The Strange Hire of Herm Edwards at Arizona State


College football punditry loves the abstract concept of “winning the press conference” when a new coaching hire is introduced. How exactly one wins a press conference baffles me, but a coach losing a press conference? Supreme Court Justice Potter’s assessment of obscenity can also be applied to a coach losing the press conference: I know it when I see it.

Herm Edwards lost the press conference Monday in his introduction at Arizona State. What bearing that has on his upcoming tenure with the Sun Devils, no one can say for certain until his team takes the field. But in an industry where cliches and catchphrases are standard, allow me to invoke one: Herm Edwards is starting behind the chains.

A prime example, as much as Arizona State fans might not like it, comes from rival coach Rich Rodriguez. His introductory press conference at Michigan was widely maligned. As John U. Bacon’s excellent book Three & Out details, that set the tone for Rodriguez’s ill-fated tenure, in which he was afforded little time or patience.

Introductory press conferences can be pivotal for coaching hires that may not be popular, and it’s fair to deem that this is the case for Herm Edwards.

The Arizona State coaching search was confusing from the start, beginning with the abrupt firing of Todd Graham. Graham went 46-31 in his six seasons with the Sun Devils, including 6-3 in the Pac-12. Despite being tabbed to finish fifth in the South, Arizona State rallied to go 6-3 in the conference and finish second. The Sun Devils sealed second place with a win over rival Arizona, ensuring a record above .500.

Arizona State endured a dip in 2015 and 2016, falling below .500 each campaign and missing the postseason after a brutal loss to Arizona to end last season. But with back-to-back 10-win seasons — the first time that had been accomplished at Arizona State since the legendary Frank Kush did so in 1972 and 1973 — I assumed Graham engendered enough goodwill then that this season’s upswing would be enough to bring him back.

Welp, another cliche fits that assessment: When you assume…

So, Arizona State even having a coaching search was surprising. Even more confusing was the sudden emergence of Herm Edwards as a primary candidate. Edwards has not coached college football since 1989, when he a defensive backs coach at San Jose State. Now, it’s worth noting UCLA hired Jim Mora equally as far removed from the college game, and before two injury-plagued seasons forced his ouster last month, the Bruins enjoyed immediate success.

But then, Mora was two years removed from coaching when he came to UCLA; Edwards’ debut on the Sun Devil sidelines against UTSA next September marks the end of a decade-long layoff. He contended in his press conference Monday that one doesn’t forget how to coach, a fine point. But college football in 2017 is a much different game than college football in 2008, and in some ways incomparable to the NFL of a decade ago.

Herm Edwards will have to rely heavily on inherited assistants Billy Napier and Phil Bennett, two Todd Graham hires, to handle the game strategy end of things. Returning to the cliche well, one of the favorites to describe coaching staff hierarchy is that the best operate as CEOs. Certainly, that was a image the Arizona State athletic department and AD Ray Anderson sought to convey with a release published late Sunday night.

The buzzword-laden statement follows the college football tradition of relying on cliches in lieu of candor, though the cliches in this instance feel better applied to a corporate office than a football stadium. Arizona State’s coaching search feels as though it was inspired by a one-day lecture at the local convention center.

With that peculiarity setting the stage, Herm Edwards went into his press conference and delivered a series of spoken hashtags that invite comparisons to Butch Jones’ ill-fated Tennessee tenure.

Among Edwards’ defining traits — and, indeed, the most repeated throughout this baffling week-long process — is his character; the high standard he sets for his players. That’s a great quality to emphasize in a college football coach. However, the trait athletic departments tend to emphasis when introducing a new hire is something contradictory to the predecessor; Todd Graham came to Arizona State with a clear expectation to clean up the program.

The Sun Devils ranked at or near the bottom in penalties during Dennis Erickson’s stint as head coach. Graham was expected to move away from the days of Vontaze Burfict piling up unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and refusing to come out of games.

Arizona State under Graham became one of the least penalized teams in the nation. The program’s on-field behavior was not exemplary under Erickson, but it wasn’t bogged down with off-field headlines. The same was true under Graham.

In that regard, Herm Edwards does not bring anything wildly different. The retention of Bennett and Napier means he brings no new assistants, either. So why the change?

Anderson having previously represented Edwards as an agent comes to mind. Anderson’s refusal to discuss other candidates interviewed does not help that perception, either.

Edwards continuing to appear on ESPN with the new, early recruiting deadline looming is equally baffling.

But then, just about everything in this process has been baffling.