LaVell Edwards, who took over a perennially lackluster Brigham Young University football program in 1972, orchestrated a string of winning seasons with innovative passing attacks run by All-American quarterbacks and coached the Cougars to the 1984 national championship, died on Thursday at his home in Provo, Utah. He was 86.
Edwards’s daughter, Ann Cannon, said the cause was complications of a broken hip he incurred in a fall on Christmas Eve.
Edwards was Brigham Young’s defensive coordinator before he was named head coach, so he seemed unlikely to create an imaginative offensive scheme.
But he did just that in his 29 head-coaching seasons at Brigham Young, bringing it to football prominence, although the university, founded and supported by the Mormon Church, placed education and adherence to a strict moral code above big-time athletics.
“There were a lot of people who thought that the church and football shouldn’t mix,” Edwards told The New York Times in November 1984, when his Cougars were headed toward an unbeaten season and a No. 1 national ranking.
Unable to compete for blue-chip high school players, Edwards relied on athletes who could be molded in a system that emphasized timing plays. He replaced B.Y.U.’s traditional running game with an offense featuring short and intermediate throws with as many as five potential receivers on the field at the same time. It was essentially ball control through the air, involving quick-release passes that could be used against any kind of defense.
Previously used by some N.F.L. teams, the system would become known in the pros as the West Coast offense brilliantly orchestrated by the San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
“LaVell Edwards brought the passing game to college football,” Gil Brandt, a former player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, told Football Digest in 2000, Edwards’s last season. “He made it possible for teams with lesser ability like B.Y.U. to compete for a championship on all levels.”
Edwards began turning around Cougar football with two unlikely stars: first Gary Sheide, who had been a largely unknown junior college player, and then Gifford Nielsen, who had played in a run- and option-oriented wishbone attack in high school. Both put up gaudy statistics as quarterbacks.
They were most notably followed by a string of strong quarterbacks: Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco, who took the Cougars to a 13-0 season and the No. 1 ranking in the 1984 news agency polls, as well as Ty Detmer, the 1990 Heisman Trophy winner, who threw for 121 touchdowns in his B.Y.U. career, and Steve Sarkisian.
Edwards compiled a record of 257 victories, 101 losses and 3 ties. In addition to the perfect season in 1984, he coached B.Y.U. to 18 Western Athletic Conference titles and the championship of the Mountain West Conference in 1999, its inaugural season, as well as 22 bowl games. A two-time national coach of the year, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Edwards’s quarterbacks threw more than 11,000 passes for more than 100,000 yards and 635 touchdowns, and B.Y.U. finished either No. 1 or No. 2 nationally in passing in 13 of his first 17 seasons.
“There’s no question it’s the system that makes the quarterback here,” McMahon told Sports Illustrated.
A Utah native but a Roman Catholic, McMahon had wanted to play for Notre Dame but was not recruited by the Irish. After starring at B.Y.U., he went on to become a standout with the Chicago Bears.
Young, who was McMahon’s successor as quarterback and who became a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the 49ers, had also arrived at the campus in Provo with a fairly modest quarterbacking résumé. A great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, who oversaw the Mormons’ migration to Utah, Steve Young, who was born in Salt Lake City, had been a run-first high school quarterback growing up in Greenwich, Conn.
Edwards was surprised at becoming something of a celebrity during B.Y.U.’s championship season.
“I find myself getting stopped in public places that I’ve been going to for most of my life,” he said. “Little kids come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Uncle LaVell,’ and I don’t even know them.”
Before his final home game as coach, Cougar Stadium was renamed LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Reuben LaVell Edwards was born on Oct. 11, 1930, in Orem, a few miles from the B.Y.U. campus, the eighth of 14 children in a Mormon farm family. As a youngster he watched the B.Y.U. team practice and thought of becoming a football coach someday. But he decided to attend Utah State in Logan instead of Brigham Young, feeling that if he lived at home while attending college he would be stuck milking the family’s cows.
He was an all-Skyline Conference center and linebacker at Utah State and coached high school football in Salt Lake City before he was hired as a B.Y.U. assistant in 1962.
In addition to his wife, the former Patti Louise Covey, and his daughter, he is survived by two sons Jim and John;his sisters Ruby Cameron, Norma Brady, Alene Felix, Shirley Maag and Colleen Healey; his brothers Lewis and Wayne, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Edwards, who was active in Mormon Church affairs, served an 18-month Mormon mission to New York City with his wife in 2002 and 2003.
Religious obligations did take a toll on his teams. His 1976 squad had 20 players who were returning from missions.
“If we don’t win our first few games,” the publication Cougar Illustrated quoted him, “we might start looking for some hell raisers.”
No problem. The team lost its opener but finished the season at 9-3.
Correction: December 30, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary omitted some survivors due to an incomplete list initially provided by Edwards’s family to Brigham Young University. In addition to his wife, the former Patti Louise Covey, and his daughter, Ann Cannon, and sons Jim and John, he was survived by his sisters Ruby Cameron, Norma Brady, Alene Felix, Shirley Maag and Colleen Healey; his brothers Lewis and Wayne, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
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