Ed­wards, Ari­zona State

Schroeder: Re­think­ing skep­ti­cism

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Ge­orge Schroeder Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

Twice this month, Herm Ed­wards has en­tered the Ari­zona State locker room af­ter vic­to­ries, plopped down on a ta­ble and just spent a few min­utes watch­ing the cel­e­bra­tion.

“This,” he tells him­self, “is what I missed about foot­ball.”

Ari­zona State is 2-0. And es­pe­cially af­ter a 16-13 win last Satur­day against then-No. 13 Michi­gan State, it’s time to ask: What have we missed about Herm Ed­wards?

From the mo­ment he ar­rived in Tempe last De­cem­ber, the hir­ing was al­most uni­ver­sally panned around col­lege foot­ball. We chuck­led at the idea that a 63year-old (he turned 64 in April) who’d been out of coach­ing for al­most 10 years and away from col­lege foot­ball for al­most 30 years was the right choice for Ari­zona State. We laughed at the univer­sity’s 2,600-word news re­lease an­nounc­ing not only his hire, but seem­ingly a com­plete rein­ven­tion of how to run a foot­ball pro­gram with a “New Lead­er­ship Model.”

And by we, I mean me.

Back in May, I spent al­most an hour in Ed­wards’ of­fice, lis­ten­ing to his vi­sion for the Sun Devils’ foot­ball pro­gram. And for foot­ball. And for life.

At times the con­ver­sa­tion seemed more like a life hack than an in­ter­view; many of Ed­wards’ words were directed to­ward my teenage son, who ac­com­pa­nied me on the visit. When we left, my son was pumped. The feel­ing, we both agreed, was that we would run through a wall for Herm.

But I couldn’t help but won­der: At im­pact, would the wall give way?

Ed­wards laughed the other day when I told him about that re­ac­tion. Dur­ing a week when mea cul­pas have flowed from the key­boards and mi­cro­phones of col­lege foot­ball me­dia from just about ev­ery­where, Ed­wards has been as gra­cious as he was dur­ing the off­sea­son when the un­kind takes were flow­ing.

“I un­der­stand,” he said. “This (hire) is some­thing out­side of the box. Peo­ple don’t gen­er­ally do things this way. … We all un­der­stood when this took place, there were gonna be some peo­ple who didn’t agree — and that’s OK. This is Amer­ica. We can have dif­fer­ences of opinions.

“But we sailed on our jour­ney. We’re try­ing to build some­thing. And it’s still a work in progress.”

And last Satur­day, a well-drilled bunch upset Michi­gan State. A de­fense that has been rou­tinely por­ous over the last few years was in­stead smoth­er­ing. And in the fi­nal mo­ments, the Sun Devils worked the clock per­fectly to set up the win­ning field goal as time ex­pired. Ear­lier this week, Ed­wards said of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Rob Likens sug­gested sev­eral plays to run near the goal line, but the head coach had other ideas.

“I said, ‘No, no,’ ” Ed­wards told re­porters. “‘You know what the best play is? Vic­tory.’ ”

He meant hav­ing quar­ter­back Manny Wilkins take the snap and kneel, bleed­ing the clock so Michi­gan State wouldn’t get the ball back. But maybe there’s an ad­di­tional layer. Vic­tory is a great play.

And from Ed­wards’ per­spec­tive, what hap­pens im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward, those five min­utes he spends watch­ing his team, is even bet­ter.

“The joy they have,” he said. “The voices, them hug­ging, guys scream­ing. I don’t say a word. I just sit there. I’m like a lit­tle kid. I just take it all in. … That’s the joy for me.”

Some of the doubt came from that bloated and clunky ini­tial news re­lease, dressed up in cor­po­rate-style jar­gon. It promised to bring the “NFL ap­proach” to col­lege foot­ball. In prac­tice, it’s not all that dif­fer­ent than the struc­ture used by other Power Five pro­grams with re­sources, in­clud­ing the most suc­cess­ful. But it read like a mis­sion crit­i­cal idea shower out of the home of­fice.

It also stressed re­tain­ing the as­sis­tant coaches and pro­vid­ing the co­or­di­na­tors with more au­ton­omy, which is why con­cern grew when both co­or­di­na­tors soon left the pro­gram. (It’s ap­par­ent now that Ed­wards’ re­sponses, pro­mot­ing Likens to of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and es­pe­cially hir­ing Danny Gon­za­les as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, were very good moves.)

But most of the skep­ti­cism cen­tered on Ed­wards, who’d been out of coach­ing for so long and away from the col­lege game for so much longer. Back in May, when he told me that dur­ing his ex­tended time away from coach­ing he was “still coach­ing, be­lieve it or not. You’re just coach­ing Amer­ica” — well, it was a ter­rific sound­bite, but it seemed slightly un­moored from re­al­ity.

But Ed­wards is clearly a mo­ti­va­tor. It’s not hard to imag­ine him as a tremen­dous re­cruiter, es­pe­cially fill­ing the tra­di­tional head coach’s role as a closer in an in-home visit. He’s also a de­tail-ori­ented foot­ball guy. Maybe when he watched those games in ESPN’s green room, he re­ally was, as he told us all dur­ing the off­sea­son, pick­ing up on nu­ances and fil­ing away new thoughts that helped pre­pare him for a re­turn to coach­ing.

“I’m too old now to even worry about any of that stuff,” Ed­wards said of the doubt and crit­i­cism. “I kind of know who I am as a man. There’s a value sys­tem I be­lieve in. I don’t need val­i­da­tion from peo­ple at all. I’ve never had (to have) that. I don’t be­lieve in that. I be­lieve you bet on your­self and you com­mit to some­thing and you give all your en­ergy and ef­fort to it, and that’s what I’ve done my whole life.”

It’s way too early to pre­dict whether Ari­zona State will grow into a Pac-12 and na­tional power, which is the school’s stated goal — or even if the Sun Devils will beat a tough San Diego State team on Satur­day, which is Ed­wards’ cur­rent fo­cus. But the pre­dic­tions of comic doom for the pro­gram sud­denly seem, well, com­i­cal.

“We’re not the team we as­pire to be, by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion,” Ed­wards said. “But our ef­fort, how we play, is what I like most right now. We still make some er­rors, but when you play with ef­fort and pas­sion, you’re gonna be in foot­ball games. You’re gonna have a chance. That’s all you ever ask for is a chance.”

It’s time we con­sider what we might have missed in Ari­zona State’s bet on Ed­wards. Two games into his ten­ure, it seems there’s a real chance it might pay off.

JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Herm Ed­wards had been away from col­lege foot­ball for about 30 years when Ari­zona State hired him.

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