LaVell Edwards, the Man Who Reinvented BYU Football
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Man for All Seasons

LaVell Edwards on the field

In 29 years at the helm of BYU football, LaVell Edwards left fans a legacy of memories: conference championships, bowl games, outstanding quarterbacks, NCAA records, and—not least—his stoic sideline demeanor. But among players and fellow coaches, Edwards is also remembered for his courtesy, counsel, and humor.

President Hinkley with LaVell Edwards
President Gordon B. Hinckley came personally to rename Cougar Stadium in LaVell Edwards’ honor. Photo by Mark Philbrick.

LaVell Edwards (EdD ’78) and BYU football were a match made in heaven if there ever was one.

It was a 39-year marriage. But nobody guessed it would last that long back in 1962, when Edwards, then a 32-year-old high school coach with aspirations of being a guidance counselor, became the Cougars’ defensive line coach. Ten years later he was hired as the head coach with exactly zero fanfare.

Edwards transformed a religious, cold-weather school with no football tradition into a national power. He unleashed an unconventional offense that threw the football, a trend that eventually caught on. He was the reason the school had to expand Cougar Stadium into a 65,000-seat monument. He was one of the most successful college football coaches of all time.

LaVell and the team hold up the trophy
LaVell Edwards helps hoist the 1980 Miracle Bowl trophy. Photo by Mark Philbrick.

But forget the statistics, innovations, records, honors, and championships. It was his style and personality that set him apart. Edwards never took himself too seriously. Perhaps the only person who doesn’t see Edwards as a legend is Edwards himself.

He was different from most coaches in almost every way. He didn’t have the big contract with the big ego to match. He didn’t wear a headset on the sidelines, he didn’t throw temper tantrums, he didn’t berate his players. Instead he had a calm, aw-shucks demeanor that belied his competitive nature and jovial spirit. “Someone once said I’m actually a happy guy,” he has said, “I just forgot to tell my face.” Humor and humility were hallmarks of his tenure, whether in victory or defeat.

For instance, in 1997 after undergoing surgery to repair blocked carotid arteries in his neck, days after a frustrating loss to in-state rival Utah, Edwards joked that the reason his team passed the ball only 16 times was a lack of oxygen to his brain.

And in 1981 following a tough loss at Wyoming in a blinding snowstorm, Edwards cracked, “I’d rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie.”

He was always approachable. He treated Daily Universe cub reporters and well-known Sports Illustrated writers the same way—with respect. In return Edwards received universal respect from the media, as well as from fans (not just those from BYU) and peers in the profession. No wonder USA Today called him “a national coaching treasure.”

Now his career is over. What remains is a magnificent legacy. As far as those who know him best are concerned, only part of that legacy has wins for BYU to do with record-setting quarterbacks and a national championship. For Edwards is a man for all seasons, not just football season. To his family he is a devoted father and loving husband. To the players he coached, he is a father figure. As much as he was consumed about football, he was never consumed by football. He found time to listen to Willie Nelson’s music, to travel, to golf, to work in his flower garden, and to serve his church and community.

Now, in retirement from football, his autumns will be free for the first time in 56 years. He has grandchildren to spoil. He wants to go on an LDS mission. And, of course, he can spend more time with his real match-made-in-heaven. That would be his wife, Patti.

Patti and LaVell Edwards together
LaVell Edwards and his wife, Patti Covey Edwards, are held in the stocks in a campus activity. The couple married in 1951 and raised three children—Ann, John, and Jim. Photo by Mark Philbrick.

In Their Words:

Patti Edwards, LaVell’s wife: “When I married a football player nearly 50 years ago, I had no idea that he would become one of the legendary coaches in the history of college football. What I did know, when I married him, was that he was a gentle soul who loved me. Despite the roller-coaster ride and pressures of football, I have always known that I, along with our children, have come first. In the hustle-bustle world we live in, this knowledge is a great gift that he has given to us.”

Steve Young (BA ’84, JD ’94), former NFL and BYU quarterback:“I remember going on my recruiting trip to BYU and there was a big line of guys wanting to talk to LaVell outside his office. I was the last guy. LaVell knew my name but not much else. I didn’t know if he was going to offer me a scholarship or not. In his office he was sitting in his chair, and I saw a bunch of spiritual books – I was pretty impressed. I didn’t think the two could mix. As he sat there I thought for a second he had fallen asleep. He started chewing on his tongue, like he was looking for inspiration. Then he said, ‘I think we’ll give you a scholarship.’ I’m grateful he gave me, an option quarterback, a chance. He sees more in you than you can see in yourself. That’s the greatest compliment you can give a coach.”

Joe Paterno, Penn State head coach and longtime friend of Edwards: “LaVell had talked to me back in February that he was thinking of retiring. I tried to talk him out of it at the time. Obviously I am not a very good salesman. LaVell has been one of the true giants of our game. He is a magnificent human being and has done a fantastic coaching job. We have had some great games. We beat them up here and they kicked our ears in out there. We had a great game in the 1989 Holiday Bowl. He is always exciting to play against. When you played him, you played against a man in the program that had a lot of class.”

Robbie Bosco (BA ’86, MA ’90), quarterback of the 1984 National Championship team:“LaVell has always been a special person in my life … I feel grateful to have been around him the last 17 years. There’s been a lot of great moments, a lot of championships. Just seeing how he handles himself with the media and with people in general. He’s always genuine with them. He treats everybody well. Those are the things he’ll leave with me, more than winning football games.”

Paul James, KSL Radio play-by-play announcer: “LaVell has always been one of the cooler heads to prevail. He doesn’t rush to judgment. In 1980 BYU was beating Utah State handily. . . . Late in the game, Junior Filiaga was hit with a personal foul. He said, ‘Me?’The official walked away and Junior jumped on the official.

“On our postgame show I said,‘LaVell has just entered the booth.’ Before I could say another word, LaVell said to our audience,‘If any of you have any intention whatsoever of asking about Junior Filiaga, save your dime. I won’t comment until I talk to the young man, school administrators, and the conference commissioner.’ I couldn’t believe it. He was so emphatic about it. You know what? Not one person called about Junior Filiaga. I love that story because it shows how diplomatic LaVell is. He realized what the situation was. Not once has LaVell had to apologize to me for anything he has said on the air to me.”

Ann Edwards Cannon, LaVell’s daughter: “The way a man treats his daughter influences the way she expects to be treated by men for the rest of her life. In this respect I was incredibly lucky because I had a father who took me seriously. He made me feel that the things I did and said were as valid as the things my brothers did and said. He listened to me. He liked me. He let me speak my mind. He laughed at my stupid little jokes, and he thought I was smart – even when I was busy pulling C’s in the eighth grade. What a huge gift this all was! Although I have been intimidated plenty of times in my life, I have never once been intimidated by a man simply because I was a woman. That is my father’s legacy to me.”

Aggie Edwards holds a football
1 of 15: Lavell Edwards was an Aggie first. This 1951 photo captures Edwards, then quarterback and captain at Utah State University. Courtesy Deseret News.
Young LaVell Coaches surrounded by players
2 of 15: Edwards, third from the right, stands in line with the BYU coaching staff. He was hired to coach BYU’s defensive line in 1962. Courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections.
LaVell Edwards talks to the team in the locker room
3 of 15: Edwards on his first day as BYU’s head coach in 1972. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
Paul James with LaVell Edwards
4 of 15: Coach Edwards talks on air to KSL radio play-by-play announcer Paul James. After 37 years of calling Cougar games, James retired at the end of the 2000 season along with Edwards. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell Edwards with quarterback Gifford NIelsen
5 of 15: Coach Edwards talks to quarterback Gifford Nielsen (BA rsquo;77). With Nielsen, Edwards won his first WAC championship, led the Cougars to their first bowl game, and was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year. BYU became the first Division I school to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell Edwards graduating with a graduation cap and robe on
6 of 15: Edwards receives his doctor-of-education degree from BYU in 1978. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
Young LaVell Edwards on the field
7 of 15: Steve Young gets a sideline pep talk from Edwards. In Young’s BYU years, Edwards would notch his 100th victory and win NCAA Coach of the Year. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell and the team hold up the trophy
8 of 15: LaVell Edwards helps hoist the 1980 Miracle Bowl trophy. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell Edwards on the bleachers of the football field
9 of 15: Lavell Edwards is flanked by quarterback Steve Young (BA ’84, JD ’94) and tight end Gordon Hudson (BS ’84) Photo by Mark Philbrick
Bosco on the field
10 of 15: Robbie Bosco (BA ’86, MA ’90) was quarterback of Edwards’ 1984 national championship team. Says Bosco: “Just seeing how he handles himself with the media and with people in general. He’s always genuine with them. He treats everybody well. Those are the things he’ll leave with me, more than winning football games.” Photo by Mark Philbrick
LaVell Edwards with a player
11 of 15: Edwards trained the quarterbacks of BYU lore, from Nielsen to McMahon to Young to Bosco to Detmer. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
Detmer holding a football
12 of 15: BYU quarterback Ty Detmer led the Cougars in their 1990 defeat of defending national champion Miami, after which Detmer won the Heisman Trophy and the Davey O’Brien Award. Edwards was known for his “quarterback factory.” Photo by Mark Philbrick
LaVell Edwards with Joe Paterno on a football field
13 of 15: “LaVell has been one of the true giants of our game,” says Joe Paterno, coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions and a longtime friend of LaVell Edwards, both on and off the gridiron. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell Edwards on the field
14 of 15: Edwards is spotted through the fray in BYU’s defeat of Kansas state in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1997. Photo by Mark Philbrick.
LaVell Edwards waves to fans after a game on the football field
15 of 15: Coach Edwards leaves the field after his last home game in the stadium that would henceforth bear his name. Photo by Jaren Wilkey.