LaVell Edwards finally served a Mormon mission when he was 72 years old. While there, he ended up building something. He couldn't help it.
Normally, heading off on a mission is an activity reserved for the young. During his 29 seasons as the head football coach at Brigham Young University, the unofficial epicenter of the Mormon world, Edwards had perpetually juggled his depth charts to accommodate the mission trips of his players. But while he was busy doing that, not to mention winning 257 games, there had never been time to do a mission of his own.
After retiring at the end of the 2000 season, a year that ended with his being carried off the field by his players following a defeat of archrival Utah, he and Patti, his wife of six decades, finally got the call. In 2002, they headed to New York for an 18-month public affairs assignment.
"I had no plans to do anything with football. I had promised Patti that football was done and we were really enjoying our work there in New York," Edwards recalled in a 2008 interview with ESPN The Magazine.
A group trying to revive high school football in Harlem, which hadn't had a team since before LaVell and Patti were married, caught wind that Edwards was in town. Part of his assignments included teaching a youngster on the fledgling team. They asked for the legend's help. "Next thing you know, there I am back on the sideline, in the middle of Harlem, coaching football again. I loved it. I loved teaching the game to kids and using football to teach them how to be better people. I loved getting those kids in touch with other football people to help them keep growing even after I left. We built something from nothing. That's always the best part of the job."
It should come as no surprise that Edwards found great joy through such construction projects because his entire Hall of Fame career was spent sitting atop a bulldozer disguised as a blocking sled. He was hired by BYU as an assistant coach in 1962, lured away from high school coaching because of his offensive prowess. Only, it wasn't the offense he's remembered for now.
"Believe it or not, I was a single wing guy," Edwards remembered with a laugh. "I'm pretty sure I was the only Mormon in the world running the single wing, so that's how I got the job. When I took over as head coach in '72 we actually led the nation in rushing. But I knew if we were going to take the next step as a football program, we had to do something different. So my second year we started throwing it."
That year the Cougars finished 5-6. It would be their last and only losing season under Edwards, who died Thursday at age 86. And it would also be the last time a BYU team struggled with flinging the ball downfield.
"That was the birth of western football right there," explained Fisher DeBerry, who joined the staff at Air Force in 1980, took over as head coach four years later, and spent the bulk of his career matching wits with Edwards. "Every region of the country sort of had its identity football-wise except for the teams in the mountains. LaVell set a tone of, we're going to move the football and score points and make you keep up. That became the identity for our part of the football world. We weren't all throwing it, but we were all sure flying around the field. We kept the scoreboard operators busy."
It was the wild, wild west of the Western Athletic Conference, an offensive explosion that became a staple of midnight Saturday programming on ESPN. It created a generation of points-loving, pass-happy football fans, who watched BYU and Hawaii run up and down the field until 2 a.m. and then tried to copy what they saw via their Sega Genesis controllers until the sun came up the next day. Meanwhile, Edwards earned a bit of a national cult following by way of his Mount Rushmore sideline stone face, a look that ran directly counter to his self-effacing sense of humor.
LaVell Edwards, BYU and even their Rocky Mountain late night rivals dared to have -- gulp -- fun.
"I watch up-tempo offenses now and I hear them called 'revolutionary' and I just kind of laugh," said Vai Sikahema, BYU's running back and electrifying Al-American return specialist in the mid-1980s. "Those of us that played in the WAC back in the day, we were already setting that pace 30 years ago. Sometimes it feels like it just took the rest of the country that long to catch up."
Edwards' offensive attack was continually belittled by the traditional college football power brokers during a time when the Big 8 was powered by the wishbone, the SEC was stuck in an I-formation, USC was still "Student Body Right" and eastern football was patting itself on the back for going out on a limb adopting the option. But BYU developed a knack for toppling those teams at just the right time to prove their point, and their rightful place.
See: Defeating top-ranked Miami on a Thursday night in 1990 ... Ty Detmer winning the Heisman Trophy later that year ... Jim McMahon erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl ... and Robbie Bosco & Co. defeating Michigan in the 1984 Holiday Bowl to win the most improbable of national championships.
"That was just how it was for us, constantly feeling like we needed to prove something, but in my book that was never a bad thing," Edwards explained. "Feeling like that makes you willing to work harder. It makes you take chances."
As the coach philosophized, he motioned to follow him out into the lobby of the BYU football offices, alongside the stadium that bore his name. There he pointed to a line of Holiday Bowl trophies, four in all. The Cougars played in first seven editions of the then-brand new postseason game. "Those trophies, they might as well be made out of rebar. We used them as a foundation for the construction of a very successful program. We knew the Rose Bowl wasn't going to call or one of the Florida bowl games. Not yet, anyway. So we took what we could get and we used that to really build something."
Before Edwards' taking over as head coach, BYU had never finished a season ranked, never been invited to a bowl game and had one conference championship in five decades of football. Since 1972 the Cougars have finished in the AP top 25 a total of 18 times, played in 35 bowls and won at least a share of 22 conference titles. When reminded of those numbers, he replied: "If others won't take you seriously, then you must give them a reason to take you seriously."
On that day eight years ago, smiling at the last national championship trophy won by a non-Power 5 program, LaVell Edwards was talking about -- and preaching to --- every underdog in the nation. Every football program that continues to work just as hard as the big boys, even though they operate within a system that won't guarantee them a big reward at the end. That's why it felt so fitting to so many that on Thursday, the day of his passing, the biggest non-game headline in the college football world was "Group of 5 schools considering own playoff."
"What a story like his does is it gives others hope," said Frank Beamer, a man who will one day join Edwards in the College Football Hall of Fame after steering longtime also-ran independent Virginia Tech into becoming a household brand. "If you work hard and you do it the right way, then one day the dream comes true. That's what I learned from LaVell Edwards and I can't even imagine how many other people out there who knew him or just admired him all learned that same lesson."
How to build something from nothing.