Ready to ride: BYU’s Ed Lamb in the saddle of fulfilling but challenging journey
BYU assistant head coach is much more than Kalani Sitake’s righthand man, he’s a riding partner and example to his 11-year-old son with autism
Ed Lamb talks football all day at BYU. Then he goes home to his 11-year-old son who doesn’t talk at all.
Edward was born with severe autism and is nonverbal.
“He has said five or six words in his life,” said Ed, the assistant head football coach at BYU. “The words come and go. He may use one or two of them for a year and then they will leave him.”
Finding ways to communicate has stretched Ed and Sarah Lamb beyond anything they thought possible.
The two met as neighbor kids in Pleasanton, California. They dated through high school, Ricks College and BYU and were married in 1997 to begin a life of family and football. Anna was born two years later, followed by Amelia and Summer.
Then came Edward.
Six weeks into his life Sarah noticed a slew of newborn mannerisms that were different from the girls.
“I knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was something wrong,” Sarah said. “We saw a specialist and she said it was autism and it was probably going to be severe.”
Eleven years later, Edward remains a full-time job. He is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds and growing. He can’t feed himself and may never be potty trained.
“Being nonverbal, we are blessed because he is such a loving and happy kid,” Ed said. “But when he’s frustrated and can’t communicate there is extreme frustration on his part. If you walk past our house at the wrong time, you will hear some screaming.”
The Lambs are used to screaming. They live in the shadow of LaVell Edwards Stadium where Ed played as a student-athlete, coached as a graduate-assistant, and just finished his sixth season on Kalani Sitake’s staff.
On game days, Edward likes to play in the back yard while dad is at work. The sound of the stadium crowd and the explosions from the George Q. Cannon after every BYU touchdown stimulate his senses. He loves the annual July 4 Stadium of Fire show for the same reason.
Two years ago, the Lambs learned that Edward is happiest on a horse when family friend Layne Batty invited him to take a ride at his ranch. The connection was instant.
“The only two words he has put together in his life are ‘go horse!’” said Ed. “That’s what he lives for — our horse rides together.”
They are not quite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Ed and Edward are regular riders, especially in BYU’s offseason. It’s where Edward becomes King Edward — the ruler of his mysterious world.
“Being on a horse has a calming influence on him,” said Ed. “Initially, we had to strap him into the saddle. Now he rides without any restraints. He rides through the chutes with his hands in the air.”
Football occupies much of Lamb’s time during the day, but late afternoons or evenings in the stirrups have opened doors to new ways of communicating, where words aren’t necessary.
“Ed’s biggest goal was to find something he and Edward could do together. It’s been so cool to see this relationship form with the horses,” Sarah said. “When Ed comes in from work Edward runs up to him and says “go” and then mimics the sound of a horse, and they go. It’s been an answer to a prayer for us.”
Edward will always have the Lamb’s full attention. For them, the American Express sales pitch rings true — they don’t leave home without him and on the rare occasion of a dinner date, they are never gone for long and Edward is never left unattended. His three sisters help carry the load.
“Edward has five parents,” said Ed. “I don’t know how we would have raised him without his sisters. It’s just our reality. There is no way we could keep him in our house without everybody pulling their share.”
“Edward has five parents. I don’t know how we would have raised him without his sisters. It’s just our reality. There is no way we could keep him in our house without everybody pulling their share.” — Ed Lamb
Much of the patience that is required at home with Edward is a byproduct of his dad’s life in football.
One of the popular punch lines from the movie “Talladega Nights” is when race car driver Ricky Bobby is questioned about his desire to win.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last!” he says.
No one wants to win more than Ed Lamb, who may not be first, but is always a close second.
Lamb is the No. 2 man at BYU as Sitake’s assistant head coach. He was a top target by Nevada last month and New Mexico and Fresno State two years ago for their head coaching positions. All three programs moved on with other candidates.
Even during his senior year at BYU in 1996, the 6-5 transfer from Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, was listed second on the depth chart behind defensive end Byron Frisch.
It takes a special man to be second.
“That’s setting up a pattern that at some point I’ve got to break or maybe that’s my destiny?” said Lamb. “But being No. 2 is not hard for me at all.”
That’s not a conciliatory approach, it’s just his style. While being patient, Lamb is fully engrossed in his BYU job where he also oversees in-game management analytics, special teams and safeties.
Vacancies for head coaching jobs don’t begin with applications. They come from a pursuing athletic director or a search agency. There have been times when Lamb’s name has popped up publicly as a candidate when he had never heard from the school.
Being sought after is no crime, it’s a reflection of BYU’s success. Sitake’s recent interactions with Washington, Oregon and other schools who were considering him for their head coach is an example, but the inquiries are not void of some collateral damage.
“One of the safeties interrupted our group meeting when it was reported that I was being interviewed by Nevada,” Lamb said. “The player said, ‘Coach, are you going to be here next year?’ I said, absolutely. This is my team. That is truly how I feel.”
Nevada’s interest was sincere, but the Wolf Pack decided that Lamb was lower on their menu of choice. So, the wait continues.
Lamb hasn’t always been second. Prior to taking the BYU job in 2016, he was head coach at Southern Utah. He and his staff inherited a program in 2008 that was riding an 18-game losing streak.
“We lost our first game, so the streak went to 19,” he said. “But we won our second.”
Two seasons later, the Thunderbirds claimed the Great West Conference championship. They advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history in 2013 and again in 2015 as Big Sky Conference champions.
During both seasons, Lamb finished as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award that honors the National Coach of the Year.
“It really came down to finding a way to get everybody in the program moving in the right direction,” he said of his SUU success. “In hindsight, our goal was to outwork everybody. We didn’t win all of our games, but we won a lot of them.”
“I already knew that if I was going to get the job, he was going to be someone that I’d want on my staff,” Sitake said. “He’s been through a lot of organizing, establishing a culture, all that stuff.”
True to his instinct, when Sitake was hired at BYU near the end of 2015 his first call was to Lamb. Sitake had never been a head coach and he sought out Lamb’s experience to mentor him along.
“It’s been huge. Having someone that’s been a head coach before and someone that I can turn to for advice and will shoot it straight. That is one thing I appreciate about Ed. He doesn’t pull any punches,” Sitake said. “We have a great relationship where he can be himself and express himself and give me his honest opinion.”
Lamb eagerly accepted Sitake’s offer without mention of money or what he would be doing. He just knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“Kalani said he wanted me to be in a leadership role on staff and help him,” Lamb said. “It wasn’t about salary or titles; it was about coming here to my alma mater with my longtime friend and pouring all of my energy into BYU football in whatever role he created for me.”
In addition to his involvement with the safeties and special teams, Lamb is also the in-game manager. He babysits the timeouts and drives the analytics that determine when the Cougars will punt, attempt a field goal or try for a two-point conversion after a touchdown.
“We have an analytics partner that prints out a book for us with every situation that could happen in a game,” he said. “My job is to know the book. Kalani has the final say, but he’s given me the responsibility to know the numbers and make recommendations based on what they show.”
Sitake signed a contract extension in December to keep him at BYU through 2027. The new deal promises more money for Lamb and the staff as they prepare for the Big 12.
“When he got here, he was raw in many ways,” Hall of Fame BYU quarterback Steve Young said of Sitake. “We’ve grown with him, and he found the people around him to help him do it.”
Lamb is one of those key associates that has watched Sitake evolve into national coaching commodity.
“He becomes more authentic every year, which is a sign of a man’s character,” Lamb said of his boss. “He has remained true to himself, and his motivation is to build other people up. The more success we have, the more he gives.”
“Kalani said he wanted me to be in a leadership role on staff and help him. It wasn’t about salary or titles; it was about coming here to my alma mater with my longtime friend and pouring all of my energy into BYU football in whatever role he created for me.” — Ed Lamb
Lamb is mentoring others on the staff as well, including defensive graduate assistant Gavin Fowler who is in the same role Lamb held in 2001.
“He’s one of the best coaches and football minds out there,” Fowler said. “He’s extremely organized and has a very clear vision of how a program needs to be run. He knows what it takes.”
Moment of truth
“Field goal team!” Sitake and his staff summoned BYU’s special teams after quarterback Taysom Hill drove the Cougars into field goal range with six seconds to play. Arizona held a 16-15 lead in the 2016 season opener and Sitake’s head coaching debut.
In that tense moment, Lamb, following a gut feeling, pulled his starting kicker, Rhett Almond for freshman Jake Oldroyd. The move was a surprise because Oldroyd hadn’t kicked all game.
Lamb then had to sell the move to Sitake.
“I remember thinking this is the first time, in a pressure situation, that I’m going to try and talk my boss into a big decision, one that could be heavily scrutinized,” said Lamb. “Kalani never flinched. He said, whatever you want bro. Whatever you think.”
Oldroyd booted the 33-yard field goal to win the game 18-16.
“That was a great feeling,” Lamb said. “It was a great way to start our time together here with his program.”
Not all of Lamb’s ideas get such an easy pass.
BYU marched into Wisconsin in 2018 and led the No. 6 Badgers 24-21 late in the fourth quarter.
“I wanted to save our final timeout for a potential last-minute drive, but Kalani wanted to use it to ice the kicker,” Lamb said. “He overruled me on that one.”
After the timeout, Wisconsin missed a 42-yard field goal. The Cougars snapped the Badgers 41-game nonconference home winning streak and beat a top-10 team on the road for the first time since 1984.
In the wake of BYU’s 26-17 victory last September against No. 21 Utah, Sitake noticed his right-hand man was making a quick exit from the postgame celebration.
“I caught the video footage of the celebration. We were all hugging and everything, and as the celebration continued, I see in the background Ed walking to the locker room as if it’s just another day at the office,” Sitake said. “That’s a perfect example of who he is. He is already thinking about the next game.”
1997 Cotton Bowl
Lamb tackled Kansas State’s punt returner in the third quarter for his only solo tackle in BYU’s only bowl appearance on New Year’s Day. The 1997 Cotton Bowl pitted the 5th-ranked Cougars against No. 14 Kansas State.
“During our pregame meeting with the defensive line, coach Tom Ramage started to tear up,” Lamb said. “He said, ‘Guys, I never thought I’d be coaching in a New Year’s Day bowl’ and he thanked us. It was such a special moment for him and that’s when we realized the magnitude of the moment.”
BYU’s stingy defense held the Wildcats to 15 points and Omarr Morgan’s interception at the 3-yard line with 55 seconds left preserved the Cougars’ 19-15 victory.
“For me, it was mixed emotions,” Lamb remembered. “For so many years I had wanted to be an NFL player after college. At some point during my senior year, I figured out that it wasn’t a realistic goal. I knew that it was the last time I would wear a helmet, make a tackle or rush a passer.”
The history between Lamb and BYU is written in victories. During his 1996 senior season, the Cougars won a school record 14 games. As a graduate assistant for Gary Crowton in 2001, BYU started 12-0 before finishing with two defeats. In just the last two seasons with Sitake, the Cougars are 21-4.
The numbers don’t lie — in those four years of Lamb, whether as a player or coach, BYU won 47 games.
Prior to the Southern Utah job, Lamb served as assistant coach for Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego between 2005-07. Lamb oversaw the defensive backs, special teams and recruiting.
“Young people call it ‘extra,’ but that was Jim every day,” Lamb said. “He brought so much passion, enthusiasm and energy to everything every day. It was a thrill ride to be with him. When I took the job at Southern Utah, I tried to emulate his approach.”
Harbaugh’s success in San Diego opened the door for head coaching jobs at Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and currently at No. 2 Michigan.
“I bump into him at recruiting functions and camps multiple times a year,” Lamb said. “He’s the same guy. Same passion. Same intensity. Same singular purpose. If nothing else, he’s consistent and real.”
Balancing church, family and football can be a challenge. Lamb, while not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, played his college football at church-owned and operated Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and BYU. The church is his employer, and his wife and kids are members of the church.
“Sarah is from a big Latter-day Saint family with 12 kids and her dad had been a bishop and here I am, a nonmember teenager hanging around his daughter,” Ed said. ”I wasn’t too popular around the house at first.”
With time and a lot of family breakfasts and dinners, and his recruitment to Ricks College, Ed won over the group.
“It was very intimidating for him at first,” said Sarah, who this month will complete her bachelor’s degree at BYU in family science. “We had all these traditions and rules that his family never had, including a rule that I couldn’t hang out with him on Sundays. But my parents liked him and kept inviting him over.”
“I’ve always considered myself a Latter-day Saint since Sarah and I have been together,” Ed said. “We go to church together. Our kids serve missions, and we are a part of the community here. I just consider myself a Latter-day Saint.”
Securing Sarah as his “No. 1” changed his world and launched the two of them on an adventure of ups and downs that are in no short supply when it comes to life and coaching football.
The fire still burns
Lamb is living the good life. It’s not easy, but it’s good. However, deep down inside there is a flame that still burns to be his own boss at the FBS level.
“There is a division through the middle of my feelings,” Lamb said. “I do aspire to do that, but I love this place. I love the players and I love the guys I work with. If I earn that opportunity again it will be sweet, but it will be bittersweet.”
The typical road for an assistant head coach at a non-P5 is to get a similar post with a P5 and work up from there. But BYU’s admittance into the Big 12 in 2023 will give the Cougars P5 status and allow Lamb to shine in that lofty spotlight without leaving Provo.
“He’s ready to be a Division I head coach, at any place. He’s a great leader. He loves the players, and he is a guy that is always about innovation and creativity.” — Kalani Sitake on Ed Lamb
“He’s ready to be a Division I head coach, at any place,” Sitake said. “He’s a great leader. He loves the players, and he is a guy that is always about innovation and creativity.”
Lamb’s credentials refute Ricky Bobby’s cinematic declaration. Not being first doesn’t mean you are last; it just might mean you are next, especially when you have been a close second for so long.
For now, the Lambs are content. Ed is preparing for spring practice to begin in early March. Sarah and the girls are busy with school and Edward is anxiously pacing around the house, waiting for his dad to walk through the door so they can bundle up, saddle up and ride off into the sunset together.
This is a priceless and perspective-altering time where Ed is free from football and Edward is free from autism, even for just a little while.
And they ride.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.