The Gospel of Herm Edwards: New ASU Coach on How He'll Defy Expectations

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterAugust 24, 2018

Newly appointed Arizona State University NCAA college football head coach Herman Edwards speaks during a news conference, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. Edwards, a former NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst will assume the head coach position and serve as football CEO according to ASU athletic director Ray Anderson. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

TEMPE, Ariz. — It's the first day of his first fall camp as Arizona State's head coach, and Herm Edwards is preaching life in its truest and purest form. Football is just the facilitator.

"Don't let anyone's perception become your reality," Edwards says, his voice booming through the oversized team meeting room while 100-plus players hang on his every word.          

Then he says it again, because you might have been listening, but did you really hear it? Those final three words linger just a bit longer the second time, each underscored with a thump of Edwards' open palm on a lectern.

Become. Your. Reality.

The moment is flooded in irony.

Edwards' message is aimed at a team that was voted the worst in the Pac-12's South division a week earlier. Nine months ago, Edwards himself was called the worst hire of the college football offseason by just about everyone outside the desert—a dubious honor of perception.

He might as well have used the motivation on himself.

"The negative person always has the loudest horn," Edwards preaches.

More unintentional irony from a man who had been a television analyst for years before taking this job, occupying a seat gifted to broken-down players or coaches who didn't make it.

You know the rundown on Edwards by now. Out of the NFL for years. Hasn't coached college football in decades. Has never been a collegiate head coach. Until now.

One preseason magazine boldly proclaimed under the headline "Herm Edwards" the question: "Why?"

Everyone wants an answer, and the answers are all here in the Book of Herm. Open your ears and hear, everyone. Don't listen, hear.

Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

"You think that stuff affects me? My dad fought in World War II and the Korean War, and my mom was his German wife," Edwards tells Bleacher Report. "There was right and wrong when I grew up, and no gray area. You knew where you stood. My mom and dad got married in the 1950s, and in the 1960s, we can't go to the South. We. Can't. Go."

He slaps his hand on the oak table in his office with each of those last three words and turns to face the question head on. Edwards chews up doubters, just like he did as an undrafted college player who spent nine years as a star cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"The stuff I've been through, that I've witnessed with my own eyes?" Edwards says. "You can't break me. You cannot break my will. I won't allow you to do that. That ain't even a factor in this. Don't even go there."

He's 64 years old, and there might be a handful of 60-somethings on the planet in better shape. His washboard abs look like railroad ties, and he can still run a sub-5.0 time in the 40.

He doesn't drink. Doesn't smoke. Doesn't curse.

You want to doubt him? Let him sit down and take you through the Book of Herm to prove to you, point by point, that his reality means more than your perception. Every. Single. Day.

How do you use a pro model with a college system?

When Arizona State vice president of athletics Ray Anderson announced in late November that he was giving former coach Todd Graham $12 million not to coach anymore and quickly hired his best friend to replace him, the offseason of "you've got to be kidding me" began.

At the time, Anderson said ASU would run under a "New Leadership Model" similar to an NFL model. And college football purists lost their collective minds. What he should've said was the days of one coach having complete control of the program—recruiting, coaching, uniforms, equipment, travel plans, etc.—are over.

"Everyone has their place," Anderson says now. "Everyone knows their place."

Matt York/Associated Press

That's the philosophy not because it's how Edwards did it in the NFL with the Jets and Chiefs, but because—hold onto your hat, college football junkies—it's how successful college teams operate, too. Hear the Book of Herm:

"You're skeptical of the pro model? Why are you skeptical of it? Everybody is doing it," Edwards says. "You think Nick Saban doesn't have a pro model down there, for God's sake? Dabo Swinney isn't running a pro model? How about Ohio State or Georgia or Stanford? What are we talking about here? Stop it! Those guys are winning championships running pro models!

"All of these kids want to be professional football players. So we said, 'We're doing the pro model.' We set it up. You have to build a winning DNA, then you get players and it works—as long as you know you have a plan and you don't panic and listen to someone else's plan. This is what we're doing, and we ain't deviating, man. Someone says, 'That's out of the box.' Well, whose box? This is what we do. Who made up those rules, anyway? We're not trying to do it, we're going to do it.

"There's a belief. That's what programs try to build. That's why I marvel at Stanford. You just watch how they play. There's a style to them. We don't care about all the rest of you. They just run you over and beat you to a pulp. And it goes unannounced, and it's not even pretty. You say it's boring football, but they just keep winning."

How can a 64-year-old who hasn't coached in college since 1989 recruit 18-year-old high schoolers?

Graham was fired because, among other things, he struggled to win recruiting battles. In his last two years, he landed 11 recruits from the state of California, a vital recruiting base that has produced some of ASU's greatest players.

In the first year with Edwards, the Sun Devils landed 12 players from California, including junior college All-American receiver Brandon Aiyuk (who Alabama wanted late) and coveted junior college cornerback Terin Adams. Despite starting with a new staff in December, Arizona State finished with a recruiting class that 247Sports ranked 36th in the nation.

"When he speaks, I view it as him speaking on a different level," Adams says. "He knows football and life. He just speaks greatness naturally, and when he speaks, it's whatever he says, goes. I don't think I've ever felt like that."

Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

They have it all at Arizona State: a $300 million stadium renovation that includes a 120,000-square-foot football-only facility as impressive as any in the nation. Only Washington in the Pac-12 has comparable facilities.

The last piece of the equation was the salesman. The pitch. The book of Herm:

"Some people say, 'He can't relate.' Come on. I can't relate to people? Me? You're throwing me in the henhouse, man," Edwards says. "I can't recruit? Really? If there's one thing I know, it's people. I can get along with anybody. I walk in a house, and guess what? People know who I am when I walk in their home. All the neighbors know I'm coming, and they come over. They don't even have kids; they just want to meet the coach.

"There's nothing magical about it: You have to have players. Players. Win. Games. The better the player, the greater the margin of error. Good players bail you out on a bad call or a bad situation. Bill Walsh ran that West Coast offense with the 49ers in his first year, and they can't win a game. They have that slant play, and they'd throw it and get five yards.

"Now they draft Joe Montana, and they get Jerry Rice. Same offense, same slant. Now all of a sudden, Montana is throwing that thing right on Rice's chest, and Rice is taking it 80 yards for a touchdown. Same play. Everyone knows it's coming. No one can stop it. That's what great players do for you. Alabama? Great players. Clemson? Great players. Now, can you coach them and get them in position to maximize their talent? The great programs do that."

Edwards was last on the sideline in 2008. Everything has changed. The offenses are so far ahead of the defenses, yet the defensive-minded coach is jumping back in?

Danny Gonzales got the call out of the blue during San Diego State's bowl preparation. Edwards wanted to talk to him about being his defensive coordinator.

So Gonzeles left Dallas after practice, flew into Phoenix at 9 p.m., went to the ASU football facility in Tempe and talked ball with Edwards until 2:30 in the morning.

"He offered me the job after five hours," Gonzales says.

Now, on the first day of fall camp, Edwards walks into the defense meeting room with a piece of paper. Staring back at Gonzales and his players is the ugly truth.

In the past three years, ASU has given up an average of 35.4 points per game and 9.8 in the fourth quarter alone. The Sun Devils gave up 127 pass plays of 25 yards or more (explosion plays) and another 41 run plays of 25 yards or more. The defense gave up 160 touchdowns.

The coach who the game has seemingly passed by has one fundamental response: You have to know how to miss a tackle.

Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

And the next chapter in the Book of Herm is revealed.

"We hired Gary Lane, who was a rugby club coach here for a long time, to teach cheek-to-cheek tackling: your (face) cheek to his (rear end) cheek. They step into your crotch and the shoulder is in the gut. Oh, we're in; we're teaching it now. Every defense is predicated on turning the ball back to get help. If I'm a cornerback and the play is outside, I'm tracking that runner's outside hip. If I miss and he goes inside, there are eight guys chasing to get him. But if I try and tackle on the inside hip and miss, well, there's one of your explosion plays. There. It. Is.

"Knowing how to miss a tackle is more important than tackling. One guy is not making every tackle. Look, if it were just tackling, then we're good to go. But it's not. When you're on a team like that, giving up numbers like that, how are the other players holding each other accountable?

"When I was in Tampa [as an assistant coach in the late '90s], oh my God, if you missed a tackle, [Warren] Sapp and [John] Lynch and [Derrick] Brooks would be in your face like, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?' It isn't tolerated. You see Arizona State on the schedule the last three years, and if you're a player, you're thinking, 'This is a stat game.' You're someone's homecoming opponent. You're walking through campus and someone says, 'Don't you play football?' And you say, 'Yeah, but I'm on offense.' I'm looking at the defense, telling them this, and now I'm getting a little angry. You cannot tolerate this. You can never feel good about this. No one ever told them this."

How does he learn and adapt to the vast differences between coaching college players out of high school and grown men in the NFL?

Edwards looks back 28 years ago, and nothing has changed. That's right, nothing.

He began his NFL career in 1990 as a scout with the Chiefs, a staff that included some of the game's heavy hitters: Marty Schottenheimer, Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Bruce Arians.

It is here where Edwards first learned of The Stance.

When Dungy worked for Chuck Noll with the Steelers, Noll would tell each of his assistants on the first day of practice to get his players in a football stance. Every position has a base stance, and every player got in that stance before anything happened. Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Mike Webster, all of them.

"I saw Mean Joe Greene get in the stance," Dungy says.

Translation: Football is football, no matter where you play it. If you don't know the fundamentals, you're lost on the field.

So, Edwards got a sheet of paper and had the steps to get into a stance on one side and the basics of the football field on the other. The size of the field, the distance between hash marks, the distance from the hash to the near sideline and far sideline. Even the size of the numbers.

Why? Because when it's 3rd-and-9 late in the fourth quarter, the road crowd is ringing in your ears and you can't hear yourself think, the Book of Herm has you covered:

Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

"I put it in their locker. Know the dimensions of the field. They looked at me like I was crazy. First thing I gave them. You gotta know the game. I'm a cornerback, and the ball is on the hash. To throw an out from the far hash to the sideline, it's 35 yards. Know the quarterback. If he has a popgun arm, you're not even worrying about that throw. You're playing all cut-ins. There are only so many options. Discount the options and put the odds on your side. It's coaching, man!

"Heck, maybe it's me; maybe I'm all screwed up. But I learned football that way. And for some reason, we've gotten away from it. You block and tackle, run the ball, throw the ball and you kick it. But what has happened is athletes are so good, they think, well, let's just get our best athletes on the field and go play. Until you meet someone who has the same athletes or better. Now you've got a problem.

"That happens in pro football. Guys come in with a lot of talent, but if they're fundamentally sloppy and they don't learn it, their age catches them and they're out of the league without a long career. Guys that have long careers, they're fundamentally sound; age catches up to them, but they're a smart player and they continue to play because they know the game. They. Know. The. Game.

"Some guys get caught up in the system. Listen, the players are the system. The players will dictate what we have to do. I can do whatever; just give me the players. That's your job as a coach. You can't play for them, but when they walk on the field, that's your resume going out on that field."

Mark Peterman / Special to Bleacher Report

How can a guy so far removed from the game be the face of a college program?

Kevin Mawae is talking about the day that left a hole in his soul, the moment that still brings this mountain of a man and surefire NFL Hall of Famer to uncontrollable tears.

The day life changed for everyone, September 11, 2001, is the day Mawae realized what kind of man he played for with the Jets. Edwards was in his first season as the Jets head coach, his first head-coaching job after never being a coordinator—all in the 24/7 fishbowl that is New York City.

The planes hit the World Trade Center on Tuesday, the off day for NFL players, and everything—including the sporting behemoth that is the NFL—was frozen in the unknown. A day later, the Jets tried to practice, and Edwards stopped it after 30 minutes.

He told Mawae and the team to figure out what they wanted to do on Sunday—play or not—and he'd inform the league and ownership.

The player who spent Sundays mauling defensive linemen for 16 years, who now works for Edwards as an offensive analyst, leans back in his chair at the ASU football complex and covers his eyes as those awful feelings become fresh again.

"The Friday after the attacks, we go down to Ground Zero to help," Mawae recalls. "Firefighters were in that hole for two straight weeks because their brothers were buried alive. They were taking debris, bucket by bucket for days upon days. They'd stop, and everything would get quiet, and you'd know they just found another body. Just unimaginable."

The Jets were blown out by the Colts in Week 1, and the coach who already had zero capital was told by his team captain that they voted not to play.

In the Book of Herm, there's a right way and a wrong way.

There is no in-between.

"We practiced at Hofstra, and there's a train station near the facility. That station was full, day and night, for three weeks. People left for work the morning of 9/11 and never returned," Edwards says. "The team told me their decision, and I called the commissioner and said, 'Mr. Tagliabue, I don't know where the league stands on playing, but I want to tell you the Jets will not play Sunday.' Then I called our owner, Woody Johnson, and I said, 'Mr. Johnson, I want you to know the Jets aren't playing Sunday.' He said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'It means we're 0-2.'

"That was the proudest moment of my coaching career.

"I talk to our guys all the time about life lessons. They have shirts that say 'Words and Actions.' Do they match up? That's all I care about. If you're not going to do it, don't say it. That's what we do as men. Male by birth, men by choice. I tell our guys the only thing I have is my integrity, and that means more to me than anything. Integrity is my referee.

"I was in a [television] seat and could've stayed there as long as I wanted to stay. But I wasn't making a difference, man. I can touch the players now. I. Can. Touch. Them."

Football is just the facilitator. For Edwards, that's reality now, not just perception.


Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MattHayesCFB.


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