Herm Edwards enters Husky Stadium on Saturday night looking for the sideline, not the press box. He’s the story now, no longer the storyteller. He’s a feel-good college football moment—the well-known ESPN broadcasting personality whose impulsive return to coaching after a decade away initially brought ridicule before it turned into begrudging respect.
The charismatic Edwards, 64, leads an Arizona State football team that’s off to a 2-1 start and briefly held down the 23rd spot in the Associated Press national rankings. The Sun Devils celebrated their coming-out party with a 16-13 upset of then-No. 15 Michigan State until their momentum tapered off some when they suffered a tough 28-21 loss at San Diego State last weekend. The program has been surprisingly competitive.
Edwards’ critics, who were plentiful, said it couldn’t be done. The Sun Devils were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South Division. Talk shows and sports columnists belittled his hiring. Yet with a whistle around his neck and a playbook in hand, the former football televangelist has made believers out of many of those in pads, in the seats and in the media as he leads a desert revival.
“We all understood when this took place that there were going to be some people who didn’t agree and that’s OK—this is America,” he said shortly after his hiring. “We can have a difference of opinion.”
Opinions are what gave Edwards a perfectly tailored second career. It wasn’t unusual for him to turn up as a guest on ESPN Seattle radio a couple times a week with great fanfare, keep everybody laughing with his observations and often stay on the show far longer than planned. For 10 years, his animated analysis about the latest NFL developments and his made-for TV personality turned him into an endearing ESPN camera presence. Doing things in an unconventional manner has always been part of Edwards’ DNA.
He began his college playing career with the California Golden Bears, sampling Husky Stadium for the first time when he was 18, as a freshman cornerback who went by the more formal first name of Herman back then. Cal lost 35-21, but he got off easy on that Saturday afternoon in 1972--Sonny Sixkiller, Washington’s superlative passer, was injured and didn’t play. Edwards and his Bears secondary mates dealt with three Husky QB replacements and primarily a ground-oriented attack. He finished with a pair of tackles.
Two years later, Edwards visited Husky Stadium a second time and the outcome went much better for him. The Bears, featuring running back Chuck Muncie and quarterback Steve Bartkowski as headliners, built a 45-0 lead and won 52-26 in the rain. Edwards turned up in a Seattle Times photo in the Sunday morning paper, shown tackling the Huskies hulking fullback Robin Earl.
A week later in 1974 in Berkeley, Calif., Edwards turned in an amazing defensive performance against Washington State. He intercepted Cougars quarterback Chuck Peck a still school-record four times—stealing passes for the cycle. He returned one of the thefts 34 yards up the left sideline for a score in a 37-33 victory.
Edwards, however, didn’t finish his collegiate football career at Cal. As he explained in numerous speaking engagements later on, he questioned the Golden Bears’ secondary coach and had to leave because he was considered insubordinate—one reason he’s always enabled his players to speak out freely and ask why. He put in a year of junior-college ball in his hometown of Monterey, Calif., before spending his senior season at San Diego State in 1976, playing on a 10-1 team and a defense alongside another NFL coach in waiting, John Fox.
Edwards went undrafted. The NFL didn’t want him at first. Instead, he signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and went about showing everyone he could play at the pro level, too. In nine seasons in Philly, he intercepted 33 passes, which is still second in club history. Yet it was a 1978 fumble recovery that made him a permanent part of Eagles’ lore. When the New York Giants tried to run out the clock to preserve a 17-12 lead and the ball inexplicably got bumped loose on the final handoff, Edwards alertly grabbed it and raced 26 yards for a stunning touchdown in what was dubbed “the Miracle at the Meadowlands.”
Edwards has always been in the right place at the right time. He played against the Seahawks just once and preserved Philadelphia’s 27-20 victory at the Kingdome in 1980. He stretched out and knocked away a desperation pass from Jim Zorn to a momentarily open Steve Largent to seal the game. He ended up in the Super Bowl that season for a Dick Vermeil-coached team, losing to the Oakland Raiders 27-10. He split a 10th and final NFL season with the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams before retiring.
Pursuing a new career without helmet and pads, Edwards fancied himself as a secondary coach and he joined San Jose State for three seasons. He was on the receiving end of a 33-31 loss to Washington at Husky Stadium in 1988, his second year on the job, when his Spartan defensive backs got lit up by Huskies quarterback Cary Conklin.
Edwards proved effective enough at coaching defensive backs to return to the NFL. He served as the Kansas City Chiefs secondary coach for four seasons, building a resume, and moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a similar capacity for five more seasons. He won eight of 10 games against the Seahawks in those assistant roles.
Without any head-coaching experience, Edwards was hired to lead the New York Jets beginning in 2001. Again, right place, right time. He had success. He coached the Jets to 10-6, 9-7, 6-10, 10-6 and 4-12 records, beating the Seahawks 37-14 at home in his next-to-last season in New York. He went to the Chiefs as head coach in 2006 and guided them through 9-7, 4-12 and 2-14 seasons.
Edwards edged the Seahawks 35-28 in Kansas City that first year behind the 312 passing yards of Damon Huard, the former UW quarterback who will serve as a radio broadcaster at Husky Stadium this coming weekend and no doubt provide analysis and insights about his old coach.
“He should have kept me in there—we might have won a few more games,” Huard wisecracked. “There’s an open-door policy with him. He tries real hard to connect with the guys.”
After 10 years with ESPN, Edwards decided to pursue coaching again and he convinced Arizona State to hire him while presenting an NFL-style leadership vision. It’s been 29 years since he’d had anything to do with the college game and recruiting, but he shrugged off the lengthy gap between jobs and welcomed having to sign teenaged talent to letters of intent. Introductions aren’t necessary.
“I think I built a good career on television so when I walk in their house they know exactly who I am,” Edwards said in a radio interview.
Husky Stadium coaxes him back inside 30 years after his last visit, as that yearling San Jose State secondary coach, and 46 seasons after he first turned up there as a Cal player and a teenager.
Edwards doesn’t feel alone in this quest, pointing out how Jon Gruden likewise returned to coach the Raiders this season after a nine-year sabbatical working as a broadcaster for ESPN and Monday Night Football. In their previous coaching lives, Gruden and Edwards were fired seven days apart in January 2009, dismissed by the Buccaneers and the Chiefs, respectively. Together, they’re back on the sideline in 2018. Should anyone be all that surprised?
“The situation had to be right and all the puzzles kind of came together,” Edwards said. “When you’re a coach, you’re always a coach.”