New York Jets coach Herman Edwards became only the fifth African-American leader of a National Football League (NFL) franchise when he took over as head coach in 2001. Known for his calm coaching style, Edwards has been hailed as a new generation of coaches who bring a leadership ethos culled from the business management theories to professional sports.
Born in 1954 in Monmouth, New Jersey, Edwards grew up in Seaside, California, a coastal community near Monterey. His parents were an interracial couple at a time when such unions were rare and even illegal in some American states. They had met in Germany, where Edwards's African-American father had been stationed while in the U.S. Army. Back in civilian clothes, his father worked as a construction supervisor in the Seaside area, while Edwards devoted himself to football from an early age. He was an outstanding athlete at Monterey High School, and went on to play for Monterey Peninsula College. Eventually he transferred to San Diego State University, where he earned a degree in criminal justice in 1975. Bypassed in the NFL draft pick, he was signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1977.
Edwards arrived at the Eagles' training camp along with 20 other rookies hoping for a defensive-back slot on the team. Advancing far past the others, he won a rookie starting spot and was signed to the team, then under the helm of legendary coach Dick Vermeil. Edwards went on to a 135-straight game record as a starter, with 38 career interceptions. He also entered the annals of football legend during the last 30 seconds of a 1978 Eagles game against the New York Giants played at the Meadowlands, the Giants' home field. Edwards picked up a fumble from Joe Pisarcik and made the touchdown that won the game. He was hailed in the press as the "Miracle of the Meadowlands," a nickname that would regularly be invoked again when he took over the Jets, whose home field was also at Meadowlands.
Edwards spent a decade on the NFL player roster, nine of those years with the Eagles. When he was cut during his tenth season, he went on to positions with the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons before realizing it was time to retire. "I decided as a player it was better to move on because I didn't want to hinder the opportunity of the younger guy," he told New York Timeswriter Judy Battista. "There's this little window of opportunity. Before you move on, you've got to set a standard for the next person. I always knew my limitations. But I always knew my strengths. You play the cards you're dealt. In life, you get four cards. You've got to play them. God doesn't deal bad hands."
Edwards moved on to training that next generation, taking a coaching job with San Jose State University in 1987. Hired by the Kansas City Chiefs three years later, he served as a scout and then a defensive coach for the team. In 1996 he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as assistant head coach and defensive backfield coach, thanks in part to head coach Tony Dungy, an old friend. Edwards and Dungy met at the 1974 Hula Bowl game during their college careers and had remained close over the years. Dungy was, at the time, the NFL's only black head coach, and Edwards later credited his friend with teaching him much about the art of leading a group of well-compensated, overly feted, and physically imposing players. "Watching him work and watching him earn the respect of the players, I realized you didn't have to be boisterous and you didn't have to holler," Edwards told Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Paul Domowitch.
Edwards gained a reputation with the Bucs as a skilled manager of players with impressive motivational skills, and was predicted to one day hold a head-coach job himself. That day came a bit more quickly than expected, when the Jets announced in January of 2001 that Edwards would succeed the retiring coach, Bill Parcells. Some of the credit may have come from another longstanding association that Edwards enjoyed, this one with new Jets general manager Terry Bradway, whom he knew from his Kansas City days.
Edwards became only the fifth African American head coach in NFL history, joining a roster that included Dungy and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings by then. He was also the first black to coach a pro football team in New York. In recent years, Dungy and others had spoken out about the dearth of coaching positions held by minorities in the league, in an era when nearly 70 percent of the players were African American. NFL brass had recently taken measures to remedy the imbalance, but pundits conceded that despite the political significance of the offer, Edwards seemed to have won the job because of his impressive record with the Bucs.
Edwards enjoyed a terrific first season, with the Jets finishing with ten wins and six losses, and he became the tenth rookie head coach in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs. But the Jets have checkered history and are known for their spotty years combined with playoff-berth seasons, and had not even appeared in a Super Bowl since their 1969 win. They finished the 2002 season with a record of nine-wins, seven-losses, but sank to a record of six-wins and ten-losses in 2003 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since Edwards took over. The team enjoyed a much better season in 2004, finishing with ten wins and six losses.
Edwards earns $850,000 a year, but puts in a long, intense day during the football season. One of the final duties of what often turn out to be 15-hour days is making calls to the team trainer. "The trainers and the equipment guys—they know more about the team than half the coaches," Edwards explained to Newsweek writer Devin Gordon. "The players see them as men, not as coaches. So they hear how the team's doing. Are they tired? Are they happy?" The team's star quarterback, Chad Pennington, who helped lead the team to that impressive 2004 season after coming back from a wrist injury a year earlier, was one of Edwards's biggest fans. "You'll never see Coach Edwards tight or nervous on the sideline," Pennington told Sports Illustrated 's Michael Silver. "He has confidence in our preparation and enjoys watching his players perform. That's why he's so calm."
At a Glance...
Born on April 27, 1954, in Monmouth, NJ; son of Herman Edwards Sr. (a U.S. Army sergeant and construction foreman); married second wife, Lia, 2000; children: (first marriage) Marcus. Education: Attended Monterey Peninsula College, 1970s; San Diego State University, BA, criminal justice, 1975.
Career: Philadelphia Eagles, professional football player, 1977-86; Los Angeles Rams, professional football player, late 1980s; Atlanta Falcons, professional football player, late 1980s; San Jose State University football team, coaching staff, 1987-90; Kansas City Chiefs, talent scout and defensive backs coach, 1990-95; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, assistant head coach, 1996-2001; New York Jets, head coach, 2001–.
Addresses: Office— c/o New York Jets, 1000 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550-1099.
Ebony, December 2003, p. 82.
Newsweek, September 2, 2002, p. 48.
New York Daily News, January 19, 2001; January 4, 2003.
New York Post, January 19, 2001, p. 100.
New York Times, January 18, 2001, p. D1; January 21, 2001, p. 3; December 1, 2003, p. D2; January 14, 2005, p. D4.
Philadelphia Daily News, August 28, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, October 25, 2004, p. 52.
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