PROVO, Utah — The trick to BYU football, according to recently retired head coach LaVell Edwards, is "to win, and to win right."
Apparently, he mastered the trick of winning, leaving the NCAA Division I ranks as its sixth-winningest coach ever with a 257-101-3 record over 29 seasons.
Winning right, however, may be what most distinguishes Coach Edwards.
His fan base goes beyond the BYU faithful to his peers in the coaching ranks, the media, and, to some extent, to rival fans. He admitted with a smile, during a Church News interview, that the standing ovation he received from University of Utah students and other fans in an opponent stadium prior to his final game "has got to be the most unbelievable thing that's ever happened in the history of sports."
Such tributes were common during his final season. He was lauded not only as an excellent football coach but as a man of integrity and a good friend.
He said he didn't set out to be anything but himself, but that worked out fine.
It was tough in the beginning, he recalled. When he was hired to take over a relatively obscure BYU football program in 1972, he quickly discovered there were many pressures beyond the pressure to win. Suddenly he had to cope with the the players' conduct, their academics and their personal and social problems. "I didn't think I was going to make it through the year, let alone a career," he said.
But he succeeded by being himself. "I've always had a sense of how I wanted to do things and I have always done it that way," he said.
Dealing with players and their challenges and problems was no different, in his mind, than dealing with young people in his student ward when he served as a bishop. As he did with ward members, "I spent a lot of time talking individually with the players."
BYU and its unique honor code created a situation for him that is not commonly shared by coaches at other schools. Because of honor code violations, he has lost players, but he also pointed out, "I lost students when I was a bishop on campus, but nothing was ever said about them. They didn't make the news. Our football team, in spite of the publicity we got at times, wasn't unlike the ward. The only problem is, the players are a whole lot more visible. When someone saw we were doing something wrong, right away half the world knew about it."
Dealing with those matters in such a public way was difficult, he said. "But it's here and it has never been an issue that I've had a problem with.
"It has also been a plus for us because we've had a lot of parents who have wanted to help us get their sons to come here and play for us because they wanted them to be in this environment."
And ultimately, it was the BYU atmosphere and his association with players and others at the school that kept him grounded for nearly three decades in spite of lucrative enticements to move elsewhere.
"What was best for me and my family was here," he said.
He shared in the joy of many events in the lives of his players — marriages and new babies, for example — and saw several join the Church because of the influence of teammates and other BYU students.
Over the years he counseled many about missions.
He said, "A lot of times young men have been sitting in my office trying to decide about a mission and I'm sitting here thinking in the back of my mind, 'Man, he could really help us next year.' But I've never said that."
He encouraged players to go on missions when they were ready to go regardless of their situation on the football team. "That's always been my approach," he said. "Whether I was coaching here or whether I was coaching anywhere else, I would still feel the same way."
The now retired coach reflected on the blessings he received during his career, mentioning his good health that has continued year after year, and especially his family. He spoke affectionately of his wife, Patti, who didn't even like football when they got married.
"She is the one who had to sit in the stands and listen to all the comments," he said. "She is the one who had to keep the family together while her husband was gone so much. . . . Patti truly represents what a wife of a football coach should be. She has been very supportive. It has been special the last number of years to have her be able to travel with me pretty much wherever I've gone."
Together they have "three outstanding children who have married outstanding mates and have nice families and are doing very well with their lives professionally and spiritually," he said. "You just can't have better blessings than what have come to us as a family."
Coach Edwards ended his career as a winner, who won the right way. He concluded that you can't separate your spiritual side from any other part of your life. "If you do," he said, "I don't think you are what you ought to be."
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