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Arizona State Has Hired Herm Edwards to Be Its New Head Coach … or CEO … or Something

The Sun Devils have a “New Leadership Model” and the “You to play to win the game” guy is at the top

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You play to win the game, and presumably you make coaching hires for the same reason. So why the hell is Arizona State hiring Herm Edwards?

Edwards, most recently seen yelling about the NFL on ESPN, hasn’t coached at any level since 2008 and has just three years of college coaching experience that came as a positional coach back in the 1980s. His head-coaching record is a dismal 54-74. But ASU’s press release announcing Edwards’s hiring specifies that Edwards won’t just be a coach—he’ll be in charge of the Sun Devils’ “New Leadership Model,” a position described as a hybrid between a coach, a CEO, and a general manager. The Sun Devils are making a bold gamble that the most important thing about college football coaching has little to do with coaching at all.

Arizona State’s previous coach was Todd Graham. On the one hand, Graham had the best winning percentage of any Sun Devils coach since the 1980s and went 6-3 in conference play this year. On the other hand, nobody likes Todd Graham. And so the school paid him a $12 million buyout that, unlike most buyouts, can’t be mitigated by any future jobs Graham accepts. The Sun Devils burned a few mansions’ worth of cash on the promise that the school’s new direction would be an improvement.

But it’s not really going in a new direction. The school’s athletic director, Ray Anderson, said he was interested in keeping the offensive and defensive coordinators hired by Graham, which is like asking an incoming president to keep all his predecessor’s Cabinet members. Essentially, Anderson was saying that he was happy with the general football strategy employed by the Sun Devils, but not the person giving press conferences.

Oh, you need somebody who’s good at giving press conferences? HIRE THE PRESS CONFERENCE GAWD.

Herm Edwards is really good at talking, which is why he’s been an ESPN commentator since 2009 and has made a healthy living as a motivational speaker. Is he good at coaching? Tough to say. He has a decent reputation, having made the NFL playoffs in his first two years as head coach of the Jets and his first year as head coach of the Chiefs. But we remember the press conferences, and not how he finished both jobs with a losing record.

Edwards hasn’t coached anywhere in a decade, and has only three years of college experience, having worked as San Jose State’s defensive backs coach from 1987 to 1989. College coaching differs in many ways from NFL coaching—the playing styles are different, and, of course, a college head coach has to recruit, while an NFL coach doesn’t. And coaching on any level in 2018 is going to be very different than it was in 2008.

The decision to hire Edwards reminds me a lot of Illinois’s 2016 decision to hire Lovie Smith, also a man who coached two NFL teams but hadn’t worked in college for several decades. They share more than similar career arcs—Edwards and Smith are former colleagues, having worked together, as DB coach and linebackers coach, respectively, for the Buccaneers from 1996 to 2000. Illinois’s decision to bring in an NFL coach far removed from college coaching has looked dreadful thus far: In the two years before Smith took over, the Illini went 6-7 and 5-7. In two years under Smith, the Illini are 5-19. The Illini went 0-9 in Big Ten play this year.

There are several critical differences between Smith and Edwards. Smith was a significantly better NFL coach, going 89-87 with a trip to a Super Bowl and an NFC championship game while Edwards was 20 games below .500 and never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. Smith had a connection to Illinois, having coached the Bears for nine seasons, while Edwards has no connection to Arizona. Smith had over a decade of college experience, working as a linebackers coach for power programs such as Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Tennessee, while Edwards had just the three years at SJSU. Smith continued working as a coach in the NFL until right before the Illini hired him, while Edwards has spent the past nine years talking for money. To summarize: Hiring Edwards is like Illinois’s horrific decision to hire Smith, except worse in every conceivable way.

The argument for Edwards’s hiring boils down to the hypothesis that Herm’s gift of gab and notoriety are enough to make him successful in a limited role. Hence the pile of buzzwords and catchphrases in the press release about ASU’s “New Leadership Model.” He’s not a coach so much as a friendly figurehead for the program who can attract recruits and land donations from boosters while the coaches hired by Graham execute the team’s football tactics.

I think that’s a miscalculation. For one, incoming college football recruits probably don’t know who Edwards is, seeing as they were 6 years old the last time he coached an NFL team and they don’t spend all day watching ESPN. Even Arizona State players seem unfamiliar with Edwards, and they’ve had a week or so to research the guy everybody says will be their next coach.

Secondly, “college football head coach” is as close to a 24/7/365 job as any in the sports world. Edwards famously had an exceptional work ethic as a head coach—he was noted for beginning his work day at 4:30 a.m. But he also left that life for a once-a-week TV gig. When asked about potentially reentering his old field, Edwards cited the fact he flies 6,000 miles a week for his ESPN gig as a sign that he is willing to put in work for a job. But coaching is even more strenuous than flying coach, which I doubt Edwards does. There’s a reason we often hear stories about how coaches for the best teams are perennially drawn to the tedious tasks of planning and recruiting even after their greatest successes: Being a head coach is extremely hands-on. The fact ASU is already trying to explain how uninvolved its new coach will be with coaching is a bad sign.

So why, of all the people in the world, would Anderson choose Edwards as his next head coach? As it turns out, Anderson worked as an agent before he became ASU’s AD, and one of his clients was Edwards.