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ASU’s football coach silences skeptics with his winning ways

ASU football Coach Herm Edwards

March 27, 2019

Herm Edwards, Arizona State University’s football coach, has no auditory issues. Sounds come through loud and clear. What he does have is an aversion to noise. And the ability to mute it.

That’s a helpful trait considering the decibels cranked up when ASU hired Edwards in December 2017. He was 63, had never been a college head coach and had last been a National Football League head coach in 2008. Skeptics dismissed the hire as a "Jurassic Park" resurrection of a coaching dinosaur.

“I learned at an early age that you can never allow the perception of others to become your reality,” he said recently in an interview. “We control our destinies as individuals. You have to do your work. If I had not been an athlete, I would not have gone to college. Any voices, anything in my way of achieving what I wanted, didn’t matter.”

Besides, he proved the naysayers wrong, delivering a winning record in his first season.

“We believe we’re off to a good start,” said Ray Anderson, vice president for university athletics. “We believe that those who said we were crazy and couldn’t get it done, we believe that we have at least calmed their concerns … because we haven’t heard a lot from them recently.”

Edwards, 64, was hired because of fit — both the job and the job candidate. ASU President Michael M. Crow and Anderson, who came to the university in January 2014, decided the football program needed not only a new coach but a new philosophy.

“A lot of people are fearful of change,” Anderson said. “Especially when they don’t quite understand the reasons for it. As things progressed after I came on board, it became obvious that change was inevitable. It became clear we could not break out of mediocrity in the Pac-12. I give a lot of credit to President Crow for being willing to think outside the box.”

ASU football Coach Herm Edwards on the sideline during a game

Instead of taking a CEO approach to Sun Devil football, Herm Edwards has been actively in the mix as the head coach. The Sun Devils responded with a winning record in his first season. Photo by Peter Vander Stoep

Sun Devil football had become a way station instead of a destination. During Bruce Snyder’s nine seasons that ended in 2000, the Sun Devils were 13 games over .500 and appeared in the Rose Bowl after the 1996 season. The next three coaches lasted six, five and six seasons with records that hovered around .500. ASU, Crow and Anderson decided, was defining insanity — doing the same thing over and over in coaching hires but expecting a different result.

So, they came up with a new plan — a “New Leadership Model”  — bringing together management ideas and styles from the NFL, scaled to the college level.

“That’s one thing that really struck me is the fact that people didn’t realize, ‘Look, they don’t think they’re getting their results from what they’re doing, (so) they’re changing.’ What’s wrong with that?” said Edwards, who describes his time away from coaching and working in television as a sabbatical a professor would take.

The athletic department got to work. One savvy move was transparency. Numerous national media outlets were invited to observe Edwards and his new staff. That resulted in some positive coverage. A September upset of Michigan State, then ranked No. 15 in the nation, also helped.

“That’s the media’s job — they have to give an opinion,” Edwards said of the initial skepticism. “I would never take it personal.”

ASU’s new plan led to the perception that Edwards would be a “CEO coach,” spending practices perched in a tower overseeing his kingdom. That was disproved when Edwards, who played defensive back for 10 seasons in the NFL, did hands-on coaching with the Sun Devils’ secondary.

And, after returning home from a loss at San Diego State, Edwards went straight to his office to break down the loss. His analysis led to the Sun Devils changing their offensive emphasis to more running, a strategy that helped throughout the season.

Jean Boyd, the football team’s general manager, says Edwards disproved another false perception. He works hand-in-hand with Edwards so the football coach can make final decisions without being caught up in the minutiae of management.

“People were skeptical about his relatability to the kids we’re recruiting, but high marks for him in that area,” Boyd said. “In some of the areas we’re recruiting in California, to have an African-American man walk into an African-American home has been a multiplier. He can relate. He’s respectful and respectable.”

The day he was hired, Edwards walked through the administration offices and stopped to say hello and chat whenever he saw someone in their office. On the way to a weekly news conference, Edwards saw two custodians. He knew their names and stopped to ask one of them about a recent surgery.

ASU football Coach Herm Edwards and a player walk through the Tillman Tunnel

Coach Herm Edwards can relate to players 40 years younger than he is, says ASU football general manager Jean Boyd: "He's respectful and respectable." Here, he walks through the Tillman Tunnel at Sun Devil Stadium with wide receiver Kyle Williams. Photo by Peter Vander Stoep

“If I had never gotten another coaching job, I would have been fine, would have kept working in TV,” said Edwards, who sits in the back of the plane on team flights. “But I’ve always been competitive, and in the back of my mind I was always preparing if I got the chance to coach again. I saw this as a great fit.”

The Sun Devils finished 7-6 — the five regular-season losses were all by less than seven points — with an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl, changing the national perception of ASU football.

“Herm made fools out of a lot of us in the national media,” said Bruce Feldman, who covers college football for The Athletic. “He made some shrewd hires, especially on the defensive staff, and empowered his leaders, and they had a solid first season. There’s plenty of good young talent on this roster now, and the Pac-12 South is certainly up for grabs with USC backsliding so much and UCLA rebuilding.”

Written by Wendell Barnhouse. An award-winning journalist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 25 years, Barnhouse has covered 25 Final Fours and 15 college football national championship games. This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo by Peter Vander Stoep

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