ASU’s Herm Edwards pulled off improbable, successful debut season

Nov 28, 2018, 5:25 PM | Updated: Nov 29, 2018, 7:39 am
FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2018, file photo, Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards looks on before an...
FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2018, file photo, Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards looks on before an NCAA college football game against San Diego State Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Herm Edwards has done the unthinkable. He finished his first regular season at Arizona State more beloved than he ever was inside a television studio.

He is the best story in the Pac-12, nearly as entertaining as Mike Leach. He is a triumph of spirit, a testament to the unpredictability of sports. He’s a good-guy story inside a wobbling conference exposed as vain, run amok by self-indulgent leaders.

He’s even bigger than that.

Edwards is a change of pace to the tyranny of evil in college football, a fatherly alternative to the head coaches who spew and scream and build monuments to themselves.

He might’ve cost ASU a chance to play for a conference championship on that defining night in Oregon, not challenging a two-point conversion that was ruled incomplete on the field. But Edwards kept the rookie mistakes to a minimum. He showed great restraint and humility in not taking too much credit. He kept it all about his players, true to his servant ideology.

That is rare in Division I football. That is gold.

“From all the people I talk to, and some I trust dearly, the fact that Herm comes in there and he’s real,” former ASU star Jake Plummer said. “And when he says something, he does it. It resonates with these young kids who hear, ‘Come here. Be loyal. Be a Sun Devil. Start the tradition.’ And then the coach leaves a week after they sign their letter of intent.

“There’s just no loyalty you can really preach to these kids. And Herm is going to keep it real.”

At age 64, Edwards has scored a significant personal victory. He beat the critics. If he was going to be embarrassed and overmatched, it would’ve happened in the first season.

He finished 7-5. And his 7-5 feels different that Todd Graham’s 7-5.

Edwards successfully groomed a team that should carry significant star power in the arena of lower-tier bowls, even without N’Keal Harry. There is a hushed optimism about recruiting jackpots forming in the distance. The program feels like it has achieved rare and real elevation.

It would feel much differently if Arizona hadn’t collapsed in the Territorial Cup. In that regard, Edwards is lucky. Take away a mindless interception from Khalil Tate and a fumble without contact, and ASU would be the team in reverse, losing two key games to end their season.

It’s a fair point. But the manner in which that game was won is the greatest testament possible to the early stewardship of Edwards.

“Whoever loses that game has a tough offseason,” Plummer said. “So too bad for the Wildcats right now. (But) the thing I really liked watching that game was just that there was no panic on the (ASU) sideline. No panic amongst the players. The coaches have them believe in each other and the system and what they’re coaching them to do.

“When you fall behind like that, it’s really a measuring stick on your leadership and the guys that are in charge, the ability of the team to stay focused and not worry too much about what’s going on and make the moment bigger than it is.

“It’s a great win for Herm and that staff and the whole Sun Devil nation just because the way the season started, with a lot of doubt about hiring Herm. I think we see now why that move was made.”

In the process, Edwards scored a huge victory over Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin, who now carries the albatross of never beating the in-state rival. A counterpart who inherited a Heisman Trophy candidate and a cushy schedule.

Edwards is also like former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. Old enough to be dangerous.

Edwards isn’t looking for his next job. He’s liberated from the paranoia spawned by criticism and public perception. He was tasked with filling Arizona’s program with talented football players from California, and in his first season, he beat USC, UCLA and his in-state rival.

That will open doors. And with this rare opportunity, Plummer has one favor to ask:

Keep it real. Stand out in a conference and a sport full of yuck.

“There’s a statue of Pat Tillman when you come out of that tunnel,” Plummer said. “There’s a PT42 on the jersey. Let’s not forget that Pat, all of the war hero thing aside, Pat was the real deal when he came to ASU. He treated people right. There are hundreds of people in buildings all around that campus that had substantial interactions with Pat that changed their lives forever, prior to him becoming a war hero.

“So let’s be real. If you’re going to put all that down on the jerseys and have a statue, then let’s recruit those kinds of players. Or at least a sizable amount of guys that come in and bring that realness. And I believe Herm will do that.”

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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