LaVell Edwards was a college football pioneer, a legendary offensive mind and a gentleman of the game whose impact will live on for generations in the likes of Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and their countless protégées.
Edwards also was a bit of a Barry Switzer fan and never did more than quietly chuckle at the idea of Barry Switzer’s name on a sewage treatment facility not far from the BYU campus.
Edwards died on Thursday at age 86, and the world of college football and the communities of Salt Lake City and Provo are diminished by his loss.
Edwards, who won 257 career games, told me a few years back he drew no pleasure from BYU fans — namely the mayors and commissioners in Salt Lake County — renaming a sewage treatment facility “Barry Switzer Lagoon” after the former University of Oklahoma coach stumped for the 1984-85 Orange Bowl as college football’s true national championship rather than undefeated BYU’s visit to the Holiday Bowl 10 days earlier.
Switzer was just granting NBC’s request to hype their Orange Bowl broadcast. And, of course, Switzer was trying to give his team an edge in the eyes of pollsters.
“I got a laugh out of it,” Switzer told me for a story I wrote in 2009. “Shoot, all I was doing was trying to promote our game for the national championship.”
BYU was college football’s only unbeaten team that year, and they kept sliding up the polls almost out of courtesy. Surely, voters thought, the Cougars wouldn’t finish 13-0. But they kept winning.
Even after BYU beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, AP voters were prepared to vote No. 2 OU over No. 1 BYU — 70 percent of those asked by NBC said they would — if the Sooners defeated Washington. The Cougars played a soft non-conference schedule (3-7-1 Pitt, 5-6 Baylor and 6-5 Tulsa), then played a weak WAC schedule, and had beaten a 6-5 Wolverines squad in their Dec. 21 bowl game.
OU also had beaten Pitt and Baylor, as well as 5-6 Stanford, but tied Texas (the Keith Stanberry interception) and lost to Kansas (QB Danny Bradley was hurt). Still, the Sooners won the Big Eight title by defeating No. 1 Nebraska in Lincoln and No. 3 Oklahoma State in Norman, and literally roared into the Orange Bowl.
It blew up in Switzer’s face, however, when the Sooner Schooner came out too early, got stuck and drew a penalty flag that led to a blocked field goal and wrecked OU’s momentum. The Huskies, led by quarterback Hugh Millen, were too good, and prevailed 28-17.
That BYU squad remains the only team since 1945 Army to win a national championship from outside the game’s current elitist Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame.
“My whole position at that time was, ‘Hey, I’m not the one that set up the system; I didn’t have anything to do with that,” Edwards told me in ’09. “We just played our games, we won ‘em all and nobody else did. So we had as good a shot at it as anybody.”
BYU didn’t even get to properly celebrate its national title. They waited 10 days to watch the Orange Bowl, then another day for ballots to be tabulated. When the news broke, BYU students and players were still home for the holidays. Edwards was coaching the East-West Shrine Game at Stanford when the Cardinal sports information director interrupted practice to inform Edwards his BYU team, and not Washington, had been crowned national champs.
“We had two or three of our players playing in that game, and they got us around there and took a little picture of us,” Edwards said. “It was kind of odd.”
Another oddity: The fate of the Barry Switzer sewage pond.
Back in 2009, I spoke with a public works director in Midvale, Utah, who told me that in 29 years there, he never heard of any such facility with Switzer’s name on it, and there currently is no public record of it. Switzer, though, says he used to get photographs in the mail from OU fans posing with a sign that read, “Barry Switzer Lagoon.”
Edwards, meanwhile, told me with a laugh that he “never got out there” to see Switzer’s facility.
“I tell you,” Edwards said, “Barry was a lot of fun. He was always good copy during that period of time.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.