Dennis Erickson is Happy at Arizona State
May 9, 2007
For nearly 25 years, Dennis Erickson has approached his career the same way that he teaches his quarterbacks to approach the line of scrimmage: See what’s before you and make the best call. The rest will take care of itself.
“I guess the plus or the minus of my career is that I just kind of played on the day and the time and the season and never worried about the next week much,” Erickson said.
That’s the thing. The most complicated part of Erickson is his résumé. He is a titan in his sport without a titan’s ego. As he walked out of his office at Arizona State recently, wearing the Official Erickson Office Garb – golf shirt, khaki shorts – it counted as an upset that he wore sandals.
Usually, he’s barefoot.
Erickson’s approach to football has been simple: win, push, climb. By and large, Erickson’s focus has served him well. He won at schools in the middle of nowhere (Wyoming, Washington State, Oregon State) and in the middle of the mother lode of football talent (Miami). His teams at Miami and Oregon State developed reputations for rough play. Erickson pretty much shrugged it off. Always, he pushed. Nearly always, he won.
In 18 seasons since 1982, Erickson has won 148 games, 11th among active Division I coaches, and two national championships, same as Bobby Bowden of Florida State, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Pete Carroll of USC. Those men became institutions at their respective schools.
Erickson continues to coach as if he has a U-Haul attached to his dealer-donated car. “Sometimes I think back,” Erickson said. “If I had stayed there [Miami], shoot, who knows what would have happened over the years? But no, I didn’t.”
No, he didn’t. He stayed at Miami six seasons, which is two seasons longer than he has stayed anywhere else in a career that began in 1969. Once he left a collegiate head coaching job after two seasons. Twice he left a collegiate head coaching job after one season, including last December when, 10 months after his triumphant return to Idaho – the school where his collegiate head coaching career began in 1982 – Erickson left to replace Dirk Koetter at Arizona State. It is, Erickson says, his last stop, and the snickers in Idaho echo the length of the Rocky Mountains.
The Sun Devils’ players say their new coach demands accountability, and the people in the Pacific Northwest do a collective spit-take. Accountable? By now, they say, it should be clear that Erickson stows his gear in a carpet bag. “There’s no question in my career that I regret some of the moves that I made,” Erickson said. “There’s not anything I can do about it. I do think I’ve left something positive at every place that I’ve left. I guess I look at it from the other side than some people would. I’ve got to.”
Erickson is not a reflective man. He turned 60 years of age at the end of the first week of the Sun Devils’ spring practice. Erickson resisted a couple of requests that he look back instead of forward. Once he agreed, however, Erickson judged himself with the same cold eye that he applies to football talent.
On leaving Idaho for Arizona State: “I didn’t think this kind of opportunity would come about. I wanted to coach and I could have been happy coaching there. I really gave them an idea of what they needed to do to get that thing going in the right direction, in fundraising and some of the things they needed to do facility-wise. “Was the timing right? No. Were there people upset? Yes. I think I left them something, made it better than it was before I got there. My timing hasn’t been good at times. It’s not done purposely. Did I want to leave Washington State after two years [1987-88]? No, but I mean, golly.”
Golly, as in Erickson left the Palouse for Miami, where he won two national championships in three years (1989, 1991). The Hurricanes played for a third in 1992. Say this about Erickson’s peripatetic nature – he might live in mortal fear of a 15-year mortgage, but every job he has taken has been a step up the ladder. There have been no lateral moves, no power struggles where he left in a huff. Erickson went from Idaho (I-AA) to Wyoming (I-A) to Washington State (Pac-10) to Miami (top five) to Seattle (NFL). After the Seahawks fired him, Erickson returned to the Pac-10 at Oregon State, where he led the Beavers to their only BCS game, a 41-9 rout of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. The Beavers finished 11-1 and No. 4 in the nation. After that game, both USC and Arizona State made a run at Erickson.
And you know what? Mr. Grass Is Always Greener didn’t leave. He stayed in Corvallis, turning down two schools with more of the resources necessary to finish No. 1.
“I always think you can win a national championship wherever you’re at,” Erickson said. “To me, we were close that year. If you come that close, you feel you can do that.” Three years later, Erickson left again for the NFL. He succumbed to the lure of the San Francisco 49ers in order to redeem his mediocre record in Seattle and prove he could get to the Super Bowl.
“Naive,” Erickson calls himself now. “I guess my ego got in the way.” Because of salary-cap problems that Erickson would have seen if he had bothered to look, Erickson lost the core of his team after the first season. After going 2-14 in his second season, the Niners fired him. “Of all the moves I’ve made, going to San Francisco [and] leaving Oregon State was the worst,” Erickson said. “That was – that was stupid. Other than that, as I look through it, I don’t know that I would have done any[thing] different.”
Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love hired Erickson in part because he has failed. “He has said that in many of the occurrences of his life that he’s experienced great growth,” Love said. “He uses the word humbled.” Love paused for a moment. “If you capitalize on those experiences, you become an even better teacher of 20-year-olds, in football and in life.” Since Arizona State is Erickson’s eighth head coaching job since 1982, his pronouncement that he has found a home comes with a grain of salt at no extra charge.
“I can sit back now,” Erickson said, “and look back at some of these things now and probably evaluate a little better and smell the roses a little bit more. But this is really going to be fun because this is a great opportunity to have success. People are dying for it around here. That’s what’s fun about it, and so are the players. This is a good way to end my career. It really is.”
Before you arch your eyebrow just so, consider that Erickson might be telling the truth. At Arizona State, Erickson has just about everything a coach could want: modern football offices, an indoor practice facility on the way and at least 43,000 season-ticket holders who remain rabid despite a total of two Pac-10 championships in 29 seasons. He might have to recruit against USC’s Carroll, considered unstoppable in the living room, but Erickson brings to Tempe the eye for assessing talent that found receivers Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tailbacks Kenny Simonton and Steven Jackson at Oregon State and turned them into stars.
Erickson has already begun to recruit in Florida again, even as he tries to adjust to what recruiting means in the modern day. He interrupted an interview to talk to a recruit from the Sunshine State, and then apologized. “I’ve never recruited in March before,” he said, shaking his head.
The rules change, the game evolves, and 60-year-old Dennis Erickson believes his focus is as sharp as ever. “I don’t feel any different than when I was 50,” he said. “I’ve got much more energy than I had when I went to Oregon State [in 1999]. I just feel like I do. Maybe that’s because I’m a couple of years [removed] from getting drained out in the NFL. The only years I’ve ever gotten drained out in football were the six years I spent in the Not For Long league. I’d probably live until I was 120 if I hadn’t spent six years there.”
Erickson is happy. He is back in college football, relevant again after five years away. Maybe, just maybe, he can unhitch the U-Haul from his car.