Is NFL’s Edwards right coaching hire for ASU football?


Now that Arizona State has made the hire of its new football coach official, there’s one question that ASU fans would probably like to ask the man who hired him.  But there’s really no polite way to ask it.

Simply put:  “Did ASU Vice President of Athletics Ray Anderson hire Herman Edwards because he was the right person for the job, or did he hire him because he was an old friend and former business associate?”

One would like to think it was, first and foremost, the first reason.  But it’s hard not to question whether the latter entered the thought process.

While Edwards certainly has his supporters – and there are many prominent names on that long list — he isn’t the kind of hire most of the fan base was expecting.  Edwards brings years of NFL experience to the job, but he’s never been a head coach of a college program.  His last exposure to the college game was back in 1989 when he spent a couple of years coaching the defensive backs at San Jose State.

So ASU has shifted the focus of the football program to a management model similar to what the NFL uses, one undoubtedly designed to be more comfortable for its new coach.  At the same time that the school made the official announcement of Edwards’ hire this morning, it also unveiled the new restructured football model.

Hey, if the new guy doesn’t fit the program, just make the program fit the coach…right?

According to the announcement, this is how it works: “The department’s New Leadership Model will be similar to an NFL approach using a general manager structure. It’s a collaborative approach to managing the ASU football program that includes sport and administrative divisions, which will operate as distinct, but collective units focused on elevating all aspects of Sun Devil Football. This structure will allow the department to form a multi-layered method to the talent evaluation and recruiting processes, increase its emphasis on both student-athlete and coach development and retention, and provide a boost in resource allocation and generation.”

And that’s just the pared-down Reader’s Digest version.

Anderson points out that the basic idea is “to have a head coach who serves as a CEO and the central leader, with a collaborative staff around him that will evaluate the performance of the players and coaches on the field.”

Gotta say that sounds a lot like a head coach and his staff of assistant coaches.  Of course, the New Leadership Model is more complicated, involving things like resource sharing, strategic planning, upgrading the existing recruiting infrastructure, and instilling a culture of accountability beyond what currently exists.  ASU administrators call the new effort its “vision for the program.”

But there’s the additional concern that Edwards hasn’t been employed as a coach on any level for the last 10 years.  He’s been making his living in the broadcast booth as an NFL analyst for ESPN, while also writing and making motivational speeches.

Edwards admits he has been offered numerous coaching jobs since leaving the game, but ASU was the first he was willing to consider.  “Passion for my faith, my family, and my occupation as a football coach are the things that have driven me back to the grass,” he says about the decision to return to coaching.

Of course, his relationship with Anderson had to be a factor as well.  Prior to life at ASU, Anderson used to be an NFL agent and Edwards was one of his clients.

His record during eight years as an NFL head coach is 54-74.  Hard to tell how that is supposed to elicit enthusiasm among a fan base that wasn’t all that sure they wanted to see Todd Graham leave?  Graham, who is finishing his sixth season at ASU, was fired after three seasons that failed to meet expectations.  But the 30-year coaching veteran did post a 7-5 record this season, pulled off a stunning upset of then-No. 5 Washington, beat rival University of Arizona, and is getting his team ready to play in a bowl game — his fifth bowl appearance in six years .

There are few people who question the intangibles that Edwards would bring to the ASU program…things like integrity, discipline, and a moral compass that kids can respect.  But does he still have the passion to ignite a fire under the program, to pour himself into the rigors that come with college recruiting, and to take on the responsibility of fund-raising – something his predecessor did well.

Graham also set a pretty high bar in other areas.  Before a couple of losing season popped up, he recorded back-to-back 10-win seasons, won the school’s first Pac-12 South title, and was named the 2013 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.

Edwards, of course, brings his own set of coaching credentials to the party.  While no longer employed as a coach at the pro or college level, he has kept his hand in the game by serving as a coach for the last eight years at the Under Armour All-American game that provides a showcase for the country’s top high school prospects.

A cornerback in college at the University of California, he entered the NFL at the same position as an undrafted free agent and went on to post a solid 10-year career, nine of those with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he finished with 33 interceptions, just one short of the franchise record.

After several assistant-coaching jobs, Edwards spent five seasons as the head coach for the New York Jets and  then three years with the Kansas City Chiefs.  He led the Jets to three playoff berths, five postseason games, and a couple of 10-win seasons.  He was also the  first graduate of the league’s Minority Coaching Fellowship.

A recognized leader in the community who is devoted to his faith, Edwards received the 2013 Walter Camp “Man of the Year” award, which is given to an individual for long-time contributions to football, is a proven leader in his profession, has made a commitment to public service, and has an impeccable reputation for integrity.

In took years to build that reputation.  Now, at age 63, he’s betting his legacy on whether he can do something no other ASU football coach has been able to do: build a program that wins Pac-12 titles, plays in major bowl games, and is consistently relevant on the national stage.

That’s what his bosses have told him it will take to keep the job he just inherited.

But first, he may need to make some adjustments.  The college game isn’t what it was when he coached at San Jose State 30 years ago.