ASU coach Herm Edwards is preparing athletes for football season — and life
ASU coach discusses how to teach a team to execute
By: Anna Katherine Clemmons, for Amway Coaches Poll
Throughout his career, Arizona State University football head coach Herm Edwards has emphasized the importance of execution.
Whether it was his 10 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL, his subsequent 10 years as a collegiate and NFL head coach, his next decade as an analyst for ESPN, or his most recent move, returning to the gridiron as the head coach of the Sun Devils, the 65-year-old has shown that consistent determination, hard work and the introduction of intentional chaos can yield great results.
I wanted to give back
to football what it’s given me
Sitting down on behalf of Amway Coaches Poll to reflect on how to inspire teams to execute, Edwards shared some of his famed “Herm-isms,” his recipe for work-life balance and how he motivates the Sun Devils to deliver each day — even in 102-degree Phoenix heat — as they prepare for the season ahead.
Growing up in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Edwards knew early on that he wanted to be a professional athlete. He loved football, and despite his Dallas Cowboys fandom, after graduating from San Diego State University in 1975, he began his NFL playing career with the Philadelphia Eagles — one of the Cowboys’ biggest rivals.
Edwards spent the next nine years with Philadelphia, totaling 33 career interceptions, one shy of the franchise record. Just as important was his consistent execution: Edwards never missed a game in nine straight seasons. His landmark fumble recovery against the New York Giants during the 1978 season, which led the Eagles to a 2-point victory, became known as the Miracle at the Meadowlands, leading the organization to name a play on his behalf.
After a decade of playing in the NFL, “I wanted to give back to football what it’s given me,” Edwards said. “So, I decided, ‘I’m going to be a coach.’”
He spent three years coaching with San Jose State University before being hired by the Kansas City Chiefs as a scout and part-time coach, staying for several seasons before accepting an assistant coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In January 2001, he was hired as head coach of the New York Jets.
During his eight subsequent NFL head-coaching seasons, Edwards learned many lessons about how to motivate his players to execute.
“As a coach, you’re like a teacher,” he said. “You don’t give the players their talent. God gives them talent, but you can give them knowledge, and you can give them information.”
Edwards and his staff did both throughout his five years coaching the Jets, his three seasons at Kansas City’s helm and now, today, entering his second season with ASU.
Every player learns differently, Edwards said, “and if you want them to succeed, you have to find ways to motivate them and to stimulate how they learn."
“When you’re the head coach, your job is to turn the light switch on when the building opens up. Your personality … it has to make sure it affects everybody in a positive way. You’re the problem-solver; that’s what you get paid to do. I’ve got 100 players. And somebody is going to come to work every day with a problem.”
In addition to problem-solving, earning trust, Edwards said, is equally important. As is creating chaos. While some coaches rely on complete organization and structure in aiming for success, Edwards has found that “in the chaos, the teams that keep their composure — they generally win."
The No. 1 thing for all leaders: You’re a provider of hope
So how do you strategically mimic the unplanned chaos of competition? Practice, he said, is one example. Before the next day’s practice, coaches, trainers and staff typically determine where and what time practice will start before disseminating that information.
But as everyone arrives the next morning for, say, an 8 a.m. outdoor practice, Edwards might spontaneously announce that it feels like an indoor practice kind of day. As the staff quickly moves everything indoors and players adjust accordingly, Edwards will pause in the middle of the indoor field. “You know what? I think outdoors was the right call after all,” he’ll say.
Those adjustments and responses, Edwards said, mirror how a team will execute on the field. “(In a game), everything is going smooth, and then all of a sudden you fumble a ball. We just fumbled a ball. What are you going to do? How do we react? I’ve always put people in positions where I go, ‘OK, I’ve got to start some chaos because I want to see how they function.’”
Additionally, Edwards said, team members need a keen awareness of the difference between emotion and passion.
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“You don’t want an emotional team; you want a passionate team,” he said. “When the pressure mounts the most, you want poise and this sense of, ‘We’ve been here before. We know how to handle this.’ There’s this calmness of when things go crazy … what makes a winning team is to get players that hate to lose more than they win. Teams that have discipline, that are tough — those are the teams that win.”
That also means shifting each individual’s mindset from a focus on their own role to the collective: How can I, with my own skills, discipline and determination, contribute to the larger goal? And how can I do that to the best of my ability?
“I’ve always said that your attitude is your best friend and your worst enemy,” Edwards said. “I get up every morning; I charge the day. I think when players see you every day and they see how you function, they look at that. They see everything … (so) I just think, ‘What kind of energy do I bring to the building every day?’”
Edwards also carries that passion into his family life. Being a parent, he says, is the most powerful form of education. And while his wife and daughters often attend practice, when the family is at home, football isn’t necessarily the focus. Rather, it’s conversation: talking about their day, talking about his daughters’ lives and values — just talking.
Still, his love of football remains at the forefront of his career. His passion, energy and drive have led him to execute professionally, whether on TV or on the field, for more than three decades.
“The No. 1 thing for all leaders: You’re a provider of hope,” Edwards said. “It’s a service position. You actually serve them; they don’t serve you. That’s very important. … There are two ways you lead: You lead by your seat, or you lead by your feet. I choose to lead by my feet. I know the people that I work with. I make sure I communicate with people. They want to see you.”
After a strong 2018 season, in which Edwards led the Sun Devils to a second-place finish in the Pac-12 South Division — after pre-season pundits predicted ASU to finish last in their division — he is on his feet and ready for what the 2019 season will bring, when the Sun Devils kick off at home against Kent State University on Aug. 29.
“I’ve always told people I’ve never really had a job,” Edwards said. “I’ve been on recess my whole life. Played football, coached football, and then put makeup on and talked about football. Then, for some reason, I came back to football. I’m glad I did.”
You’re the problem-solver; that’s what you get paid to do.