Whenever a car pulls into her driveway, Patti Edwards momentarily thinks it’s her husband arriving after another day of football practice. Coach has been gone almost six years — can it be that long? — but she’ll be out running some errand and have the same old thoughts: I can’t wait to get home and tell LaVell about this. Two things make the longing keener: Grandkids and rainbows (he had this thing about rainbows, and whenever one made an appearance he wanted to show her). That, and driving past the BYU football stadium, which is emblazoned with the name in giant letters, “LaVell Edwards Stadium,” which still surprises her when she sees it.
“People I haven’t seen for years will say, ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’ I want to tell them, you mean I looked this bad 30 years ago?!” — Patti Edwards
Patti Edwards — the emeritus first lady of football — is 90 years old. She’s got a bad back — she injured it when her husband fell to the floor that last time — but her mind is sharp, her pale-blue eyes are clear, and she lives an independent life. She drives to her son’s house in Davis County. She drives to her hometown in Wyoming. During a trip to New York City earlier this year, she walked 20 miles in two days.
“People I haven’t seen for years will say, ‘You haven’t changed a bit,’” she says. “I want to tell them, you mean I looked this bad 30 years ago?!”
Apparently, she absorbed the Edwardian humor after living with her husband for 65 years.
Sitting in the living room of her home in the foothills above Provo — where she has lived a half-century — she says, “Aging is a privilege. You’re going to have aches and pains and heartaches, but growing old is a privilege. I get to see my great-grandkids. I learn something every day. I wrote my history. I’m involved in a book club and I’m doing a report on that. I have lunch with family and friends. I’m involved in church and the Girls and Boys Club of Utah County. I’m busier than I’ve ever been. You have to enjoy the now.”
About those aches and pains: it’s her back, mostly. Her husband fell on Christmas Eve 2016 and broke his hip. She tried to lift him and she felt — she heard — her back snap. She collapsed to the floor, as well. That’s where they remained all night — on the floor, side by side, waiting for morning to come. He was largely unconscious and she was in excruciating pain. She managed to reach the phone as the sun rose. The ambulance took LaVell to the hospital. Patti and her three children — John, Jim and Ann — were close behind. John, the Edwards’ oldest son and an orthopedic surgeon, assessed the situation and told his mother that this was it; his father was not going to recover. Four days later he died.
Patti was still in pain, but there was little opportunity to rest. There was a memorial service at the city building and the funeral the next day. The night of the memoriam, the Y on the mountain and the stadium lights were turned on. Fans gathered in the stands. Jim and his wife, Lori, insisted that she see it all, despite the pain. They put her in their car and drove into the stadium. Current and former players gathered in the Cougar Room under the stadium that night, and Patti was there to greet them (someone counted 1,200 players).
Patti’s back continued to pain her — “I don’t know how I made it through the funeral,” she says — and eventually she underwent an MRI, which revealed that she was dealing with more than a pulled muscle, as originally thought. She had broken her back. Normally, doctors would have recommended surgery to repair the vertebra, but there was the matter of her age.
“Too old,” she says. “But really, I’m fine.”
Patti is in close contact with her three children, of course, and the doings of her 14 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. John served a church service mission in American Samoa, teaching local doctors how to replace knees (his wife, Becky, recently ran against Sen. Mike Lee in the Republican primary but lost). Her other son, Jim, is a lawyer in Las Vegas, and Ann, a children’s author and former newspaper columnist, lives in Salt Lake City.
A rooting interest
Patti has maintained her connection to football. She attends games at LaVell Edwards Stadium, sitting in a box with 12 seats, which she fills with family and friends. “I really appreciate that privilege,” she says. Then again, she and her husband earned it. LaVell put BYU on the map. He turned a perennial loser into a perennial winner and built the Cougar brand, one based on their revolutionary passing game and great quarterbacks. He was the best bargain in coaching history, vastly underpaid compared to his peers.
LaVell turned down opportunities to make more money from the Detroit Lions, the University of Colorado (which offered to double his salary), Miami, Mississippi, Minnesota, Stanford, Rice. He was tempted — he actually flew to Detroit to visit with the Lions — but he wasn’t going to make a decision based on ego (he had very little of that anyway), and ultimately the money didn’t trump leaving his hometown, a place he considered perfect for raising a family and suited his lifestyle. He and Patti were content. For nearly 40 years Edwards oversaw the Cougars and worked off one-year contracts.
“The Y knew he wouldn’t leave,” says Patti.
For Patti, it has sometimes been difficult to see the money and facilities that were thrown at her husband’s successors. The coaches that followed Edwards received higher salaries, and three years after Edwards retired, BYU built an indoor practice facility.
“Can you imagine what we would’ve done if we had had that indoor facility,” Patti told her husband one day. Turning to face her, Edwards folded his arms and calmly said, “What more could we have done?” There was silence. They’d won a national championship and 20 conference championships, finished in the top 20 of the national rankings 12 times, played in 22 bowl games, and won the Heisman Trophy, the Outland Trophy, the Doak Walker Award, the Sammy Baugh Award, the Davey O’Brien Trophy and other honors.
What more could we have done?
Nothing, Patti realized.
Edwards had one losing season in 29 years at a school that had had 13 winning seasons in its entire 51-year history to that point. “It’s easy to go into a program that is down and raise it up; the real strength is keeping it at the level LaVell raised it to,” says Patti. She notes what many have noted: Edwards had a knack for picking brilliant assistant coaches and then he got out of their way and let them do their jobs. Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick and Andy Reid went on to win Super Bowls as head coaches and Doug Scovil, Norm Chow, Fred Whittingham and Ted Tollner became successful coaches in both the NFL and in other college programs.
“He surrounded himself with brilliant men and he never felt threatened by them,” says Patti.
Patti continues to keep up with the game. She even tunes in NFL games, especially when the Kansas City Chiefs are on TV (they’re coached by Reid, a former BYU player and Edwards protege who maintained close ties with his old coach and mentor over the years).
Changes to the game
Patti decries the name, image and likeness money and the other changes that have hit college football like a tsunami. “I’m so opposed to what’s happening,” she says. “LaVell won with less talent because they were family and they worked together. If you have a quarterback who is making $700,000 (off NIL agreements) and a lineman whose wife is working at Costco, why is he going to block for that guy? Now you can give a kid a scholarship, but if someone offers him more money he can leave. It’s ruining college football.”
The irony of all this is that Patti, the former rodeo queen of Big Piney, Wyoming, hated football when she met her future husband on a blind date at Utah State. She had never seen a game and she continued to avoid them even while dating Edwards. She kept this to herself until their honeymoon. They were in the car when she confessed she had never seen him play. LaVell stopped on the side of the road and looked at her with raised eyebrows. She melted into tears.
She attended games the next season — LaVell’s senior year — and was miserable. “I still hated it,” she says. “I sat all alone in the stands. There was no camaraderie. There were only two other player wives.” She hoped football was just a phase for her husband and after it passed he could take over her father’s oil delivery business in Big Piney.
It was years before she realized football was here to stay and she better embrace it. She attended the games. She clipped newspaper articles for each player and presented them in plastic folders at the end of the season. But what she mostly did was reach out to the wives of players and coaches, remembering how disconnected she felt sitting alone in the stands at her husband’s games.
There were 45 players’ wives and she brought them together for dinners on her back patio. “I made pans and pans of lasagna in those days,” she says. “I felt it was so important that the players’ wives get to know each other.” She encouraged them to befriend each other despite the competition on the field among their husbands, and she urged them and their husbands to complete their degrees.
“It’s a lot easier to date a football player than to be married to one,” says Patti.
Making a difference
Years later, she would unite the coaches’ wives on a national scale. When teams came to town to play a game, she took the wives on an outing. “This is so great; too bad we all can’t get together like this,” Jackie Harbaugh, the wife of Jack Harbaugh, told Patti one day when they were walking in Park City.
That planted a seed. A year later Patti founded the American Football Coaches Wives Association. It began with 50 members that first year and grew to hundreds (LaVell was president of the National Football Coaches Association at the time). For years Patti produced a monthly newsletter for the organization.
“The purpose of the organization was camaraderie, and providing service and information,” she says. “Coaches and their families move a lot. We could contact someone in the organization and learn about the schools in the area, find good doctors, where the good neighborhoods are, what they could do for service if they wanted to be involved. You can feel all alone as a coach’s wife. The organization is still going. If something lasts that long, you can see there’s a need.”
Throughout Edwards’ career she cultivated friendships with the wives and empathized with them. After the 1980 Holiday Bowl (aka “Miracle Bowl”), in which BYU beat SMU on the last play of the game to complete a remarkable 20-point comeback in the final four minutes, Patti wrote to Cindy Meyer, wife of the losing coach. “I’m glad we won, but I know how hard it is,” she wrote. “Let the men fight the battles on the field; friendship is more than that.” Says Patti, “She wrote back and said she agreed and to show she meant it she sent a special chocolate cake recipe.”
As you would expect, many of Patti’s friends/peers are in poor health or just gone. Bobby Bowden and his wife, Ann, have passed away. So have Spike Dykes (Texas Tech), Joe Paterno (Penn State), Dick McPherson (Syracuse) and Don James (Washington), and some of LaVell’s longtime assistants, such as Fred Whittingham, Dick Felt and Doug Scovil.
Patti corresponds with the wives who still survive, such as Barbara Tollner, wife of former USC coach, Ted, and Vicky McBride, wife of the Utah coach, Ron. Many fans might be surprised that Vicky McBride is one of her closest friends despite the bitter feelings that the rivalry often engenders.
For years before and after the Edwards era, there was too much tension between the coaching staffs of those archrival schools for friendship, but the McBrides and Edwards bonded anyway. In the final game of Edwards’ coaching career, BYU faced Utah, of all schools, in Salt Lake City. The Cougars made a dramatic comeback to beat Utah with seconds left in the game. It was a sentimental win, won on pure emotion, and it provided Edwards with a grand sendoff that was difficult even for many on the Utah side to begrudge.
“As I was walking to get on the field, Vicky was coming the other way,” Patti recalls. “She just opened her arms. She hugged me and said she loved me. Our friendship rose above the field.”
It has already been 22 years since Edwards’ football phase ended.
As the discussion winds down, Patti points out the scant few mementoes of her husband’s career that are displayed in the house, including a small glass case that contains his championship rings. As she thinks back on those times, she says, “Being the wife of a football coach is hard. In my case, we never knew year to year if he’d be rehired (because there was no contract). And there’s the time element. You have to share your husband with the media, fans, players.”
She notes that even when her husband was on his deathbed, she shared his time. On the last day of the coach’s life, Patti received a call from a former player. “Hello, Pat, this is Jim McMahon. I want to tell the coach I love him.” Patti responded, “Tell him yourself, and she handed the phone to her husband.” She overheard McMahon say, “I love you, Coach. Thanks for everything.”
“Take care of yourself, Jim,” said the coach.
“That was a tender moment for me,” she says. She pauses and says, “There’s not a day or night I don’t think about LaVell.”