Herm Edwards Proved His Harshest Doubters Wrong at Arizona State, but It's Still Early

Some people thought Herm Edwards's return to college football would be a disaster, and while the Sun Devils' first season under the well-traveled NFL coach was many things, it certainly wasn't that.
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Almost exactly a year ago, Arizona State announced the hiring of former Jets and Chiefs head coach, and then-ESPN analyst/motivational speaker, Herm Edwards to replace Todd Graham as its head football coach. The hire seemed like an odd fit—Edwards hadn’t coached anywhere in a decade, and he compiled a putrid 6–26 record over his last two seasons roaming an NFL sideline. On top of that, modern-day Pac-12 football is almost unrecognizable compared to the early-2000s NFL, when Edwards had most of his success.

Moreover, it seemed like a generational mismatch. Edwards’s reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian could clash with the teenagers he was set to mentor. Edwards’s only previous college coaching experience came in the late 1980s, when he spent three seasons as the defensive backs coach for noted powerhouse San Jose State. The players he would be recruiting know him better from his “You play to win the game” rant than any of his coaching accomplishments.

Unsurprisingly, writers were less than impressed by the choice. Without singling out names or publications, here’s how some prominent writers felt about the hiring:

“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?”

“I will be absolutely floored if Herm Edwards works out at Arizona State (assuming rumors are true). Absolutely floored.”

“Herm Edwards would be a dumpster fire of a hire for Arizona State.”

Then Arizona State started the actual football portion of its season, and the above takes looked overly harsh at best and downright foolish at worst. The Sun Devils opened with a blowout win over UTSA and followed it up with a 16–13 upset of No. 15 Michigan State. Oh, how quickly the narrative can and does change—guess what was listed under “Things We Know About the 2018 Season” in a column posted on this very site after Week 2?

The Herm Edwards experiment is going to work.

Ultimately, as with most things, the truth lay somewhere in the middle, though more toward the “going to work” side than the “dumpster fire” side.

The positives: Arizona State went 7–5 during the regular season and had a realistic chance to represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game (a 31–29 loss at Oregon on the second-to-last Saturday of the season killed that possibility). All five of the Sun Devils’ losses came by seven points or less. Arizona State slid far enough down the Pac-12 pecking order to draw a compelling bowl matchup—they’ll play Fresno State, an 11-win conference champion, in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. Off the field, Edwards, in news that should surprise no one, has attacked his job with youthful vigor. He seems to care genuinely about his players, and his charismatic persona has paid some dividends in recruiting, where early returns on his ability to connect with young people are positive.

On the flip side, four of Arizona State’s seven wins came by three points or less; this season could have finished 4–8 just as easily as 9–3. The reason the Sun Devils were in the running for the Pac-12 South title is because the South was quite weak this year, as four of the six teams in the division (including perennial front-runner USC) finished with losing records. Edwards and his staff will have to replace starting quarterback Manny Wilkins, who is graduating, and top receiver N’Keal Harry, who is skipping his senior season (and the bowl game) for the NFL.

Taking a wider view, winning seven games at Arizona State—a season after Graham was fired for doing exactly that—isn’t really a mark of progress. Graham won at least seven games in four of his six seasons at the helm, including back-to-back 10-win seasons early in his tenure. Athletic director Ray Anderson hired Edwards with the intention of keeping the rest of Graham’s coaching staff intact, only to watch offensive coordinator Billy Napier take the head coaching job at Louisiana and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett walk away from coaching. Edwards would have preferred continuity, but that’s a lot of upheaval for an identical record.

Despite our insatiable desire for definitive answers and strong takes, it’s still too early for a verdict on the Herm Edwards–Arizona State experiment. The start has been solid, if not better than expected, and next season will go a long way in determining the long-term viability of the partnership. All that being said, one thing is clear: There’s no dumpster fire in Tempe. At least not yet.