The Arizona State Sun Devils completed their final home practice this week. On Tuesday, the team will embark on its “family vacation,” as head coach Herm Edwards calls it, where they’ll bus to Las Vegas for their bowl game against Fresno State on Saturday. In under a year, Edwards has created a family environment in Tempe.
To see how it started, roll back to December of 2017, on the third of the month it was announced by Athletic Director Ray Anderson that Edwards would replace Todd Graham.
On the 15th, Rob Likens, the wide receiver coach and co-offensive coordinator, was promoted to full-time offensive coordinator with the departure of Billy Napier for the Louisiana-Lafayette head coaching position. Edwards then plucked San Diego State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales for the same spot on Arizona State’s staff on the 24th.
Together, you have a guy who hadn’t coached at the college level since the late 80s and who had been out of coaching entirely for the previous 10 years. A coordinator who struggled at Kansas, who got promoted because his higher-up took a better gig. A coordinator, who’d never been around a Power-Five program and ran an unconventional scheme.
Unlikely as it seemed, they exceeded expectations. The media picked the Sun Devils to finish last in their division and 11th in the entire Pac-12. Instead, they were a two-point conversation away from possibly representing the South in the conference championship.
How exactly? Edwards, Likens and Gonzales created a plan and stuck with it through all the frustrations, and they played the players who gave them the best chance to win despite their age.
“That’s who we are, we were going to build a football team and that was our mindset...I’m going to take talent over experience because I know that in a month, a talented guy, well now he has experience,” Edwards said. “He’s going to be a better player. So that’s what you have to do. You have to suffer through it all. (Freshman safety) Aashari (Crosswell is an example), after every game I would hug him and say ‘It’s all going to be OK. You’re going to be fine.’ And then at the end of the season, he ended up being a pretty good player...
“Some coaches fear that, I don’t. It’s good for football and for this foundation that we’re trying to build and I will do that every time. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to improve our football team every year by the players we bring in here and they’re going to have an opportunity and if they’re the best player, then they’re going to play.”
It’s been a learning experience for all three, acquiring knowledge of their own team, the 13 different opponents they have faced, learning about themselves, but most importantly, understanding each other.
The three have various personalities. Take in an ASU practice, and Likens and Gonzales will let their players know if they screwed up or missed an assignment. The media attending will hear loud and clear what they said.
One practice, Likens had a play work so well that he ran 40 yards up-and-down the area between the two fields at the Kajikawa Practice fields.
What does Edwards do at practice? He strolls around cool as ever, jokes with players, friends, visitors, fans and media. He talks to them the same as he does his players, his family, anybody. He doesn’t raise his voice, not one outburst. That’s not who he is as a person or a coach.
“We’ve all worked for different management styles of our leaders,” Likens said. “Some guys coach by fear. They want everybody to be uncomfortable all the time. They think that brings out the best. That actually unfortunately, works to some degree.
“But what he does is, he hires guys and then he backs off. He lets you sink or swim, and when you start to sink, he holds his hand out there for you and helps you up and tries to guide you along. He honestly cares about you and wants you to be better. It’s not just about the flatline results with him. He’s a true, genuine person that wants everybody around him to get better. I think that’s the number one thing that stands out most.”
Gonzales talked about what recruiting with Edwards is like.
“The star status of coach Edwards is unbelievable. You talk about people being famous and all that stuff, that’s a life I would never want to live. It’s unbelievable,” Gonzales said. “We go to the airport to go to these recruiting trips … When you go with coach Edwards, you better plan for an extra hour, because an hour of it is going to be shaking hands and taking pictures.
“When you get in the home (a recruits home), they connect with him. He’s direct. They know what we’re trying to build. And we’ve taken a different approach. We’re doing what we call caravan recruiting where we’re taking eight, nine coaches into a house, which can be a little bit intimidating. He makes it very comfortable because that could really backfire in a lot of situations, if you go in there with a very aggressive approach. You’re going to make people feel very uncomfortable. Coach Edwards, it’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”
Trust is hard to gain, but in certain life situations, it is natural. For most people, trusting family is easy. Edwards has shown his ability to gain the trust of his coordinators, his players and families of recruits.
He’s a family man, and he’s brought that atmosphere to Tempe. He needed to after all the questions around his hire.
Now after year one, Edwards has spread that family environment to his staff, to Likens and Gonzales, to John Simon, to Antonio Pierce, and to every other Sun Devil coach. The crew has established a setting for players to compete. With every family is friendly competition.
“I think the culture is starting to change, and it’s been set that it’s all about competition. The conversation I had with the players was really simple. I said, ‘Last year when I stood before you, I told you it was going to be competition every day.’ And some guys heard me but they weren’t listening. And then five freshmen ended up starting,” Edwards said. “They beat out some seniors. They beat out some sophomores, and they beat out some juniors, and I said ‘Look, the world I’ve lived in my whole life it’s about competition at every position and you have go out and compete.’
“Some guys really didn’t pay that much attention to it and they just said ‘It ain’t going to affect me because I’m this guy.’ But it affects everybody. We’ll have 22 new guys coming in here next year and I told the players that. ‘You know what, those guys are coming in to take your job. That’s how it works.’ With more competition we want to raise the expectations within the team. You have to compete every day. That’s how players get better and we get better as a team and then we’re better for it and players are better for it. I think they understand that is the culture now. It’s you have to do this and if you don’t, it’s OK. We’ll just get somebody to replace that player.”
All the critics have began to take back their preseason statements about Edwards. No one knew the direction the Herm train was headed with the ASU program, but Edwards had his plan, and he found coaches and players that trusted him to build his vision.
There was ups-and-downs in the implementation period, but after 12 games in his college head coaching career, there’s more comfort with his project.
Players like freshmen stars Merlin Robertson and Aashari Crosswell are the reasons that the coaching staff constantly has their phones buzzing.
“We’re getting phone calls from people, kids, that see the opportunities that are here, they see how well those guys are playing and that we’re not afraid to play those guys,” Gonzales said. “We’ve had a couple ex-teammates of guys call and say, ‘Hey, can you pass me on to the coaches.’ And these are some good players, who have been recruited by top-five programs in the country that are calling to see if we can make room for them. That’s a good problem.”
Edwards’ first year in the desert could’ve been better, but that’s in the past and his eyes are looking forward. His team looks to be on the rise because of what he’s established in a year.
He and his coordinators have plenty of questions heading into next year. Who will be the quarterback? Can N’Keal Harry’s production be replaced? Will the defense take another step in the right direction?
They can deal with those questions after Saturday’s bowl game. For now, they’re focused on one last family trip filled with sightseeing, hamburgers and a secret milkshake flavor Edwards hasn’t trusted anyone with. Then they’ll look into the plans for year two afterwards.