The reaction to Arizona State's hiring of Edwards has ranged from scorn to bewilderment
New Arizona State head coach Herman Edwards takes over the interview after a half an hour and evangelizes for 20 uninterrupted minutes, unburdened by specific questions. He preaches. He sells. He talks Xs and Os and technique. He proselytizes with feeling, punctuating points by slapping his palm on a meeting table in his new office inside Arizona State’s recently completed and palatial football building.
“The great coaches are teachers (slam) ... it’s not about the coach, it’s about the guys in the huddle (slam) ... football is the greatest game ever assembled (slam) when you think about what it does ... We will stumble, but I won’t let you fall. I will catch you (slam, slam) ... We are male by birth, man by choice. I’m going to teach them the man part.
“People ask how I am doing. I’m great. I’m in my world. This is what I do. I love this.”
It’s difficult not to be charmed by a whirlwind of what an Arizona Republic writer dubbed “Herm-isms” in a March story. Edwards’ wisdom, collected during his 64 years, pinballs between topics almost randomly, but the connective tissue is his passion and enthusiasm.
So it’s no surprise when he waves away a question about whether he was bothered by the reaction to his hiring, which ranged from skepticism to outright mockery.
‘No,” he says. “That’s America.”
His resume does have some gaps and red flags after a 10-year NFL playing career. His collegiate experience ended in 1989, after three years as a defensive backs coach at San Jose State. His record as an NFL head coach with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs is 54-74. His final season in Kansas City he went 2-14.
He became an analyst at ESPN in 2009 and remained mostly out of the coaching rumor mill until his name immediately emerged after athletic director Ray Anderson fired Todd Graham at the end of the Sun Devils meandering 7-6 season.
“You have to ask yourself this: ‘Do you have the energy to do this?’ And there was no doubt I had the energy,” Edwards says.
Wait. Let’s back up. It’s time to address the reason Edwards was even on the radar for a job in the collegiate ranks. There are dots, and they are easy to connect.
Before Anderson became Arizona State’s athletic director in 2014 and before he spent seven-plus years as an NFL executive, he was a sports agent. Edwards was one of his clients, and that business relationship blossomed into a friendship -- and a mutual respect, something that was clearly missing between Anderson and the coach he inherited when he took the job.
Graham, a Mesquite, Texas, native who played football at East Central University in Ada, Okla., is known for his spasming stream-of-consciousness delivery that often resembles a good ole boy used-car salesman. Anderson went to Stanford and Harvard Law School. He’s affable but executive polished and calculating. He repeatedly uses the term “very/quite frankly” when he’s working a point that he wants you to retain.
While they were a mismatched pair from the beginning, their relationship could remain satisfactory when Graham was winning 10 games, as he did during Anderson’s first year in Tempe. Things turned prickly, however, when Graham repeatedly talked about winning national championships before the 2015 season and finished 6-7.
“One of the things, very frankly, that we’re trying to do better around here is to talk less and deliver more,” Anderson told a Phoenix radio station in July 2016. “We’ll be a minimum on the bravado and all the predictions about greatness and just let our play speak for us.”
It didn’t, at least not in a good way. Arizona State went 5-7 in 2016 -- 2-7 in Pac-12 play -- and Graham’s seat became decidedly hot. Anderson doesn’t hesitate when asked when things went south for Graham.
Anderson's mind started to boil, he says, after arch-rival Arizona racked up a school-record 511 yards rushing in a 56-35 victory over the Sun Devils to conclude that 2016 campaign.
“It was the worst, [most] non-competitive performance that I -- most people I talked to -- had ever seen coming out of an Arizona State football team,” Anderson says. “They didn’t have to attempt a single pass in the second half, and they totally embarrassed us and outplayed us in every single way.”
While he won’t admit to thinking about Edwards as a replacement at that point, he does point to a blowout loss to USC in October as when his mind was made up that a change would be needed.
Says Anderson, “It was in that period of time that I go, ‘You know. I’ve seen this movie a whole bunch. Is it ever going to change?’ I didn’t believe it was going to change. That’s when I started thinking about the candidates and if Herm was a viable candidate.”
What Anderson prioritized above all else was recruiting. He said Graham’s recruiting was “inefficient, so disorganized, so dysfunctional.” His next coach needed to showcase charisma that filled up a living room and made Alabama, Ohio State and USC and their traditions feel like old news.
The cynical way to look at Anderson hiring Edwards is to see two buddies in their mid-60s looking to swerve toward retirement with a final two-minute possession. Instead of getting a suite at the Bellagio for a long weekend of gambling and golf, they decided to collaborate on building a football program -- one that has long been termed “a sleeping giant” -- into a West Coast power.
For Anderson, his closeness with Edwards isn’t about hiring a buddy. It’s about truly knowing the man and his skill set. And that skill set, Anderson believes, will transform the Sun Devils’ mediocre recruiting. Anderson sees Edwards’ passion, integrity, contagious enthusiasm and NFL pedigree as transformative for the Sun Devils’ annual inability to consistently land four- and five-star recruits.
“Quite frankly, 70 percent of the success of a college coach is based on your ability to recruit,” Anderson says. “I know Herman can deliver that. One thing I know about Herman is that he will be able to talk to parents and articulate the vision of what he wants to accomplish as a head coach within this institution.”
There was no dramatic climb up the recruiting rankings during Edwards’ first, albeit abbreviated, recruiting cycle. While there was a fairly strong finish, and the Sun Devils collected transfers from Stanford (Casey Tucker) and USC (Roy Hemsley), which should bolster the offensive line, they finished ranked 36th in the 247Sports composite team rankings.
Arizona State has long labored in Pac-10/12 mediocrity, both on the field and in recruiting. It’s 1-1 in Rose Bowl appearances, beating Michigan in 1987 and seeing an undefeated campaign and national title hopes end in 1997 against Ohio State. The Sun Devils are 45-46 in conference play since 2008 and 8-26 against ranked foes during the same span. Their recruiting rankings rarely have entered the top-20.
Where previous coaches failed to land big-time talent, Anderson believes Edwards will succeed. Edwards as a wild-card hire also offers an alternative to merely bringing in another good but not great mid-major head coach -- see Graham -- or elevating the latest hot but unproven coordinator.
“We’ve never been able to get [top recruits] because we haven’t been organized and focused enough to know what we’re looking for,” Anderson says. “We haven’t spent enough time studying that and then being able to sell that.”
Much was made in the media about the awkward roll-out following the announcement of Edwards’ hiring. For one, there was Edwards’ current agent, Phil de Picciotto, being invited to the press conference to sell his client to an uncertain fan base, a dubious strategy because de Picciotto is the least objective Edwards observer alive. No slight to him, as that’s his job.
Then there was Edwards interrupting a longtime reporter for “Devils Digest,” which covers the program for the Rivals network, with, “Devils Digest? I’m Catholic now, I’m Christian, watch out for them Devils. I’m just saying. We’re good brother, we’re good. I ain’t taking it personal.”
More substantively, there was an odd, breathless press release that appeared to claim Arizona State’s hiring of Edwards would be paired with a dynamic new organizational model that will revolutionize college football.
As the release said, “This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting processes, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation.”
A handful of questions asking for specifics about this yielded little substance, though it’s clear that Arizona State pushes an admirable focus on academic support, what it calls, “Championship Life.” But there is no secret sauce, no fantastic new proprietary model.
The crux on the football side of things is an emphasis on, yes, recruiting, which is portrayed as a more NFL-esque method of evaluation.
Both Edwards and Anderson are aligned in believing that football players should hit physical marks in terms of size, weight and speed by position. What this comes down to is a de-emphasis on scrappy, short players and an aggressive pursuit of “length” at every position.
This is hardly revolutionary. It, in fact, is exactly what Chip Kelly emphasized when he transformed Oregon from top-25 team with a fancy scheme to an annual national title contender filled with NFL prospects who looked like NBA power forwards.
Further, part of the initial selling point was that Edwards planned to retain much of Graham’s coaching staff in order to ensure continuity, most particularly offensive coordinator Billy Napier.
“[Quarterback] Manny Wilkins does not need a fourth coordinator in four years,” Anderson said at the press conference announcing Graham’s termination.
But then Napier became Louisiana’s head coach, and Wilkins ended up with his fourth coordinator in four years, though Rob Likens was promoted from co-offensive coordinator.
“It’s hard to trust when people just come and go in your life,” says Wilkins, who admitted to being a bit jaded by the business end of college football. “Questions arise any time you get anybody new. Everybody was wondering what’s it going to be like [under Edwards]. We found out quick the energy he brings to the table and how much the game means to him. You could see how excited he was to be back in coaching.”
As far as scheme, Edwards says things are going to slow down on offense, particularly in terms of limiting the other team’s possessions. Yes, as he noted at his introductory news conference, he really likes huddles. He wants the quarterback under center more, too. He wants a big, physical offensive line to lead a smash-mouth attack. He wants his running backs to catch the ball more. He likes a controlled passing game that stays in front of the chains.
Says Edwards, “I told Likens when he took the job, ‘Hey, when it’s third-and-1, please tell me we’re not throwing a pass.’”
On defense, Edwards brought in Danny Gonzales, a Rocky Long protege from San Diego State, to replace Phil Bennett. Gonzales will adapt his own brand of a 3-3-5. Edwards says he wants to be aggressive with stunts and QB pressure but also admitted concerns about the Sun Devils secondary, which has struggled in recent years.
Unlike a lot of coaches, Edwards seems eager to engage over Xs and Os. In fact, he insists that his time away from the sidelines broadened his football knowledge, while coaching prep all-stars in the Under Armour game kept him hip to what motivates young people.
“[Time off] is the best thing for you,” he says. “I’d tell coaches that sometimes you need to get away from it just to kind of get the bird’s eye view.”
One of Edwardss close football friends and mentors knows a little bit about taking an extended time away from coaching. Dick Vermeil also knows a thing or two about overcoming initial skepticism about making a comeback.
Vermeil coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976-82, leading them, including Edwards, to Super Bowl XV, but he resigned after the 1982 season, citing burnout. After a long run in broadcasting, he returned to the sidelines in 1997 as the St. Louis Rams head coach. After two terrible seasons, he led the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Vermeil echoes Edwards, saying his years observing the game as a color commentator helped him when he returned to coaching. He was one of the first calls Edwards took when he accepted Arizona State’s offer.
“The players who play for him are going to be privileged to get a different level of leadership than they’d normally get at a Division I situation,” Vermeil says. “Herman is going to coach the entire person. Whether they win or lose, they will be better people and probably better players.”
Another parallel Sun Devils fans likely will be rooting for is Pete Carroll. When Carroll was hired at USC in 2000, it was a last resort after then-athletic director Mike Garrett was turned down by Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Mike Bellotti.
This was the lead for the Associated Press story: “Pete Carroll, fired from his two NFL coaching jobs and out of college football for 17 years, was hired today to succeed Paul Hackett as coach at Southern California.”
The Carroll-USC marriage turned out pretty well, falling just short of three consecutive national titles amid a run of Pac-10 and recruiting dominance.
So the reaction ranging from skeptical to mocking is nothing new. Of course, USC is one thing. It’s a perennial national power situated smack in the middle of a target-rich recruiting region. Arizona State is an entirely different program.
Edwards is energized, though. Not by the critics. Not by the doubters. By the job. By the challenge.
“There are two types of people who will sit in the leadership seat,” he says “There’s one that will coach or teach by their seat. Or they will teach with their feet. I teach with my feet. I’m everywhere.”
He then delivers one last slap to the table.