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ASU’s football coach silences skeptics with his winning ways

March 27, 2019

Herm Edwards, Arizona State University’s football coach, has no auditory issues. Sounds come through loud and clear. What he does have is an aversion to noise. And the ability to mute it.

That’s a helpful trait considering the decibels cranked up when ASU hired Edwards in December 2017. He was 63, had never been a college head coach and had last been a National Football League head coach in 2008. Skeptics dismissed the hire as a "Jurassic Park" resurrection of a coaching dinosaur.

“I learned at an early age that you can never allow the perception of others to become your reality,” he said recently in an interview. “We control our destinies as individuals. You have to do your work. If I had not been an athlete, I would not have gone to college. Any voices, anything in my way of achieving what I wanted, didn’t matter.”

Besides, he proved the naysayers wrong, delivering a winning record in his first season.

“We believe we’re off to a good start,” said Ray Anderson, vice president for university athletics. “We believe that those who said we were crazy and couldn’t get it done, we believe that we have at least calmed their concerns … because we haven’t heard a lot from them recently.”

Edwards, 64, was hired because of fit — both the job and the job candidate. ASU President Michael M. Crow and Anderson, who came to the university in January 2014, decided the football program needed not only a new coach but a new philosophy.

“A lot of people are fearful of change,” Anderson said. “Especially when they don’t quite understand the reasons for it. As things progressed after I came on board, it became obvious that change was inevitable. It became clear we could not break out of mediocrity in the Pac-12. I give a lot of credit to President Crow for being willing to think outside the box.”

ASU football Coach Herm Edwards on the sideline during a game

Instead of taking a CEO approach to Sun Devil football, Herm Edwards has been actively in the mix as the head coach. The Sun Devils responded with a winning record in his first season. Photo by Peter Vander Stoep

Sun Devil football had become a way station instead of a destination. During Bruce Snyder’s nine seasons that ended in 2000, the Sun Devils were 13 games over .500 and appeared in the Rose Bowl after the 1996 season. The next three coaches lasted six, five and six seasons with records that hovered around .500. ASU, Crow and Anderson decided, was defining insanity — doing the same thing over and over in coaching hires but expecting a different result.

So, they came up with a new plan — a “New Leadership Model”  — bringing together management ideas and styles from the NFL, scaled to the college level.

“That’s one thing that really struck me is the fact that people didn’t realize, ‘Look, they don’t think they’re getting their results from what they’re doing, (so) they’re changing.’ What’s wrong with that?” said Edwards, who describes his time away from coaching and working in television as a sabbatical a professor would take.

The athletic department got to work. One savvy move was transparency. Numerous national media outlets were invited to observe Edwards and his new staff. That resulted in some positive coverage. A September upset of Michigan State, then ranked No. 15 in the nation, also helped.

“That’s the media’s job — they have to give an opinion,” Edwards said of the initial skepticism. “I would never take it personal.”

ASU’s new plan led to the perception that Edwards would be a “CEO coach,” spending practices perched in a tower overseeing his kingdom. That was disproved when Edwards, who played defensive back for 10 seasons in the NFL, did hands-on coaching with the Sun Devils’ secondary.

And, after returning home from a loss at San Diego State, Edwards went straight to his office to break down the loss. His analysis led to the Sun Devils changing their offensive emphasis to more running, a strategy that helped throughout the season.

Jean Boyd, the football team’s general manager, says Edwards disproved another false perception. He works hand-in-hand with Edwards so the football coach can make final decisions without being caught up in the minutiae of management.

“People were skeptical about his relatability to the kids we’re recruiting, but high marks for him in that area,” Boyd said. “In some of the areas we’re recruiting in California, to have an African-American man walk into an African-American home has been a multiplier. He can relate. He’s respectful and respectable.”

The day he was hired, Edwards walked through the administration offices and stopped to say hello and chat whenever he saw someone in their office. On the way to a weekly news conference, Edwards saw two custodians. He knew their names and stopped to ask one of them about a recent surgery.

ASU football Coach Herm Edwards and a player walk through the Tillman Tunnel

Coach Herm Edwards can relate to players 40 years younger than he is, says ASU football general manager Jean Boyd: "He's respectful and respectable." Here, he walks through the Tillman Tunnel at Sun Devil Stadium with wide receiver Kyle Williams. Photo by Peter Vander Stoep

“If I had never gotten another coaching job, I would have been fine, would have kept working in TV,” said Edwards, who sits in the back of the plane on team flights. “But I’ve always been competitive, and in the back of my mind I was always preparing if I got the chance to coach again. I saw this as a great fit.”

The Sun Devils finished 7-6 — the five regular-season losses were all by less than seven points — with an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl, changing the national perception of ASU football.

“Herm made fools out of a lot of us in the national media,” said Bruce Feldman, who covers college football for The Athletic. “He made some shrewd hires, especially on the defensive staff, and empowered his leaders, and they had a solid first season. There’s plenty of good young talent on this roster now, and the Pac-12 South is certainly up for grabs with USC backsliding so much and UCLA rebuilding.”

Written by Wendell Barnhouse. An award-winning journalist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 25 years, Barnhouse has covered 25 Final Fours and 15 college football national championship games. This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo by Peter Vander Stoep

 
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Forget balance

March 27, 2019

Instead, try these 5 ways to live in sync with your well-being

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at maybusch.com/asuthrive

I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I don’t believe in work-life balance. I agree that it’s important to have a life, and that it’s hard, because most of us have too many competing priorities and too little time.

May Busch

But I don’t believe in work-life balance because it’s an outdated and overrated concept that’s impossible to achieve for most of us. Instead, I focus on a feeling of well-being and of being “in sync” with yourself. This involves five aspects:

1. Being conscious

This is about knowing what you want, exercising your free will and making conscious decisions about how to spend your time and energy.

When we make conscious choices, we have an excellent chance for our actions to be in alignment with what truly matters to us.

For example, my family is hugely important to me, yet I used to keep my head down and work until the task was done, no matter how late I had to stay. Without realizing it, I got myself in a situation where I hadn’t had dinner with my family for months. And I only noticed when my husband got angry with me about it.

Then my boss sat me down and told me he was concerned about my working too much. He pretty much ordered me to leave the office in time to be home for dinner twice a week, and to come in late after taking the kids to school twice a month. I’m lucky to have had a great boss to help me become more conscious about my choices. If you don’t have a boss like I did, you must learn to do this for yourself.

You’ll be in alignment, which leaves no room for debilitating and draining emotions like worry and regret.

2. Oscillating through time

Recognize that you’re going to be going through different wave patterns during your day, your week, your year. In fact, that’s optimal rather than targeting a static level of balance and staying at that.

The former allows you to have the whole range of highs and lows, where the latter focuses on staying at a moderate level. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

For me, that meant being able to go all out on my business during a big three-week project, but then being able to take a break or a few days off to be with my family later in the month.

It’s about achieving your optimal mix of activities over a longer time horizon, rather than insisting on “balancing the books” every day or every week, which can drive you crazy.

3. Getting a dose of joy every day

When I was getting stressed out at work, my mother used to tell me to take a minivacation every day; just closing my eyes for two to five minutes and imagining myself in my favorite vacation spot. It really did make me feel better!

This is the same idea, only it’s about joy rather than peace.

Start by identifying those small simple things that make your heart sing and make sure you get some of it each day.

For me, it can be as simple as playing a favorite song at full blast, or dancing. These days, you can plug in your iPod equivalent and rock out for the length of a song pretty much anywhere. I was usually able to duck into a conference room, but if you can’t, then worst case, there’s always the facilities!

4. Reframing

This is about shifting your mindset to a more positive way of looking at whatever situation you’re in.

This is a variation on being conscious. You want to be in charge of the way you frame things so that issues become opportunities, and problems can have solutions.

This “inner game” can either drag us down or pull us up, depending on how well we can reframe things in an energizing way.

As an example, one thing that used to bother me was not being able to be at a performance or sports event for my three children, and not being home to send them to school or welcome them home after school.

Then my mother (who is a pediatrician) told me that this made our children independent. Not only was she right about that, it also made me feel more positive about my choices.

5. Stop over-optimizing

Sometimes we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by setting up too many constraints. Then it becomes stressful to try to optimize it all, and you end up feeling drained.

I remember trying to keep everyone happy simultaneously — my boss, team, husband, three kids and even the dog. Plus, living up to standards of home decoration, housekeeping and other social pressures. My own well-being wasn’t even on the list.

Some of the things I did in the name of satisfying people didn’t even matter to them, like folding the kids’ laundry or personally sewing their Halloween costumes when I had million-dollar deals going on at work. Or feeling like I had to attend every client meeting, even if it meant taking two red-eye flights back to back.

Over the years, my husband and I have been reducing the number of constraints by getting clear on what really matters to each of us, and culling the rest.

For example, we’ve called a “truce” on celebrating Valentine’s Day since neither of us cared that much about what is essentially a fabricated holiday. And we live with a messier house than either of us was brought up in.

So stop torturing yourself about work-life balance, and start focusing on having a feeling of well-being and living your life “in sync” with who you are and what really matters to you.

If that involves a big commitment in one area and less in another for now, go with it. You will keep oscillating and adjusting, because life isn’t static. It’s progressive.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Also visit Busch's blog at maybusch.com/blog for more ideas and inspiration.