Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s 2013 book The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football details the story of a shaggy-haired law student who came to BYU head football coach LaVell Edwards, looking to begin a career in the profession.
Three decades later, former Edwards grad assistant Mike Leach is credited as a pioneer of the air-raid offense.
If Leach and Hal Mumme are the Founding Fathers of the uptempo, pass-happy attack so prevalent in today’s game — the George Washingtons, if you will — then LaVell Edwards was its Cincinnatus.
“There are plays that we run…we don’t run them exactly, but we got them from the golden days back there at BYU when LaVell Edwards was there,” Leach told Jay Drew of The Salt Lake Tribune in 2012.
Yes, Edwards was the forerunner-to-the-forerunner, and deserving of a place on the hypothetical Mount Rushmore of passing-game innovators with Sid Gillman, Don Coryell and Bill Walsh.
One of Edwards’ former BYU standouts, Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young, played for three of those four patriarchs of the pass.
“They’re all connected,” Young told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2012, “And they all were way ahead of their time.”
Edwards’ spin on a potent passing attack lives on more than four decades after it was introduced in Provo. Every time a team lines up with four-and-five-wide, and treats an opening drive like a two-minute drill, the game pays respect to the Hall of Famer.
At BYU, LaVell Edwards lives in a more tangible sense. The stadium in Provo took on his name after the 2000 season, Edwards’ last in a 29-season tenure at BYU.
That near-three-decade stint established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints university as a nationally recognized Football School. Ten times under Edwards, the Cougars won at least 10 games, including a remarkable run of eight double-digit-win campaigns from 1979 through 1990.
BYU’s string of quarterbacks over that era stack up against any program’s over a comparable time-frame:
• Mark Wilson (29 touchdowns for an 11-1 team in 1979)
• Jim McMahon (47 touchdowns and 4,571 yards in 1980; 30 touchdowns and 3,555 yards in 1981)
• Steve Young (33 touchdowns, 3,902 yards in 1983)
• Robbie Bosco (33 touchdowns, 3875 yards in 1984; 30 touchdowns, 4,273 yards in 1985)
• Ty Detmer (121 career touchdowns with 15,031 yards)
Detmer’s Heisman Trophy in 1990 put a fitting cap on that stretch for BYU football. He remains the last player from a non-power conference program to claim college football’s most prestigious, individual honor.
But Detmer wasn’t the last of Edwards’ BYU quarterback pupils to thrive. Incoming Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was a Cougars star before embarking on a coaching career. And as the next play-caller for college football’s preeminent program, the LaVell Edwards coaching tree adds yet another prestigious branch.
The direct lineage is well-established, including names like Kyle Whittingham, current BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, Sarkisian and Leach. The branches extend across the nation now, both with immediate connections and philosophical adoption.
There’s Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, who reached out to Leach’s old running mate Mumme in the late 1990s. Sumlin’s former right-hand man, Kliff Kingsbury, now plies his trade at Texas Tech.
Kingsbury took over for a staff that included Neal Brown, once a wide receiver in the Leach-Mumme uptempo offense at Kentucky. Brown became one of the sport’s breakout coaching stars in 2016 with his 10-3 campaign at Troy.
And that’s just a sampling of the direct links to Edwards’ playbook. Countless others gained inspiration from the BYU aerial attack. His impression on the sport is undeniable, as is his historical place in it.
It’s no wonder coaches across the nation would seek inspiration from Edwards’ offense. One need only look at the 1980 Holiday Bowl for evidence into just how effective the system can be.
Regarded as one of the greatest comebacks in college football history, the ’80 Holiday Bowl further solidifies Edwards’ legacy in that the San Diego postseason tradition owes much of its standing to his BYU teams.
Founded in 1978 as a destination for the Western Athletic Conference champion, BYU played in the first seven installments of the Holiday Bowl. That stretch included the miracle comeback of 1980, classics against Indiana and Washington State in 1979 and 1982, and an ostensible national champion contest in 1984.
It was then that two, fourth-quarter scoring drives locked up a national title for BYU — still the last won by a college football outsider.
With a national title and a Heisman Trophy winner, LaVell Edwards more than sealed his place in the game’s history. Thanks to his influence on the present-day product, his legacy is among football’s richest.