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‘Hand it off’: Under Herm Edwards, co-DCs mix past and present

Herm Edwards, then of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Marvin Lewis, then of the Cincinnati Bengals, talk before a game at Arrowhead Stadium on October 14, 2007 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — ASU football coach Herm Edwards received immediate support from his old friend, Marvin Lewis.

Lewis, who previously was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, was on the Sun Devil Football staff last year only as an advisor. Defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales left for the head coaching job at New Mexico, and his successor, Tony White, left before ever coaching a game as the DC.

“Within like 10 minutes,” Edwards explained, “Marvin walks up to me and says, ‘I got you.'”

Such was the genesis of Lewis becoming co-defensive coordinator with incumbent linebackers coach Antonio Pierce at ASU. Lewis, 61, was defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins when Pierce, now 41, was playing there. They now run the Sun Devils defense together.

“Marvin’s been around, I love him. We’ve known each other over 30 years,” Edwards said. “And to have him and AP all of a sudden being in the same room, co-coordinators, and AP playing for Marvin in this system, that helps. And I know the system. Because one of the systems came out of Tampa and there’s some spin-off to it all. So we get it. It’s easy for us because we’ve been in it our whole life. Now we’ve got to teach the players. That will be the fun part.”

The coaching changes aren’t unique to the defense; ASU also welcomed a new offensive coordinator this offseason in Zak Hill. But what is unique is the blend of Lewis, a coaching veteran who dismissed any notion that he “needed” to continue working in football, and Pierce, a younger coach who has quickly ascended in responsibility with the Sun Devils.

When Lewis originally came to Tempe to join Edwards’ staff, it wasn’t about an unemployed coach getting a chance to get back into the business. Lewis said he didn’t need a job, and just wanted to help his friend, Edwards.

“My position here had nothing to do with getting a job. I didn’t need a job. I didn’t need the work,” Lewis said. “It was about me being able to hopefully be an asset to Herm and to help him build the program he wants to build here.”

Enter Pierce.

The former Redskins and New York Giants linebacker is now the co-defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, recruiting coordinator and associate head coach for the Sun Devils. “You could get fired three times and still have a job,” Edwards joked to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station when talking about Pierce earlier this month.

“I’ve known him since I coached him in ’02,” Lewis said. “And he was a bright young player then, had a lot of ability, but he was also able to play with his mind. And he saw the game the right way from all the way back then. So it doesn’t surprise me his progress and what he’s doing as a coach.

“He’ll continue to develop and have an opportunity to really reach all the goals that he’s set for himself.”

It’s not been explicitly said that the plan is for Pierce to be the sole defensive coordinator in 2021. But there’s some implication of that:

“We’re looking at this as basically an opportunity for me to really put the structure and everything in place and then hand it off,” Lewis said when asked if this co-defensive coordinator role would be a short-term thing. “Part of why I was brought here is to help and aid the coaches in any way I could. And this is just another step in that.”

In the college football landscape, it’s hard to say which coaches will even be on the coaching staff in 2021. ASU has experienced that first hand this offseason.

“I’m loyal to the program, loyal to coach Edwards and to the players I brought in and the players we have in our program,” Pierce said. “So maybe that makes me a little bit different. I don’t chase titles, I haven’t been chasing titles. I don’t chase opportunities. When it’s the right opportunity, you know what it is and hopefully it’s here for a long time. And we’ll see. You’ll never say you’re a lifer, that’s not reality. That sounds good to the public eye and the media, but the reality is you just go with it. And as long as they want me here, I’ll be here.”

Lewis, who was a head coach across two decades with the Bengals, said he didn’t previously think about being a head coach until he was one. He said his efforts to make calls and try to get open jobs usually failed. Instead, his successes would come when job openings came to him. Likewise, Lewis said Pierce has been patient.

“The best thing about him is he’s been very patient with those steps,” Lewis said. “And those are the things that, it’s pretty cool. And a lot of guys chase jobs and that’s not his personality. He’s committed to being here right now and seeing this place win the Pac-12 Championship.”

If Lewis does “hand it off” to another coach soon, Pierce or not, what would happen to Lewis after that?

“My [next] step? Oh, I don’t know,” Lewis said. “Go back to my little cubby I was in.”

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