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Survey indicates BYU faithful still backing Edwards

It's a question BYU officials dread and BYU fans love to speculate about: How much longer will LaVell Edwards coach the Cougars?

In his 26 years at the BYU football helm, he has won a national championship, brought home a bevy of WAC titles and coached a Heisman Trophy winner. There appear to be few challenges remaining for Edwards.As he wraps up another hectic recruiting period this week, Edwards, at 67, doesn't appear to be slowing down. Nor does he plan to hang a permanent "Gone Golfin' " shingle on his office door in the near future. He simply conducts a self-evaluation after every season and goes from there. For him, it's the journey, not the destination, that compels him to continue.

"My motivation has never been to get X-number of championships. I'm just enjoying the challenge of each season," he said. "I'm not one to lean on past successes or failures. I'm not trying to get one more championship. I keep doing it because of the challenge every year of putting together a good football team. It's what I thoroughly enjoy."

Apparently, most BYU fans are still enjoying the ride.

A recent Deseret News poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates reveals that 66 percent of Utah County residents want Edwards to continue coaching at least through the 1998 season. Only 11 percent said Edwards should retire.

In addition, a whopping 78 percent say they approve of his job performance. Not bad for a guy coming off what was, by BYU standards, a horrendous 6-5 season.

Still, nobody was more frustrated by those subpar on-field results than Edwards himself. "It was not enjoyable," he said of the 1997 campaign. The way he sees it, that's all the more reason to keep roaming the sidelines.

"(Last year) didn't end the way I wanted to at all," he said. "I was not one bit satisfied."

Even in the wake of Edwards' second bowl-less season in three years (after 17 straight postseason appearances), things got worse. Just days after losing at home to in-state rival Utah, he underwent surgery as doctors cleaned blockage from his internal and external carotid arteries in his neck.

Edwards came through the procedure in fine shape, and he said he never pondered retirement. He never considered it as a serious setback to his career. "It certainly would be if there was a potential, lingering problem," he said. "But everything seems to be fine. I'm taking medication and trying to eat a little differently."

Weeks after the surgery, Tom Osborne, another nationally respected coach and good friend of Edwards, stepped aside after 25 seasons at Nebraska, citing health problems. Not even that announcement prompted thoughts of retirement in Edwards' mind. He says he'll know when his time is up, and that time has not yet arrived.

"The indication to me is going to be with recruiting, when I can't do what it takes to keep things going," said Edwards, with 234 victories the third-winningest active coach in college football. "When it gets to that point, it will be time to look at it. At the end of this last season, I couldn't wait to go out, recruit and get ready for next season. I use that as a barometer. I'm very pleased with the direction recruiting is going. My excitement about the challenge, about the job, hasn't waned. I don't want to think about (retirement)."

BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg attests that the competitive fire still burns within Edwards. "There is no indication that he is thinking about retiring anytime soon," he said. "Quite to the contrary. He's more engaged and more determined to do things than he has been in the last two years since I started working with him."

However, there is some sentiment - both on the sports radio airwaves and in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local papers - among a segment of fans who contend that Edwards should have ambled off into the sunset after his team won the 1997 Cotton Bowl and finished with a 14-1 record and No. 5 national ranking.

They utter the infamous "the game has passed him by" line in reference to the Cougar coach. They argue the mantle of authority should be placed on the shoulders of a new, younger man.

"Any time you face some adversity," Fehlberg said, "some immediately jump on the I-want-change bandwagon."

While he isn't oblivious to opposing opinions, Edwards doesn't lose sleep over it. At the same time, he understands the role of fans in the scheme of things. "Perceptions are important," he said.

"It helps create interest so people will buy tickets and keep the stands full. As far as worrying about it, I don't do that. When I was first hired, an administrator said 90 percent of your P.R. would be resolved by what you do on the field. I've found that to be true."

Support for Edwards is strong among the Cougar Club, the athletic department's fund-raising arm, according to executive director Dale McCann. McCann adds that this backing is partly evidenced by the fact money is being donated by the 3,600-member organization at a record pace so far this year.

"There's disappointment when we have a mediocre season," said McCann. "It's like the president's poll. To some, one day he's a goat, another day he's a hero. I think there's only a handful of fans who believes retirement is something he ought to consider. I believe the program is in good hands.

"People are disappointed but recognize that he has had a consistent program. That's the hallmark of his career - consistency. I hopes he never quits."

While Edwards' popularity knows no bounds in many circles, somebody must take the blame when the program falters. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow has played that role, absorbing the brunt of the criticism this season as the Cougars struggled to score points in 1997.

According to the Deseret News poll, Chow received an approval rating of 49 percent. Some BYU fans feel certain assistant coaches should move and think such changes are long overdue.

Though Edwards is inextricably linked to the 1984 national championship and other successes, some fans forget that for the most part, he has been surrounded by the same assistant coaches who toil in anonymity - until the program hits rough times.

Rumors have surfaced of late that 1998 will be Edwards' final season. Of course, Fehlberg downplays such talk. "We can't chase every rumor down," he said. "LaVell makes it very clear with the athletes we're recruiting where that stands. LaVell is telling recruits who will be the coach. It's a non-issue."

Does that mean Edwards will coach as long as he wants?

"That's one of the great things about LaVell," Fehlberg mused. "He has a marvelous sense about these things. When it's time for him to hang it up, he'll know that."

In 1995, Fehlberg worked out a three- to five-year agreement with Edwards to stay at BYU. Fehlberg doesn't call it a "contract," but rather describes it, in AD-speak, in language as inscrutable as Edwards' stoic face, as "extending his arrangement with the university. We provided incentives for him to stay as long as that works out for him and for us."

With recruiting duties concluding and spring practice weeks away, Edwards is focused on shaping the 1998 squad. He's also looking forward to opening the season at Alabama, where the Cougars will meet the Crimson Tide for the first time.

"We've played in some historic places, the Rose Bowl, Georgia and Notre Dame," he said. "It will be nice to go into the South and play. It will be something special."

Just don't ask him when he plans on retiring.

*****

Deseret News Poll

How would you rate the job performance of the following at BYU?

Football coach LaVell Edwards

Excellent 48%

Good 30%

Fair 4%

Poor 2%

Don't know 17%

Offencive coordinator Norm Chow

Excellent 16%

Good 33%

Fair 13%

Poor 7%

Don't know 31%

Some football fans are saying BYU football coach LaVell Edwards should retire. In your opinion, should he retire before the next college football season?

Definitely 3%

Probably 8%

Probably Not 28%

Definitely Not 38%

Don't know 23%

This poll of 405 Utah County residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Dec. 10-16. It has a margin of error of +/- 5 percent.