LaVell Edwards was a defensive coach, but he saw the future of offense.
Long before pass-happy, spread offenses were fashionable, Edwards sparked a revolution in an unlikely location, turning BYU -- a Mormon institution with a strict honor code in Provo, Utah, and a football program with zero appearances in the AP poll or bowl trips before he became head coach -- into a pass-first behemoth that achieved consistent national relevance despite playing in the Western Athletic Conference. Edwards retired from coaching in 2000, but few people have been more influential on modern football than the BYU legend.
Edwards, who died on Thursday at the age of 86, leaves a legacy as one of the most successful and innovative coaches in college football history, with 257 wins, a national championship and a remarkable coaching tree that includes Mike Holmgren, Kyle Whittingham, Andy Reid, Norm Chow, Steve Sarkisian, Brian Billick and many others, plus significant influence on Mike Leach and Hal Mumme, whose Air Raid offenses changed the game in the 21st century.
A standout player at Utah State, Edwards coached high school football for several years before being hired as a defensive assistant at BYU. There, he rose to defensive coordinator and was promoted to replace Tommy Hudspeth in 1972. Hudspeth had a few successful seasons, but BYU was far from the national radar at the time.
Edwards decided to embrace what frustrated him the most as a defensive coach, aiming to make recruiting easier by veering away from what was trendy in college football -- the wishbone -- and embracing passing quarterbacks in a wide-open attack.
"I just don't think that the forward pass is a high-risk offense," Edwards told Sports Illustrated in 1984, during an undefeated season. "The wishbone is a high-risk offense."
Edwards coached at BYU from 1972-2000, and his Cougars teams led the nation in passing yards per game eight times. From 1974-91, he had 11 seasons in which one of his quarterbacks finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy race, including top-three finishes for Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon and Robbie Bosco, before Ty Detmer won the award in 1990. A quarter-century later, Detmer still ranks fifth all-time in career passing yards as was one of two players to pass for over 5,000 yards in a season in the 1900s.
BYU made seven trips in a row to the Holiday Bowl starting in 1978 and became a regular in the top 20. In 1980, with McMahon at the helm, BYU averaged 409 passing yards per game. Nobody else averaged more than 293. McMahon threw for 4,571 yards; nobody else hit 3,000.
The Cougars went from national curiosity to national power in 1984 with one of the most unlikely championships in college football history. After finishing 11-1 and ranked No. 7 in 1983 with Steve Young at quarterback, BYU opened the next season unranked in the AP poll. It opened the season by beating then-No. 3 Pitt 20-14 on the road -- Pitt, it turns out, was significantly overrated and finished 3-7-1 -- launching a season-long ascent. BYU waltzed through WAC play undefeated, and it gradually climbed in the polls as losses piled up for everyone else, despite complaints about its weak strength of schedule.
Only two other teams -- Washington and Florida -- finished with fewer than two losses. When No. 2 Oklahoma lost to No. 4 Washington in the Orange Bowl and BYU beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, both the AP and coaches polls agreed: BYU deserved to be national champion.
In replacing Young, Bosco threw for 3,875 yards and 33 touchdowns, and BYU became the only team that is not currently in a Power Five conference or Notre Dame to win a national title since Army's World War II era powerhouses in 1944-45.
"When you have five receivers out on every play, you ought to be able to find one of them open," Bosco told Sports Illustrated at the time. "I think every play we call will work, even if it's the wrong play against the wrong defense. See, on every play we know where to throw, whom to throw to and when to throw. Then all I have to do is do it."
Edwards' philosophy on offense wouldn't sound out of place in the modern game. But it was revolutionary in the 1970s and '80s, as he became one of the first coaches to even the playing field with more powerful programs by spreading the field and passing as often as possible. Both Billick and Reid played for Edwards and got their starts as coaches on his staff, while Holmgren was the quarterbacks coach at BYU from 1982-85. All three allowed Edwards to have a significant influence in the NFL in the 1990s and 2000s, while young coaches looking to gain an edge saw BYU's approach as the best way to play football -- most notably Leach and Mumme.
"Over the years we made a lot of pilgrimages back to BYU to study their offense," Leach wrote in his book Swing Your Sword. "Back then I felt like the best offensive combination was what BYU was running: the three-step drop, like Dennis Erickson had going at Washington State and later at Miami, plus the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle attack from the Jim Kelly days."
BYU's stadium is named for Edwards, who won two national coach of the year honors, took the Cougars to 22 bowl games and is seventh in all-time FBS coaching wins. He had 10 double-digit-win seasons and finished with a losing record only once, in his second year. He has won a national championship and coached a Heisman Trophy winner, and McMahon and Young both went on to become star NFL quarterbacks. The remarkable career allowed Edwards to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Widely respected on and off the field, Edwards checked just about every box to be recognized as a college football legend, achieving consistently high levels of success at BYU while pushing football toward the quarterback-first, passing-centric sport we know now. Edwards' influence should never be forgotten.