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Herm Edwards Is Playing to Win More Than the Game

The famed sound-bite generator stunned the football world by returning to the coaching ranks last season with Arizona State, but the 65-year-old still has a lot to say

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His voice echoes off the mountains, clear and booming, carrying instruction and encouragement. Herm Edwards seems comfortable shouting. He is a man accustomed to being heard.

“Way to show up, nine-eight!”

“Not in a game! That’s a penalty!”

“Get your water and then we got special teams!”

At times he sounds like a teacher. (“That’s being a smart football player.”) At others, a parent. (“Good job, son. Good job.”) He throws arms around shoulders. He pats heads, rubs necks, slaps backs.

Edwards looks small, a wirily muscled 65-year-old on a field full of 18- to 22-year-old men. He stalks around the turf on a 95-degree day, many miles from civilization, tucked away on a football field in a place called Camp Tontozona, where the Arizona State Sun Devils have been coming for a week of training camp most every August since 1960.

The air is thin, the sun oppressive. Scattered around the field, a couple hundred Arizona State fans jockey for sight lines and spots of shade. This is one of their program’s most cherished traditions, continued by its newest ambassador—their head coach pitched in the mold of a CEO. Edwards arrived in Arizona last year saddled with external doubts. He was once an NFL star, later the league’s most loquacious coach, and later still a man at home in millions of American living rooms, explaining the game for nearly a decade as an NFL analyst on ESPN. Now he is here, spending a week in the mountains before returning to the desert, trying to elevate a historically middling program into something greater, all at an age when most people, in most professions, start to think about no longer working at all.

He still has his voice. It’s his most powerful gift, he knows, even greater than the athleticism and instincts that once made him one of the NFL’s best defensive backs. It carries lessons he believes matter, truths he thinks only football can impart. It can motivate and soothe, chastise and instruct. Out on the field, it booms across the valley, but later, in the quiet of his trailer, he leans forward and stiffens his back and lets his eyes grow big while his voice turns small, barely more than a whisper.

“We are keepers of the game,” he says of himself and his fellow coaches.

He cocks his head to the side. He is a coach and a father, a military brat and a Berkeley-educated polymath. He is a talented speaker and a restless thinker, a body and mind in constant motion. But as much as anything, he sees himself as a steward of the sport to which he’s dedicated decades of his life. He believes deeply in the goodness of a game that often seems vile and destructive. That, he says, is why he’s here, sitting in this trailer in this campground on this scaldingly hot August day. “We have to make the game better,” he says.

It’s a lofty goal. Football can feel at times like one of America’s guiltiest pleasures. The game Edwards loves is built on ordered violence, a sport that ruins brains and breaks bodies, infused with a culture that often treats morality as a nebulous and fungible thing. After decades in the NFL, a league rife with its own failures, Edwards has found a new home in big-time college football, a world built on unpaid labor, populated by men who preach a gospel built around archaic power structures and blind adherence to tradition.

When first hired, Edwards’s job description sounded more like a figurehead than a coach. The Sun Devils announced him alongside “plans for a restructured ASU football program,” with Edwards pitched as the program’s “CEO” and “central leader” surrounded by a “collaborative staff.” A year later, the Sun Devils have outperformed expectations. They’ve drawn increased media attention and are reportedly slated to appear on a college version of Hard Knocks on HBO, all driven by Edwards, who has found his place among college football’s constellation of coaching stars.

At first listen, Edwards can sound so much like any other college coach. He talks about competing every day and turning boys into men, about football as a vehicle for intellectual and moral growth. There is something different, though, when the game’s clichés come from Edwards’s mouth. Something convincing. Perhaps it’s the depth of feeling. Or perhaps the layers of thought and care that lie underneath the platitudes.

“Football,” Edwards says, “is like life.”

He leans back. His head cocks yet again. He nods. He wants to explain.

“I’ve loved the game from this high,” he says, sticking out his arm, measuring the height of a child. He fell in love with football as a boy in Monterey, California, where he quickly learned that he was faster and stronger and louder than his peers, someone built to lead a secondary, gifted at reading running backs’ angles and quarterbacks’ eyes. He grew into a star in high school, then a sought-after recruit, landing at Cal “back when Berkeley was Berkeley,” he says. He arrived in 1972, a couple of hours away from his hometown but culturally in another world.

“I looked around at that place,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Wooooooo! This is America.’” He laughs. “As diverse as diverse can get. All these conversations going on everywhere you turn. Different perspectives socially, economically, racially, everything.” He loved the campus but clashed with his coach. “I would ask ‘Why?’” he says. “And back then, if you ask why you’re threatening authority. You couldn’t do that.”

Mark Sanchez Press Conference Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

He left Cal and eventually graduated from San Diego State. He went undrafted but found a spot with the Eagles, for whom he played nine years and intercepted 33 passes, one shy of the franchise record. He started coaching defensive backs, first at San Jose State and later in the NFL, and there, on that field with those few players under his charge, he felt he’d found the thing he’d been building toward from the day he first discovered the game. “I never wanted to be a head coach,” he says. “I was like, ‘These are my guys! This is all I need.’”

But years passed and Edwards rose. First to assistant head coach under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, eventually to head coach of the Jets and the Chiefs. He made the playoffs four of his first six years, delivering one of the sport’s most iconic press conference performances—“You play. To win. The game.”—along the way. But after going 6-26 over his last two seasons in Kansas City, Edwards was fired, exiting the NFL with a 54-74 career record.

He returned home to California, disappointed by the firing but unwilling to wallow in self-doubt. “I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘I’m the same coach now that I was when we were winning,’” he says. “And there are a lot of coaches who were greater coaches than I’ll ever be, and they had losing seasons too.”

Besides, even though Edwards famously believes that “you play to win the game,” he points elsewhere for evidence of football’s greatest wonders. When he stepped back and looked at his career, he felt awed by the joys that came wrapped up in the pursuit, the relationships built and maintained by stitching himself to others to chase after a common goal. This is where his mind goes, sitting in his trailer that afternoon in Arizona.

“This football thing crosses all bridges,” he says. “You can go anywhere and find a football player. Any race, any background, any personality. And once you’re in it, you’re in it.” His roommate for the week is Marvin Lewis, the longtime Bengals coach and now a special adviser with Arizona State. He points at Lewis. “I met that man in nineteen—whatever it was.”

Lewis speaks. “Nineteen ninety-one.”

“Yes!” Edwards says. “When he was at Pitt.”

He leans back, opening his palms. “Now think about that. This is two thousand and, you know, what is it, nineteen? Two thousand and nineteen. And I’ve known that man for all these years, and our paths keep crossing. That’s what this game does. It’s forever.”

He could be speaking about any insular field, it seems, but there is something about the coaching fraternity that allows two men to meet as assistants on a practice field in Pittsburgh one afternoon, then reunite on another practice field in Arizona decades later. The game’s pressures impose intimacy on near strangers. Its instabilities then scatter ex-teammates and colleagues all over the country, left only to trust that football will bring them back together again.

“My high school coach,” says Edwards, “his name is Dan Albert. Do I call him Dan Albert? No! I still call the man coach.”

He sees an eternal quality to the relationships formed within a team. “Now, Dick Vermeil,” he adds, referring to the man who coached him in Philadelphia. “I just saw him at the Hall of Fame. Every time I see him, I hug him like he’s my dad.”

Maybe other fields and other cultures can provide the kind of relationships Edwards has found with coaches and teammates. Intimacy between friends and colleagues exists in other worlds. For Edwards, though, the game is the vehicle through which he’s found so much meaning. As a player under Albert and Vermeil, as a coach in New York and Kansas City, and even in a television studio, miles away from any field.

Seth Markman got the call the day Kansas City fired Edwards. Markman oversees NFL studio shows at ESPN, and he’d worked a few times with Edwards, who’d drop by Bristol while still coaching for a few days as a guest analyst here and there after his teams’ seasons had ended. But now he had an enthusiasm in his voice unlike anything Markman had heard.

“I’m ready,” Markman remembers Edwards saying.

“For what?”

“I want to work at the Worldwide Leader.”

It took little time to become official. He showed up in Bristol and started getting used to life on set. The first time NFL Live host Trey Wingo worked with Edwards, he watched producers talk him through the structure of the show and of the set, breaking down proposed segments and pointing out which cameras would be on him at which times. “I could see his head was swimming,” says Wingo. “I looked at him and said, ‘Herm, don’t worry. I’m gonna ask you a question, and you just answer it.’” Edwards could do that. As much as anything else, he’d been known through his coaching career as one of the greatest quotes in all of football. “We hired you to be press conference Herm,” Wingo told him. Edwards nodded. That he could do.

He loved it. “You get to take people behind the curtain, to a place they’ve never been,” he says. “Everyone who watches the sport, they all put themselves in someone’s shoes—either the player or the coach. I wanted to show both sides. This is what the player’s thinking; this is what the coach is thinking; the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.” And in his role as an analyst, just as on the sideline, he saw himself as football’s steward, a man charged with taking care of what he loved. “I was never on television where I took it personal to go after a player or a coach,” he says. “Unless they crossed the line. And then it was personal to me. Because then I looked at it as, ‘They think they’re bigger than the game,’ and they’re not.”

He’s speaking in clichés again. What does he mean, bigger than the game?

He leans forward, palms out, and he explains that his greatest frustrations come with players who elevate their own goals above their teams’. “Guys want to build a brand, and I’m OK with all that. Make as much money as you can. You can still be your individual self, but you can’t become bigger than the team. This is why in football, your name ain’t on the front of the jersey. It’s on the back.”

He pauses, eyes inflamed. He is sitting at a pull-out table in a trailer in the woods, but he looks no different than when he made the same arguments on TV.

He smacks the table. “It’s on the back!”

Now he leans back and shakes his head. “When they start making jerseys with players’ names on the front, I’m out. I’m done! Done.

And here he comes back around to one of the game’s clichés, but when he says it he speaks with so much texture and volume and eyes-agog feeling, that when listening, it can feel like hearing these ideas expressed for the very first time. “The relationships you build, the camaraderie in this setting where culture and religion and diversity all mixes together for one common cause—to go on this journey. It’s always there with every team, regardless of who it is.” This is why he can’t stomach players who prioritize self over team. They’re missing out on the wonders football has given him, the wonders he believes it can give anyone who works toward the goals of the group. “There’s this journey,” he says, “that you take every year. And it becomes a part of your life. And you reflect on the good ones you’ve taken, and maybe you’ve taken some bad ones too.”

His eyes are planets. His brow severe. “They all kind of crystallize who you are,” he says, “through this great game.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 28 Arizona State Spring Game Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At ESPN, his colleagues thought Edwards was taking his final journey. Edwards used to tell Markman he wanted a lifetime contract in Bristol. He told Wingo, time and again, “This is my last team.” Though he flew in week after week from his home in Carmel, California, all the way to Connecticut, ESPN allowed him more time with his family than coaching ever had.

And he was a star—stunningly telegenic, able to switch gears between moral outrage and thoughtful sincerity, explaining the evolution of schemes and the culture of locker rooms with equal precision. He stalked the halls in Bristol, popping in and out of studios, introducing himself to new producers and asking to be on their shows. Markman tells a story: Once, Edwards walked into a small office and found two men sitting at their desks, working.

“What’s this show that you run?” He asked them. “Can I get on your show?”

The two men looked at each other, then at Edwards, confused.

“We don’t run a show.”

Now Edwards looked back at the sign on the door. “It says right here. Bottom Line.”

They had to explain. They were in charge of the “bottom line,” the scrolling news bar at the bottom of ESPN’s screen. They kept it updated, every minute of every day.

“Oh,” Edwards said, before saying it was nice to meet them and venturing off in search of another office, another show.

Markman and Wingo have both gotten used to a certain cycle when working with lifelong coaches. They get fired and spend a sabbatical in Bristol, but everyone knows not to get attached. “We always operate under the assumption that they want to go back,” Markman says. But over time, as they watched Edwards turn down offers, most in the NFL, they came to believe he might make the career change for good.

He still ached for the game, though. One day, about four years ago, Edwards sat on set with a fellow analyst, former Redskins and Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce. In addition to his ESPN work, Pierce coached at a high school in California, and Edwards looked over to see him watching film.

“As great as it is being here in the studio with makeup on,” Pierce remembers Edwards saying, longingly, “there’s nothing like the grass.”

Pierce paused. He looked up from his game film.

“You ever think about going back?”

“Sometimes,” Edwards said. And then his voice dropped to a near whisper. “College.

“Seriously?”

Edwards nodded.

“If you go, take me with you.”

Edwards said that he would.

Now here they are, Edwards and Pierce, his linebackers coach and recruiting director, bouncing around the practice field one August morning in Arizona. Edwards wears an ASU cap and a long-sleeve T-shirt, as if to increase the impact of the 95-degree heat. When Edwards got the call from ASU athletic director Ray Anderson last winter, he wasn’t expecting his life to change. Anderson had been his longtime agent, before working in NFL front offices and for the league itself, then eventually settling into a new life in college administration. The two kept in touch. But Anderson had just fired Sun Devils coach Todd Graham, and he had an idea.

“I always knew he would be perfect for college football,” Anderson says. “I knew it the whole time he was in the NFL, and I knew it the whole time he was at ESPN.” So, Anderson asked, would Edwards be interested in coming to coach in Tempe?

He would. The chance to work under his longtime friend served as one enticement. So did the chance to establish a workplace back near the West Coast. And Edwards hadn’t been lying when he told Pierce he often thought about coaching college. For years, he’d coached top high-schoolers in the Under Armour All-America game. Every year, Edwards left the week with a newfound energy, enlivened by the malleability of the players’ minds and spirits, inspired by the earnestness that comes with youth. “He was built for this,” says Ryan Clark, the longtime Steelers safety who worked with Edwards at ESPN. “I really feel like he was called to pour himself into 18- to 22-year-old young men. This is where he’s supposed to be.”

Not everyone thought so. Edwards’s hire left many in the media questioning what Anderson was thinking. He hadn’t coached football in nearly a decade, hadn’t coached college football in 30 years. He was a below-.500 NFL coach, a defensive specialist in an era dominated by offensive minds. More befuddling was the way ASU announced the hire, filled with corporate speak and pointing to a new model of college coaching, describing Edwards as a “CEO” but leaving many to wonder whether he’d be doing any actual coaching. And then came his bizarre opening press conference, when Edwards was introduced by his new agent, praised by his old agent and now-boss, and then took the podium himself, whereupon he seemed not to realize the nickname of the team he’d been hired to coach.

It all looked to the outside like a disaster. Sports Illustrated graded it that offseason’s worst hire at any major program. And then, well, he was fine. The Sun Devils came out and upset Michigan State in the second week of the season, going on to a 7-5 regular season and finishing second in the Pac-12 South. The Devils were not a disaster. That, alone, meant Edwards exceeded expectations in year one.

And now that he’s a year in, Edwards has retaken his place among football’s most beloved coaches. He budgets an extra half-hour into every trip to the airport, just so he can stop to sign the autographs and take the selfies he knows will be requested en route to the gate. On the day I meet Edwards at Camp Tontozona, I watch him insist on shaking the hand of every fan who wants to meet him, pulling some of them out onto the practice field to take a picture. (“We need a good background,” he says, walking to the turf from a rocky clearing. “Come on, we gotta have something that looks nice.”) On the field, Arizona State remains, in many ways, the same program it’s always been. Decade after decade, the Sun Devils seem to hang somewhere between .500 and the fringes of the Top 25. Now, though, they’re surrounded by more reporters, buzzing with more energy from fans. For nearly a decade, Edwards taught football lessons in an ESPN studio. Now, everyone wants a glimpse of what the man from their TV screen looks like on an actual field.

Edwards’s role as the program’s “CEO” seems more in line with the norm than expected. The talk of blowing up the structure of college coaching seems to have been overblown. “You can’t blame people for being skeptical,” says Anderson of the initial criticism. “We just felt that we wanted him to operate more like an NFL coach. Being the CEO of our football program means focusing on the technical nuances of recruiting, player development, coaching the coaches, and mentoring. It’s not a new model, per se. It’s just a hybrid of the college model and the pro model.” Anderson says there’s no need for a college coach to dedicate precious time to choosing caterers and charter airlines, to stress over the program’s logistics as much as he thinks about running his team. “Some college coaches want to do it all,” he says, “because they want absolute control.”

Edwards, though, seems happy to bounce from station to station on the practice field and in and out of position meetings, shouting encouragement to his quarterbacks and illustrating technique for his DBs. He’s long believed in empowering his coaches and players to take responsibility for themselves. This mold just formalizes the way Edwards has operated since early in his career. “Instead of having a coach police everything, the players lead each other now,” says senior center Cohl Cabral. “His philosophy is, ‘I’m gonna give you the answers to everything, but you have to steer the ship.’”

Edwards may be famous for his rants against what he sees as individualistic players, but he draws a distinction between self-expression and acts that undermine the sanctity of team. “He lets us be the rowdy team we always wanted to be,” says senior cornerback Kobe Williams. “Playing for him, you go back to being like a little kid, when you first started loving football.” He is a players’ coach disguised as a disciplinarian. Ryan Clark’s son Jordan is a freshman corner for the Sun Devils. When he finished his first meeting with Edwards during the recruiting process, Ryan Clark remembers, Jordan turned to his dad and said, “If somebody has to scream at me for the next four years, that’s the man I want it to be.”

Chiefs- Photo by David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images

Edwards is 65 now, his cropped hair fully gray. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be coaching. All he knows is the feeling that returned the moment he stepped back on the field. “I missed going up to a player and grabbing him when he does something good,” he says. “Or just messing with him. Laughing.” He missed the knowledge that he’ll end every game day either joyful or despondent.

Right now he’s got the anxiety. He’s 19 days from kickoff, unsure of how the season will go. If he’s honest, he missed that feeling too. “Ohhhhhhhh, it’s good for you,” he says. “There’s nothing like that anxiety in your belly.” He long ago learned to measure his life not by days or weeks, but by the sensations in his gut. When it relaxed, he knew it was spring, maybe early summer. He was on vacation with friends, maybe at home relaxing with his wife. But once August started he’d feel his insides tighten, and by the time fall arrived he’d find himself with eyes glazed over, mind consumed with thoughts of the game. “You don’t even need a calendar,” he says. “Your body tells you when it’s time.”

He missed that. On set at ESPN, he’d feel empathy for coaches and players, but also jealousy; he knew they held within them a cocktail of nerves and adrenaline that broadcasting could never provide. He tried to tell himself he didn’t need it. Even after he returned to coaching, he wondered whether he still really wanted it. But then last September, Arizona State opened its season against UT–San Antonio. Edwards walked out onto the grass, fans filling the bleachers all around him, young players in his charge spread out before him, the temperature hanging just under 100 degrees. The lights shone as the sun set, and his players prepared to take the field. He patted heads. He slapped backs. He shouted words he hoped would inspire. And then he watched them step onto the field for kickoff, and he felt that familiar churning in his belly, that anxiety he’d always believed that only football could provide.

“Here I am,” he remembers thinking.

He breathed deep. He tried to let his body memorize the moment, standing there on that foreign but familiar grass, waiting for the whistle to blow.

“I’m home.”

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