Arizona State hasn’t won a bowl game since 2014 when they beat Duke in the Sun Bowl. Their last major bowl victory came in 1987 when they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. However, year after year, Arizona State sends guys to the NFL. Despite their talented rosters, entering the upper echelon of college football has been elusive. After a disappointing 2017 season under Head Coach Todd Graham, in which the team finished 7-6 for what felt like the 10th straight year, the Sun Devils decided to make a coaching change. Out of all the potential candidates, they had their eyes fixed on a certain coach who hadn’t coached at the college level since 1989, and the NFL since 2008 — Herm Edwards.
A hire that started a fire
Writers, pundits, analysts, and fans of the game were bewildered. Edwards appeared to be more of an experiment or publicity stunt designed to generate the hype the football team couldn’t.
“Herm Edwards would be a dumpster fire of a hire for Arizona State,” wrote an analyst from Bleacher Report. “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?” opined a critic from The Ringer.
Needless to say, the hire raised some eyebrows. But ASU had a plan, one they would not deviate from. The plan started with Athletics Director Ray Anderson announcing his New Leadership Model. The New Leadership Model, in its purest form, means running ASU like an NFL team, from top to bottom.
“These kids are coming into a system that’s built on a pro system,” Edwards told TieBreaker in an exclusive interview. “How we evaluate players, how we practice, how we meet. Everything is done in the sense of professional football.”
At Edwards’ introductory press conference, Anderson stated that “our vision for this program is to have a head coach who serves as a CEO and is the central leader with a collaborative staff around him that will elevate the performance of players and coaches on the field, in the classroom, and in our community.” He concluded, “We are going to pivot to a different model that you would see in the NFL and frankly other professional sports.”
Coach Edwards, an inspired leader
Getting back into coaching, however, wasn’t always in the cards. “I could’ve stayed on television,” Edwards told TieBreaker. “But I had a passion to coach. I missed it. I missed being around the players.”
And Edwards sensed that this opportunity wouldn’t present itself again. “This is a unique opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime, especially at my age. This [situation] doesn’t come along that often where the parties have the same vision and you’re familiar with the party that your working with, and that was the Athletics Director, Ray Anderson.”
An NFL-level coaching staff
With the freedom of a CEO, Coach Edwards started assembling one of the more unique coaching staffs in college football. Edwards made splashes by hiring coaches with deep ties to the NFL, like Antonio Pierce, Kevin Mawae, Al Luginbill, and Marvin Lewis — to name a few.
When asked by TieBreaker if an NFL-laden coaching staff is advantageous, Edwards stated, “I think it helps. I do. I think it helps with the kids that have the aspirations to play pro football.”
Marvin Lewis, Antonio Pierce, Kevin Mawae, and Al Luginbill
“I’ve known Herman for almost 30 years,” Marvin Lewis, the architect of one of the greatest defenses in history, the 2000 Ravens, told reporters. “And the opportunity to come and assist him and his coaches win football games is very exciting and appealing … Arizona State and Tempe have always been special to me.”
Needing to improve ASU’s recruiting, Edwards brought in Super Bowl champion Antonio Pierce, a former coach at Long Beach Poly. At Poly, Pierce established deep ties to football in California, a recruiting hotbed for West Coast schools. Edwards touted the linebackers coach as “one of the most dynamic recruiters in the nation and we are excited about our future together.” Edwards finished by stating that Pierce “will be a valuable addition to our staff and someone we expect to immediately have an impact on our program.”
Pierce wasn’t shy about his excitement, either. “I cannot thank Herm Edwards and Ray Anderson enough for this opportunity … I absolutely look forward to getting my feet on the ground in Tempe.”
Then there’s Al Luginbill, a football lifer who helped develop the Under Armour All-America Game and was the director of football operations for NFL Europe, as well as the coach for the Amsterdam Admirals.
“I am honored to return to ASU, helping Coach Edwards and his fine coaching and support staff elevate the Sun Devil football program,” said Luginbill. “I am very impressed with Coach Edwards and the fine staff he has assembled at ASU.”
To further bolster the NFL connection, Edwards brought in Hall of Fame lineman Kevin Mawae as an offensive analyst.
“Kevin Mawae is one of the most respected voices in football,” Edwards stated. “He will add a tremendous amount of credibility and knowledge to our coaching staff.”
Stadium overhaul and the future
While Edwards was assembling his staff and recruiting, the university was building. ASU did a complete overhaul of their stadium for a cool $307 million, which reduced capacity from 71,000 to 55,000, making the atmosphere more intense, intimate, and fan-friendly.
When TieBreaker asked Edwards about downsizing, the second-year coach said, “I think it was a smart move. It’s good for us. If you’ve ever been to games here, it’s a unique place to play. It’s one of the better places in college football to play in, especially at night. It’s loud and it’s just a beautiful venue with the mountains to the side.”
ASU also updated and completely modernized their practice facility, making it the best in the Pac-12. The 120,000-square-foot football-only facility will be a key tool used in the recruiting battle, something ASU has been losing recently.
The devil is in the details
So how did the pro-style approach pan out in year one? To start, Edwards and his staff finished with the 36th-ranked recruiting class in the nation according to 247Sports. Then, in the second game of the season, they upset 15th-ranked Michigan State.
In Week 9 of the season, the Sun Devils upset 16th-ranked Utah at home. Edwards’ impressive, if not downright surprising, first season concluded with a 7-5 record. The silver lining to their record? Each loss was decided by seven points or less, meaning each game was competitive and winnable.
ASU isn’t projected to win any national championships this year or next, but the Pac-12 is wide open. It’s anyone’s conference to win. ASU may not have the prestige of USC or the Nike connection of Oregon — but what they do have is a plan, a new model that will transform their program and revolutionize the college game. That plan is already in effect and paying off, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise when ASU sits atop the Pac-12 sooner rather than later.