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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

Q&A with the remarkable Patti Edwards, wife of LaVell Edwards

By Lee Benson, Deseret News

Published: Mon, June 2 10:12 a.m. MDT

 Patti and LaVell Edwards stand in the backyard of their longtime home in Provo.

Patti and LaVell Edwards stand in the backyard of their longtime home in Provo.

(Lee Benson)

PROVO — Sixty-four years ago, when Patti Covey was a freshman at Utah State University, her girlfriend’s boyfriend talked her into going on a blind date with this guy who played on the football team.

How’d that work out?

This July, Patti and that guy — legendary football coach LaVell Edwards — will celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Back then, she had no idea he would become the seventh winningest coach in major college football history, win a national championship, get elected to the Hall of Fame, and have his name spelled out in letters 15 feet high on the stadium just below their house on the Provo bench.

And he had no idea she would become one of the most influential football spouses in the country, the founder of the American Football Coaches Wives Association, and an avid advocate and example for women married to coaches and players to find their own outlets and establish their unique identities.

The accomplishments are all the more remarkable because she was a cowgirl from Wyoming who knew nothing about football and had absolutely no desire to be a coach’s wife (more on that below).

She came from Big Piney, a small high-plains Wyoming town about a million miles from anything, including football. Her dad, Irwin, ran the service station, serviced the county’s school buses and delivered oil to the ranchers. A one-man conglomerate.

She was an only child — her mother, Louise, almost died giving birth to her — and an only grandchild. She grew up a city girl in a country town. She had five horses, rode all of ‘em, and was crowned rodeo queen.

When she was a teenager, her parents sent her off to northern Utah to live with an aunt and uncle in Beaver Dam so she could attend nearby Bear River High School, where they felt she might receive a more civilized education. Her grades won her a scholarship to the University of Wyoming and acceptance to Smith’s, a prominent women’s college in Missouri.

But she wanted to go where her friends were going, and that meant over the mountain to Logan and Utah State University.

She met her future husband — he was a junior — in September of her freshman year, and they were married the following July of 1951. After LaVell’s senior year, he went in the Army — his first coaching experience was on a military base — and Patti went with him until he was shipped overseas. She went back home to Big Piney to wait for him and worked in the bank.

When he returned in 1954, they moved to Salt Lake City so LaVell could take over as football coach at Granite High School. During eight years at Granite, their first two children, Ann and John, came along. In 1962, when LaVell took a job as an assistant coach at BYU, their third child, Jim, arrived. Ten years later, LaVell was promoted to head coach at BYU. The Edwards family settled into a home on the Provo bench, just below Rock Canyon.

Against all odds — in a profession that has all the stability of a Wyoming summer — they’re still there.

On a recent weekday morning, as LaVell ran off to get the dry cleaning, Patti Edwards sat down in the living room with the Deseret News to talk about her life.

DN: Thank you for the visit. This must rank as some kind of record — for a football coach's family to call the same place home for almost 50 years.

PE: It is rare, and to tell the truth something I never expected. I’m a worrier, and I really felt every year that we were going to be fired. In the first 18 years of LaVell’s career, he had four winning seasons. Then at BYU he only had one losing season in 29 years.

DN: Was it football that brought you two together?

PE: Not at all. I had never liked football, but I had a friend at Utah State who loved football. She knew LaVell and she’d go to all his games and tell me everything he did. She was dating LaVell’s fraternity brother who set us up on a blind date. I kinda fell in love with him right at first. I just thought he was so normal, so down-to-earth. He didn’t play games, he was who he was. I think LaVell has always felt comfortable being who he is, in his own skin, and I appreciated that. And then another thing, he didn’t seem to be fanatic about football. I was the one who brought it up in conversation when we were dating, not him, and I hadn’t even seen him play — although he thought I had because I told him about all his great efforts on the team and how well he was doing. But I never actually saw him in a football game until we were married.

DN: Did you ever tell him that?

PE: (laughs) Yes. On our honeymoon — we went to Sun Valley — I told him and he was shocked. And the thing is I’m really a very basically honest person, but I really liked him and I thought I couldn’t tell him I hadn’t seen him play for fear he wouldn’t come back. So I waited to confess on our honeymoon.

DN: When you finally did see him play, is that when you fell in love with the game?

PE: No. I hated it. Hated it with a passion. I didn’t understand the game and it looked like a bunch of people trying to kill each other. I was afraid he would get hurt.

DN: But what about your future as a coaches wife?

PE: Oh, I didn’t think it would happen. I thought that idea would go away, like the measles. I thought that I could change his mind about coaching. My dad had quite a lucrative business and wanted to retire. He offered to just give it to LaVell. And he said no. And I thought crazy, crazy, crazy. I really thought I could change him. I couldn’t change him.

DN: What shaped you as a person?

PE: You know, much of what I am I trace back to that little community of Big Piney. That little town I grew up in. There was no wrong side or right side of the tracks. There was wealth, big oil and ranching money in town, and then there were the drunks, a lot of drunks in Big Piney. But those drunks were as welcome as the rich people in anybody’s home. It wasn’t a Mormon environment. Mother and I were the only LDS people — my father didn’t join the church until I was 19 — but I was raised with the finest people in the world.

DN: At heart, then, you’re still a Wyoming girl?

PE: I remember one year our house burned down. I was 5. My mother kicked the window in and got the dog out and her silverware and that was all we had to our name. We had absolutely nothing else. We were homeless. It was about three weeks before Christmas, and Mother and Dad said it was Santa Claus’s turn to visit some other little children that year. So we went over to stay with my grandparents and as we came down the stairs that Christmas morning, oh my gosh that whole living room was filled with the Christmas tree and dolls and toys and everything. I turned around to tell my Mother and Dad and they were both weeping. They didn’t know. The town did it.

DN: When did you start loving football?

PE: Fairly early on I came to the conclusion, well, you better join in or you’re going to be miserable the rest of your life. So I turned into a football nut. I love football. I’m a big fan. Football has been so good to us.

DN: And when did you start loving being a football coach's wife?

PE: When I started to form my own identity. I recognized early on the loneliness of the profession for a wife. You really are kind of isolated. Your husband is gone a lot of the time and typically you move quite a bit. So I felt it was necessary to try to not make it lonely. You need to find your own outlets and form your own friendships, particularly with other wives in the same situation who can relate to you. It’s why I established the national wives association.

DN: How did that come about?

PE: I would always take the wives of the staff of the visiting team to dinner or on some outing. One year Pitt came in two days early so I took the wives to Park City and had a wonderful day. Jackie Harbaugh (her husband, Jack, was on the Pitt staff at the time; she’s also the mother of John and Jim Harbaugh of the NFL) and I were walking along the street and she said we really need to have more fellowship like this and I agreed. That’s the conversation that got the ball rolling. At the next men’s coaches’ convention in Atlanta — LaVell was president that year (1988) — four of the women and I were having breakfast together. I said we need an association of our own, they all agreed, so we found a hotel room and had a meeting, 40 women showed up, and that’s how it started. It’s grown from there. Every year we have our own convention, we give a $1,000 scholarship to a coach’s wife who’s wanting to get an education, and $1,000 to the children’s hospital that’s in the town where we have our convention. We celebrated our 25th anniversary last year.

DN: The bottom line is football wives need to support each other?

PE: It’s just so important to have that camaraderie and fellowship. And it’s so much fun. One time Baylor’s staff came in and my wives and I took them up to Sundance for dinner and Robert Redford came in. After that they couldn’t care if they won the football game or not, they were so excited to see Robert Redford.

DN: What about players’ wives and their need for fellowship?

PE: One of the things I feel best about is every fall (when LaVell was coaching) I would have a get-together for the players’ wives and I would tell them it’s a lot different being married to a football player than it is dating one. I said your big responsibility to your husband is to see that he graduates. I’d encourage them to form their own friendships with each other. Two of their husbands may be vying for the same position; well, let them vie on the football field but you keep your friendship alive. And you know, so many of those women are still really good friends with each other, and they’re my friends. So I would do that every year and that’s probably the best thing that I ever did.

DN: One of your outlets was writing a newspaper column. How did that come about?

PE: When I was at Utah State my major was journalism, so writing appealed to me. One year we were over at Colorado State for a game and at breakfast Marion Dunn, who was the sports editor at the (Provo) Daily Herald, was there with some Colorado writers. I said I should give you guys some competition. He said: “Really? Well write me an article, if I like it I’ll print it.” So I did, and he liked it and it was well received. I know I got the job because of LaVell, but I think I kept it because of me. I did that once a week for 10 years.

DN: It was also important to you to get your college degree?

PE: I had to finish. I was the only one in my family who hadn’t. One Sunday I remember the kids were all here and everyone was talking and they thought they were so smart. Monday morning I went down to BYU and registered. I graduated when I was 63 in American Studies.

DN: Ann is a writer, John is an orthopedic doctor and Jim is a lawyer. How were you able to raise such a well-rounded, well-adjusted family?

PE: I don’t know. I guess just lucky. The one thing that I think was a big help is LaVell was never completely football oriented in his family life. The foundation of a well-adjusted family really comes from him. He didn’t bring football home. Other things mattered. Museums were important, concerts, schoolwork, books, other interests. If you look around our home you don’t see any football mementos. They’re pretty well hidden. He never thought he was famous, and we never thought he was famous. So it was easy. The kids knew they were more important to LaVell than football, and I know I did. Because he was able to let us know that we were No. 1, we wanted him to know that he was No. 1 and we’d do everything we could to help him, and I think we did a pretty good job.

DN: Your most cherished memories (so far)?

PE: The relationships. And they’re not just memories, they’re ongoing. They weren’t relationships that were established because you thought they would be beneficial; they were established because it was a genuine situation. Those kind of relationships survive. I grieve with Sue Paterno, for example, and we keep in touch and I stay in contact with so many others I’ve made friends with through the years. You need to make good friends, that’s so important, and that’s what I most cherish.

Recommended
1. eastcoastcoug
Danbury, CT,
June 2, 2014

I loved this story. She is so well rounded and grounded in what matters in life besides football. I hope all who read this will be inspired to think beyond the petty stuff and remember that sports is really about people and families....and that there are far more important things in life than football and sports. Patti's story shows how she used football as a means to reach out and build up others. A great example!!

2. Monsieur le prof
Sandy, UT,
June 2, 2014

Thank you for this fascinating look into the football life of a legendary coach's wife. I hadn't realized that she had set up the football wives' association. Her kids are exceptional because she has such a level head and supported her husband.

3. Florwood
American Fork, UT,
June 2, 2014

What wonderful people. Thank you for being such great examples.

4. BleedCougarBlue
Enid, OK,
June 2, 2014

Awesome! GREAT story! I did not know she started an association for football coaches wives. I never thought about how lonely it would be for them with their husbands gone so often and them being (typically) perpetual nomads. She truly has made the most of her life.

And....I also think it's WAY cool that she determined to get a college degree and graduated in her 60s.

Well done, well done!

Cougar fans everywhere owe Lavell Edwards a massive debt of gratitude. He, more than anyone else, put BYU on the map and his quiet, humble wife was obviously his biggest supporter.

Thank you, Mrs. Edwards!

5. DEW Cougars
Sandy, UT,
June 2, 2014

Say hi to Jimmy for me. A good guy when we were in the same ward at BYU while he was playing football.

This famous Frwning Face and his folding arms. Is he smiling now after he retired?