garden, his ever-growing extended family, and his golf game, although he says rumors that he plays golf every day are exaggerated.
"When the weather is good, maybe a couple times a week," he says. "That's about it."
Edwards says he actually started thinking about getting out when he was 60, not because he was getting burned out, but because he wanted to do something different.
"The last thing I wanted to do was die in the saddle, so to speak," he said. "I had other things I wanted to do. I went until I was 70. That was long enough. It was just a case of simply, 'I have enjoyed it. I had a great run, a lot better than I anticipated it ever would have been.' So there were other things I wanted to do."
Keeping contact with the Cougars
Edwards raves about the job current BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is doing, and is especially pleased with the way Mendenhall has worked to bring back the traditions that Edwards established.
He says the two talk periodically. When a BYU player makes the news for the wrong reasons, as was the case last month when star running back Harvey Unga voluntarily withdrew from school for reasons related to the Honor Code, Edwards understands what Mendenhall is going through.
"There are a lot of college coaching jobs that are tough, for different reasons, and BYU is one of them," Edwards says. "I think everybody has got their own issues to deal with, no matter where they coach. We are maybe a little bit unique here that way. But it also gives us some strength, I think. You just have to deal with it, and handle it the best you can."
Asked why Gary Crowton struggled to win games in his second, third and fourth season after succeeding Edwards, the legendary coach says he was in New York for part of the time, but offered one theory.
"Gary is a very good football coach. I thought it was a good choice when they hired Gary," he said. "But being a great assistant coach doesn't automatically mean that you are going to be a good head coach. It is hard to explain what it is. There are just some people that can make things work, and connect."
A few years ago, Edwards was given a suite at the stadium. Prior to that, he sat in the bleachers with the fans.
He has a special connection to the team lately because his grandson, Matthew Edwards, is a walk-on tight end. Recently, Matthew announced he might want to go into coaching.
"I told him, 'Man, I don't know what kind of judgment you have. But they have to proceed with what they want to do,' " Edwards says.
Having realized a lifelong dream by serving an 18-month LDS Church mission with his wife in New York City from 2002-2003, and having traveled to almost every continent on the planet, Edwards says he doesn't have a "bucket list" quite yet, and isn't close to slowing down.
They own a place near St. George, but still live year-round in Provo and rarely spend more than a few days at a time at their Southern Utah home.
"We would like to spend more time there, but there are always speaking or family obligations, church callings and different things up here, so it hasn't worked out like I thought it would," he says.
Edwards has had stents put in his heart a couple of times, once while he was coaching and another while on his mission. He's had some melanoma removed from his heel, and a knee replacement.
But he says he feels fine now, as does Patti, his wife of 59 years.
"We feel pretty good, except for the aches and pains. But you learn to live with those, and life goes on," he says. "Like they say, life is good."
For the farmboy from Orem, that's especially true these days, with or without a team to coach.
Edwards enjoys life after football
» 29 Seasons as BYU's head football coach (1972-2000)
» Won 257 games, sixth all-time among NCAA Division I coaches
» Won 19 conference titles and one national title
» Two-time national coach of the year
» Produced a Heisman Trophy winner and 31 All-America players