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Herm Edwards of Arizona State keeps smiling and proving critics wrong

Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards shouts instructions during the second half against Washington State on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz.
Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards shouts instructions during the second half against Washington State on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

His ever-present exuberance emanating with every word, Herm Edwards leaned back in his chair and delivered a soliloquy.

With a smile that stretched his cheeks and squinted his eyes, Arizona State’s affable football coach spelled out one of his favorite mottos. In doing so, Edwards offered a window into one of the sport’s most unexpected transformations. Once one of college football’s most-doubted men, Edwards is now counted among its most surprising.

“You treat everyone fair, but you don’t treat everyone the same,” he explained. “That’s life! That’s how life works. You understand this: When you’re dealing with players, they all have different personalities. It’s kind of like …”

In search of something specific, Edwards stopped mid-sentence.

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He walked to the wooden desk in his cavernous corner office and shuffled through papers and notebooks. He returned with a white page, slapped it down on the smooth granite tabletop, and chuckled three times under his breath, like a shrewd football scientist still proud of his latest creation.

In big bold maroon letters, “PROBLEM SOLVING” was written across the top. Below it, bulleted tips filled the page.

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This was part of a larger collection. In another corner of his office, Edwards’ desk is blanketed with sheets displaying similar titles: “Coach and Player Relationship,” “Culture Change,” “Motivation,” “Game Management,” and many more.

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Some are stapled into thick weighty packets, others organized inside hardcover binders. Most are distributed to his staff, guidelines to be used on and off the field. Together, they present Edwards’ philosophies in physical print form, the tangible evidence that behind his bombastic facade, there is substance to his style as well.

“That’s why I love Herm, I love working for him,” ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “Herm doesn’t just go, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it.’ We do. We sit around and we think about the kids.”

Indeed, the 65-year-old Edwards is a self-described “thinker.” He shows up at ASU’s football facilities in the quiet of dawn to spend time alone with his thoughts. He employs a proud open-door policy, jumping at opportunities to engage players one-third his age in considerate conversation.

Edwards, who coached in the NFL from 2001-2008 and was an analyst for ESPN from 2009-2017, says he gained a new perspective on the sport from a TV studio. ASU has become the workshop in which he tested his new theories. Early in his tenure — which includes a 12-8 overall record, a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South last season, and more positive buzz than has been felt in Tempe for years — his ideas seem to be working.

“When you get away from football as long as I was away from it, people say, ‘He’s lost touch,’ ” said Edwards, whose No. 24 Sun Devils (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) face UCLA (2-5, 2-2) at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. “Not really. I was immersed in it more than you could imagine.”

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) celebrates with head coach Herm Edwards, right, after a win over Washington State on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz.
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels (5) celebrates with head coach Herm Edwards, right, after a win over Washington State on Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Two winters ago, Edwards outwardly looked like the wrong fit for ASU’s head coaching job. He wasn’t a traditional candidate, boasting little or no prior coaching experience with the school, the conference, the area or the college game as a whole.

His hiring — which coincided with ASU’s unveiling of a “New Leadership Model” that placed Edwards at the top — was met with derision, written off a dubious stunt that would surely fall short.

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So, almost two expectation-exceeding seasons later, how did everyone seem to get it so wrong?

Edwards and Ray Anderson, ASU’s vice president of university athletics, were happy to weigh-in on that question this week.

Edwards’ wide smile returned as he responded: “I’m a hands-on guy. I’m not like this CEO guy that sits in the office and lets everybody else coach. I think that was the perception … ‘He’s going to be this guy that sits up here and he’s going to give speeches and he’s going to talk to the donors.’ No, I’m actually going to coach coaches. I’m going to coach football players. That’s what I do.”

Anderson laughed, then said: “I don’t blame skeptics. They had no way of knowing Herm, the individual, beyond what they saw on the TV screen.”

Edwards appeared to be the oddball hire among those made in the 2018 offseason.

Florida went after Dan Mullen, a successful former Gators assistant who was coaching within its conference. Nebraska nabbed Scott Frost, a Cornhuskers alumnus who was considered the sport’s ascendant coaching star. National-championship winner Jimbo Fisher was lured to Texas A&M, vacating a Florida State job that was filled by Florida native Willie Taggart.

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Oregon promoted Mario Cristobal from within. Oregon State hired its former quarterback, Jonathan Smith. UCLA pulled perhaps the biggest coup by convincing Chip Kelly to return to college (Arizona and California also made coaching changes later that offseason).

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Edwards was projected to be the runt of that coaching litter. Instead, he has risen the profile of his school — ASU hasn’t been ranked this late into a season since 2014 — arguably as much as anybody.

“I’d like to think that Herm, at minimum, is on schedule,” said Anderson, who has long-term visions of ASU as a perennial top-15 program. “Very honestly, he may be a little ahead of schedule, but I don’t want to tell him that.”

Jean Boyd, ASU’s senior associate athletic director, remembers the first time Anderson broached Edwards’ name as a potential hire. Anderson, a former agent who represented the coach in the NFL, thought Edwards could bolster ASU’s recruiting efforts and re-energize a program that had tailed off in the final years of former coach Todd Graham’s tenure.

Boyd, a former ASU player, initially was skeptical. Then he met Edwards and watched him operate up-close. His reservations dissipated. He saw how adaptable ASU’s old-school coach could be.

“Herm really lets people be who they are,” Boyd said. “He wants them to be the best version of who they are, not the best version of who he wants to make them into.”

For example, Edwards hired defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales to install a modern 3-3-5 defense. He promoted Likens from receivers coach to offensive coordinator to orchestrate a scheme that emphasizes the run yet also incorporates spread-style passing concepts.

Notes compiled by Arizona State coach Herm Edwards in Tempe, Ariz.
Notes compiled by Arizona State coach Herm Edwards in Tempe, Ariz.
(Jack Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Despite fielding one of the youngest rosters in the nation— ASU’s depth chart this season includes a freshman quarterback, San Bernardino native Jayden Daniels, and eight other underclassmen starters — the Sun Devils in Edwards’ tenure are 9-6 against Power 5 opponents, 4-4 against ranked foes, and last season came within a win of capturing the Pac-12 South.

Edwards has proven a capable recruiter too. With big hands and long arms that fly around as he makes a pitch, the former NFL defensive back commands a room.

With the help of a beefed-up recruiting staff, including linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce and director of player personnel Al Luginbill, the Sun Devils have made headway in Southern California specifically. Of the 23 players that comprised their 30th-ranked 2019 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, 12 hailed from California.

Most of all, Edwards has brought his coaching principles to life, encouraging visual learning, shorter team meetings, and even cellphone breaks. He preaches discipline, but also practices player freedom.

“If you stay in this world of coaching, where it’s like this box, you box yourself in, because today’s player, at any level, they’re different,” Edwards said. “They still want knowledge. They seek knowledge. How do you provide them knowledge? How do you capture their attention for five- to six-minute spans?”

Edwards has tethered these coaching tenets together better than almost anyone outside ASU’s program would have guessed. Some of his 2018 coaching-hire cohorts – namely Kelly, whom Edwards will face Saturday in an ironic twist of fates — have already devolved into disappointments. Others have been stuck in mediocrity.

Edwards is in a different boat. His young team isn’t yet legitimately vying for playoff berths or conference crowns. But, the Sun Devils have made progress in a rebuild most considered doomed from the start.

“With this team, I’m not shocked we’ve lost two games,” Edwards said. “I’m disappointed, but we’re trying to build something here.”

He still has big ideas for the future, lofty goals that no longer seem quite so out-of-reach. Already, the misconceptions that mired his hiring have ceased. That he has gotten the Sun Devils off the ground at all is validation enough.


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