The friendships among college coaches have always been an inspiration, although it would not require a research expert to confirm that among the ole timers who won a lot of big games, there were more than a few accomplished carousers and hard-core imbibers.
Nonetheless, they seemed to enjoy one another’s company and were not attracted to the game to get rich quick, which seems to be driving coaching aspirants today.
As a matter of fact, there probably are more clean-living coaches than ever. It is quite elementary. When the compensation line on your contract reads, “$3,000,000,” annually, you catch on real quick that DUIs and suspicious gossip are not compatible with career longevity.
Nonetheless, I’d take the old guys who were classic story tellers, seasoned raconteurs, and colorful characters. They had more fun.
With every era, you could always find a truly good guy. When a nice guy comes along and wins big, sports feels so good it dramatically turns your head and punctuates your emotions with thanksgiving.
When LaVell Edwards, the gentleman coach of Brigham Young, passed away recently, I thought of the many exceptional qualities that brought him an exalted reputation.
You felt that you were in the company of a saint if you happen to walk the BYU campus with him. You expected a halo to form over his head as we moved about the Mormon Valhalla.
Coaches are revered for winning, regardless of their character. LaVell got plenty of reverence in Provo. However, he got more. You could sense the endearing respect that came from his constituency. He was a good Mormon. He believed in the tenets of the faith. In fact, when he retired from coaching, he and his wife Patti spent a couple of years in New York City, serving as missionaries.
With a laid-back style, but a commitment to excellence without avarice or greed, Edwards developed a West Coast style passing offense before Bill Walsh and the 49ers popularized it. Edwards simply believed you could move the football best with the forward pass.
Ball control with the short passing game was his modus operandi. He felt that the passing game was an “equalizer” for BYU which would never be the recruiting beneficiary of overpowering personnel. He was a finesse guy.
LaVell enjoyed close friendships with professional golfers, Billy Casper and Johnny Miller, fellow Mormons, especially the former, with whom he often played the game.
He also was Casper’s guest a few times at the Masters and considered playing golf at Augusta a high moment in his life. He had an old-fashioned reverence for the game of golf.
In golf, gentlemen penalize themselves when they violate a rule. While there never was a hint of impropriety during his tenure at BYU, those who knew him believed LaVell would have taken the same action with his football program if something or somebody had gone afoul of the rules.
An affiliation with a series of football coaching clinics allowed for a bond of friendship with LaVell, who enjoyed a good story.
He had a dry sense of humor and was always a proponent of goodwill. Once, in Athens for a speaking engagement, he was our house guest. It was springtime when the flowers were blooming at peak and the birds were chirruping. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear the Mormon Tabernacle choir. We sat down on the patio with a cup of coffee and a tape recorder.
Those were memorable and treasured moments. Among the points he made about his coaching experience were these salient references:
• It is not uncommon for us to take the ball and keep it six or seven minutes and maybe make eight or ten or a dozen first downs in a drive.
• At one stretch we had five quarterbacks who were All-America and they all made it into the Hall of Fame: Ty Detmer, Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen.
• When I began at BYU, our stadium only seated about 10,000. We averaged 4,000 to 5,000 except when it was deer season. Then we drew about 500. (That facility today seats nearly 65,000 and is named LaVell Edwards Stadium.)
• When the wishbone was popular, it took the defenses about five years to catch up. The forward pass and the option caused all the scoring; then the spread became prominent. The defenses haven’t been able to catch up.
• Coaching is a lot tougher now. Technology has made a big difference in the game. Coaches are paid more but there is unbelievable impatience.
Reflecting on LaVell’s life and career, I thought of Grantland Rice’s memorable verse: “For when the One Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.”
When this selfless coach crossed that mystic river in the last fortnight, he got the highest of marks from the “One Great Scorer.” Few, if any, coaches have ever been better for the game than Reuben LaVell Edwards.