By Rodney Zwahlen
When LaVell Edwards replaced Tom Hudspeth as the BYU football coach on Jan. 28, 1972, he had just become the 7th coach in 16 years and he knew that in order to win games — and keep his job — he had to change the offense.
“Stanford had gone to back-to-back Rose Bowls by passing,” Edwards said. “I looked at Stanford and I looked at us and I knew that with us being a private school with the limitations we have on recruiting, we had to do something differently.”
“It wasn’t a case of if I was going to get fired; it was just a matter of when.”
During the previous ten years, while Edwards served as an assistant coach at BYU, he noticed that BYU was less successful running the ball than when the Virgil Carter-led offense was throwing the ball.
“We got away from it and we got away from winning,” Edwards said.
One of the first things Edwards did after taking over was hire 25-year old passing guru Dewey Warren to help design a passing offense. Warren, known as the “Swamp Rat,” had graduated from the University of Tennessee just four years earlier, where he quarterbacked the Volunteers to three bowl games in four years.
Former quarterback Terry McEwen, who was battling for a starting spot in 1972 before he injured his shoulder, said Warren brought energy to the field.
“He was quite a character,” McEwen said. “He was kind of crazy and I don’t think his lifestyle fit in well, but he liked to throw the ball. He had a good offensive mind.”
With Warren and the other assistants in place, and a scheme designed to take advantage of defenses designed primarily to defend the run, Edwards was ready to unleash his air attack.
McEwen said BYU also began to recruit the kinds of players to fit the new system.
“LaVell told me that he was bringing in two great receivers from California to start his passing game-Lynn Zwahlen, who ran a 4.4 in the 40 and Jay Miller, who wasn’t as fast but had great hands,” he said
But in 1972 BYU ran the ball more than it passed because it had a talented runner in Pete VanValkenburg, who led the nation in rushing with 1,386 yards.
In 1973 Edwards’ team finally began to pass the ball, but it struggled to a 5-6 record. Edwards said he was looking forward to the 1974 season until some of his key players decided to serve missions
“A lot of them went on missions after (the 1973 season) and I remember thinking ‘We had a chance to be pretty good, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.'”
The 1974 team began the season 0-3, including a two-point loss at Hawaii and a three-point loss at Utah State. Edwards knew his job was in jeopardy, but he decided to continue to use the passing offense.
In the fourth game of the year against Colorado State, BYU was in control until Colorado State scored a last-minute touchdown to tie the game 33-33.
During the following week, Edwards said two or three of the team members called a players-only meeting before playing Wyoming.
“Those guys got together and met and we went out and beat Wyoming and won our last seven games,” Edwards said. “I’ve often thought that that week changed the direction of my whole career because without those guys doing that and coming together I don’t think any of this would have happened, at least with me.”
The 1974 team finished 7-4-1 and earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, the first bowl game in BYU history.
“I’ve thought so much about that-how I was not dissuaded away from the original idea of throwing the football,” Edwards said. “Had I been dissuaded I would not be sitting here today.”
Before Edwards became the head coach, the Cougars had a 173-232-23 record, but since then BYU’s record is 255-101-3. Edwards’ winning percentage is the third best among active coaches, behind Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State.
McEwen said Edwards has changed the character of the athletes as much as the record during his 29-year tenure.
“When coach Edwards took over, things changed,” he said. “We were held to a higher standard.
“He was like a father to the players even back then. The players thought of him more as a father than a coach.”