COLLEGE FOOTBALL ‘85 : A MAN WITH A MISSION : Innovative Brigham Young University Coach LaVell Edwards Has Taken Cougars to the Pinnacle With Highly Tuned Passing Attack

Times Staff Writer

Brigham Young University has been accused far and wide of impersonating a national champion, but not by its next opponent.

“I voted for them No. 1 last year,” said UCLA Coach Terry Donahue, whose Bruins will open their season Saturday at Provo, Utah. “I think they were clearly the national champions.”

It is the sound of one hand clapping.

But even if he felt otherwise, Donahue could hardly be expected to join BYU’s critics, who dismissed the Cougars as true champions because of the schedule they played.

Remember host Bryant Gumbel’s response on “The Today Show” when BYU was voted No. 1 in both polls last year?

“B.Y.-who? Who’d they play, Bo Diddley Tech?”

Even though Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer’s comments were less colorful, his point was the same.


Donahue knows better.

In 1983, BYU won, 37-35, at the Rose Bowl against a UCLA team that could hardly be mistaken for Bo Diddley Tech. Those Bruins later represented the Pacific 10 in the Rose Bowl and beat Illinois, 45-9.

Maybe Switzer also knows better. The Sooners were invited to meet BYU in the season opener last week at the New Jersey Meadowlands, but Switzer declined. Non-actions speak louder than words.

BYU instead settled for Boston College. With quarterback Robbie Bosco passing for 508 yards and three touchdowns, the Cougars won, 28-14, and established themselves, at least in the East, as something other than just an off-Broadway hit.

If the Cougars can also beat UCLA this week and Washington the next--both are top 20 teams--then perhaps the rest of the country also will believe in Coach LaVell Edwards as much as the people in Provo do.

In its first 47 years of football competition, BYU had 31 losing seasons and only one conference championship.

No wonder the football program suffered from an inferiority complex, as evidenced by the fact that it gave Edwards a job.

He joined the coaching staff as an assistant in 1962, even though he had a losing record after eight years as the coach at a Salt Lake City high school.

But since Edwards become BYU’s head coach in 1972, the Cougars have finished lower than second in the Western Athletic Conference only twice. They have either won or tied for the championship in 10 of the last 11 years. They have won it outright eight straight times.

BYU also has taken its lumps, but not lately.

The Cougars have a 25-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.

The only thing they haven’t won is respect.

Their schedule is weak.

Or their bowl results are less than overwhelming.

Or they hold too much.

That was Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler’s response to BYU’s 24-17 victory over the Wolverines in last year’s Holiday Bowl.

Through it all, Edwards remains unfazed.

Responding to critics who contend that the Cougars must win the national championship this season to prove they earned it last season, he said: “I’d love to go out and have a great season. But as far as justifying last year, that’s the farthest thing from my mind. We don’t have anything to prove.”

When asked how he has turned BYU into a national power, Edwards, 54, refuses to take credit.

For a number of years, many people refused to give it to him.

Several of his former assistants received considerable attention for coordinating BYU’s offense. One Sports Illustrated article about the Cougars’ passing attack a few years ago included a picture of assistant coach Doug Scovill, now the head coach at San Diego State, instead of Edwards.

And if the assistants weren’t receiving credit, BYU’s quarterbacks were.

Beginning with Gary Sheide in 1973, every BYU starting quarterback has finished among the nation’s top four passers at least once in his career.

Sheide was second twice. Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson each were fourth once. Jim McMahon led the nation in 1980 and 1981. Steve Young led in 1983. Bosco was second last season.

But although assistants and quarterbacks have come and gone, there have been two constants, Edwards and winning.

Even the passing attack didn’t materialize until Edwards’ second season as head coach.

“A lot of people forget that Pete Van Valkenburg led the nation in rushing for us in my first year,” Edwards said.

But Edwards knew from the beginning that BYU could win consistently only if it established a passing game.

“We didn’t have the strength to run over people or the speed to run the option,” Edwards said. “The only way we were going to be able to compete with the Arizonas and Arizona States was if we got into a passing offense.

“Besides, the only year we’d ever won the conference was in 1965, when we had Virgil Carter as our quarterback. I thought it certainly couldn’t hurt to go back to that type of offense.”

All Edwards had to do was find more Virgil Carters.

Edwards found them, but he couldn’t persuade them to come to Provo.

Nevertheless, BYU has not been without a quality quarterback since Edwards became the head coach.

Many believe that is because Edwards’ system makes quarterbacks successful instead of the other way around.

“The genius of the BYU system is a credit to LaVell and his staff,” Donahue said. “Not all of those quarterbacks were highly recruited.”

In recruiting quarterbacks, Edwards looks for good athletes, but not particularly outstanding passers. He then schools them in his ball-control passing attack and allows them to look and learn for three years, including a redshirt year, before sending them into action as juniors.

None of the quarterbacks Edwards has recruited since becoming head coach were considered can’t-miss prospects.

Nielsen came to BYU to play basketball, not even joining the football team until two years later. Young was a wishbone quarterback who went to BYU only because of family ties, one of which was to Brigham Young himself. McMahon finished high school in Utah and received little attention outside the state.

All of Edwards’ quarterbacks except Young were redshirted. Wilson and McMahon were the only two who were regulars as sophomores. McMahon was redshirted the next year. Bosco redshirted one season and sat behind Young for two more before starting last season.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for them to wait their turn,” Edwards said. “But by the time they get to play, they’re ready.”

Not only at quarterback does BYU have difficulty recruiting blue-chip athletes.

Even after winning the national championship last year, Edwards signed none of the nation’s top 100 high school athletes, as evaluated by various recruiting analysts.

“One of the great fallacies in recruiting is that anyone can name the top 100,” Edwards said. “There are 1,000 just as good.

“Having said that, I admit we recruit those top 100. We just don’t get them. Maybe they just don’t want to come to Utah. Or maybe it’s our life style.”

Of 27,000 BYU students, 98% are Mormons. Upon entering the university, freshmen sign a code of honor, promising to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee, and to be honest and chaste.

University officials say there are no exceptions for athletes, although cynics found the timing interesting when McMahon, a celebrated carouser, wasn’t put on probation until the semester after his final game.

“We can’t smoke, drink or chase women,” wide receiver Glen Kozlowski said. “Well, we can chase women; we just can’t catch them.”

Kozlowski was suspended from school in 1982 for one year. “They caught me drinking beer twice,” he said. “My grades were bad, too.”

Edwards said 70% of the football team is Mormon. But few players are as straight as Bosco, who wouldn’t even put his arm around his girlfriend for an Inside Sports photograph last summer.

“He makes Donnie Osmond look like a sinner,” Kozlowski said.

Edwards’ predecessor, Tommy Hudspeth, was so convinced that BYU couldn’t win with Mormon players that he began recruiting ex-Marines. They not only played fast and loose with the code of honor, they didn’t win.

“Hudspeth had this idea that Mormons, because of their turn-the-other-cheek theology, couldn’t play football,” said Lee Benson, a columnist for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City and a former BYU student.

Edwards, a former Mormon bishop, changed that attitude.

“One disadvantage we felt we had, as a Mormon university, was that so many of our young athletes left to go on missions for 18 months or two years,” BYU’s athletic director, Dr. Glen Tuckett, said.

“When the missionaries returned, they weren’t encouraged to play football again because they had been away from the game. Also, some of our coaches felt maybe they had lost some aggressiveness.

“LaVell decided to turn a negative into a positive, keeping in contact with the athletes and encouraging them to play again when their missions were completed.”

Since the NCAA allows missionaries to have two extra years of eligibility, BYU players who go on missions have seven years to finish four years of eligibility instead of the standard five.

“They have what amounts to a three-year redshirt program, so the maturity of the BYU football team is much more established than some other teams,” Donahue said. “They’ll have a much larger percentage of players who are married and have children, and that gives them a certain maturity.

“Give LaVell credit. BYU has always had the ability to redshirt longer, but he is the one who developed the system.”

Other opposing coaches have been less gracious than Donahue.

“Isn’t it funny that no one said anything about our missionary program all those years we were losing,” Edwards said. Now that we’re winning, that’s supposed to be an advantage.”

He laughed.

“That’s one of the reasons we win,” he said. “Because we’ve got a bunch of old men who know how to hold.”