LaVell’s first game. It’s been half a century this week.
Fifty years ago this Friday, LaVell Edwards walked onto the field for pregame warmups for his first game as a Division I head football coach. It turned out to be a 32-9 win over Kansas State from the Big Eight Conference.
He then won 256 more over 29 seasons, including 19 league titles with 22 bowl appearances at a school that had never been to a bowl game. He went to the Fiesta Bowl in his third year.
After that first game, Edwards was headed for the College Football Hall of Fame, establishing a brand that includes the rise of the current program under the direction of one of his former players from the ’90s, Kalani Sitake, now the head coach of the No. 12-ranked Cougars.
Sitake, who fashions his coaching style after Edwards’, is fresh off a victory over then-No. 9-ranked Baylor last Saturday in the stadium named after his mentor. The Baylor win was his 50th as head coach, 50 years after Edwards’ first win.
Star Valley, Wyoming, native Mel Olson, a former offensive lineman with previous BYU head coach Tommy Hudspeth, was a freshman coach on Edwards’ staff that first season. Back in those days schools could field a freshman team and play a schedule on their own.
I saw Olson the other day in the Student Athlete Building and chatted with him about that first game, the beginning of the Edwards era. A few of my first questions were how Edwards approached that game, what he was like, what did he do and how did he evolve into what we know as one of the winningest college coaches of all time.
“He was the same that day as he was 10 years later,” said Olson. “Everyone loved him. He just had that way about him and his leadership style never changed from the beginning until the end. He tried to hire the best coaches he could get to come to Provo, then he got out of their way and let them do their job.”
That day, Sept. 16, 1972, the Cougars fielded a team comprised of a few legends, including running back Pete Van Valkenburg. Van Valkenburg would later lead the NCAA in rushing, ultimately winning the nation’s rushing title.
One of the defensive backs was former Provo High star Dave Atkinson, son of former BYU head football coach Chick Atkinson (1949-55). Dave Atkinson later set a school record for interceptions in a season, and he had one that day.
The quarterback was Dave Terry from Newport, California, and he handed off the ball to Van Valkenburg, Dan Taylor, Steve Stratton, and the late Wayne Bower, father of former BYU basketball player Danny Bower, a junior college All-American at Ricks College.
The receivers included Logan Hunter, Mike Pistorius and Dennis Doman. One of the offensive linemen on that squad was Paul Gustavson, who later became an accomplished organizational behavior scientist who helped both Tom Holmoe and former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall with leadership principles. Gustavson wrote a book with Mendenhall entitled “Running into the Wind.”
Terry ran for a pair of touchdowns and Van Valkenburg ran for another. Terry completed 15 of 23 passes for 149 yards. Kicker John Monahan made field goals of 27 and 45 yards.
Edwards had hired outstanding assistant coaches including O-line coach Dave Kragthorpe and three defensive experts in former NFL players Dick Felt, Fred Whittingham and Jim Criner, who was later the head coach at Boise State (1976-1982) and Iowa State (1983-1986).
Right out of the chute, Edwards had a challenge with Felt as defensive coordinator and Whittingham, who coached linebackers. Both were knowledgable, experienced and sorely needed to bring expertise to the program.
Whittingham had a more aggressive personality and pressed for more control of the defense. Edwards solved that by elevating Felt to assistant head coach and secondary coach, and made Whittingham the defensive coordinator. Typical Edwards finesse of a situation.
Edwards hired Dewey Warren to coach his quarterbacks. Warren was nicknamed the Swamp Rat after his career as Tennessee’s quarterback and a stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. It was Warren who jumpstarted BYU’s love affair with the passing game and star QBs.
Gustavson remembers an important moment for that first Edwards-coached team before spring practice started in 1972.
Edwards called the players to a team meeting in an upper room of the Richards Physical Education Building. One of the first things he told the team is there were some ground rules he expected players to follow and at the top of the list was attending classes consistently — no exceptions.
Four of the starters, all key stars, defensive lineman Keith Rivera, receiver Mike Pistorius, Dave Brooks and Steve Price heard that edict and remarked that rule would apply to everyone but Golden Richards, the best athlete on the team, who’d had a rough fall semester.
When spring drills came around, Richards had been dismissed from the team, reportedly for not going to classes and failing academically. Richards had been a star on the team in 1971 and led the nation in touchdowns via punt and kickoff returns. He would later become a super star with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL.
“That was a key building moment for the program and for Edwards. He proved he meant what he said and would do what he said he would do. Golden was the most talented player on the team and he was dismissed.”
Richards went on to get admitted to the University of Hawaii, and played for the Warriors the following year.
“It wasn’t that LaVell didn’t care for Golden, he did and he loved him, but he had set a standard for the team and sent a signal that one player was not more important than that principle,” said Gustavson.
Another key to that season and first game was the appointment of two key team captains, Van Valkenburg and linebacker Dan Hansen, who was built like Whittingham. Edwards delegated team discipline to those captains and except for major issues, players would answer to those captains and they would be responsible for compliance as peers.
That team went on to give Edwards a 7-4 record as a rookie head coach, ultimately ushering in one of the most successful runs of any head coach in the country, a legacy laced with conference titles, All-Americans, College Hall of Famers, Outland Trophy winners, a Heisman Trophy winner and two Super Bowl champs in Jim McMahon and Steve Young.
This week is a memory of a game 50 years ago. But what a beginning it was for a man and a program.