First Wins: LaVell Edwards

by Mike Ferguson

Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU athletics

Today, it is almost unthinkable for a coach from a non-major conference to win a national championship.

Legendary BYU head coach LaVell Edwards was up to the task in 1984. Edwards however, had more than a decade of coaching experience prior to that.

Our series looking back at the first wins in the career of legendary coaches revisits the first victory for a man who spent nearly four decades roaming the sidelines in Provo, including the last three as a head coach.

Early Life and Career

Born in Utah on Oct. 11, 1930, that’s where Edwards would spend the majority of his life. A large man, Edwards would play his college football at Utah State as an offensive lineman.

Edwards played from 1949 to 1951 and earned a bachelor’s degree. Edwards’ first affiliation with BYU was not as a football coach, but as a student.

He earned both master’s and doctorate degrees from BYU in education. His first head coaching job came at Granite High School, where he was the head man from 1954 to 1961.

In 1962, Edwards received his first opportunity at the college level. Hired by Hal Mitchel, Edwards spent 10 years as an assistant with the Cougars.

The majority of that tenure came under Tommy Hudspeth. Over Edwards’ decade as an assistant however, BYU finished with a winning record just four times.

After a 5-6 campaign in 1971 — BYU’s third losing season in four years — Hudspeth resigned. BYU didn’t look far for his successor.

At the age of 41, Edwards had become a college football head coach.

For most of BYU’s program history, losing was the norm. That changed under Edwards and it changed almost immediately.

The First Win

BYU opened its campaign at home under the first-year head coach Edwards on Sept. 16, 1972. The opponent at Cougar Stadium was Kansas State.

For BYU, it was domination from the start in a 32-9 romp.

Under Edwards, BYU would become known for its potential aerial attack, but in his debut, it was the ground game that dominated for the Cougars. BYU finished the day with 300 yards rushing. Pete Van Valkenburg did the majority of the damage, rushing for 178 yards and a touchdown.

Van Valkenburg and quarterback Dave Terry each rushed for short touchdowns in the first half as the Cougars built a 17-3 halftime lead. After John Monahan’s second field goal extended the lead to 20-3 midway through the third quarter, John Betham put the game out of reach with a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Trailing 26-3 after three quarters, Kansas State finally found the end zone early in the fourth as Dennis Morrison connected with Henry Childs for a 27-yard touchdown pass. That would be one of the few highlights of the day for the Wildcats.

Any momentum it may have created was short-lived.

It took Terry less than two minutes to answer with a 45-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring.

Each team committed four turnovers, but that wouldn’t dampen the spirits of those wearing blue. Dave Atkinson and Ron Tree each came up with interceptions for the BYU defense.

For the first time, Edwards was a winning head coach. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time.

A Legendary Career

BYU would go on to finish 7-4 in Edwards’ first season. The Cougars took a step back in 1973, finishing 5-6, but that would be the final losing season of Edwards’ tenure.

From there, Edwards led BYU to unprecedented success. In 1974, BYU made its first bowl game. Three years later, it notched its first AP top-25 finish.

Prior to 1979, BYU had never had a 10-win season. That year would begin a stretch of six 11-win seasons in seven years. That included the only perfect season in BYU history — a 13-0 campaign in 1984 and a consensus national championship.

That 1984 title remains the only national championship in BYU history, but over Edwards’ 29 seasons, BYU claimed 19 conference titles, including eight straight outright WAC championships from 1978 to 1985. During his tenure, BYU finished ranked 12 times, including three top-10 finishes and notched a 10-win season 10 times.

In an era where the ground game dominated college football, Edwards’ teams were known for their aerial attack and talented quarterbacks. Those included the likes of Jim McMahon, Robbie Boscoe, Steve Young and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.

Edwards retired after a 6-6 season in 2000.

A devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Edwards commonly spoke on the church’s behalf and was involved in mission trips with his wife, Patti. Edwards died in Provo at the age of 86 on Dec. 29, 2016.

Edwards was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. For his career, Edwards went 257-101-1.

Edwards ranks in the top 25 all-time in wins regardless of college football classification and eighth among those with at least 200 wins at the FBS level. The first victory came in dominating fashion against Kansas State.

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.

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