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Arizona State Rolls the Dice with Dennis Erickson


This article originally appeared in Athlon's 2007 College Football annual.

This is Dennis Erickson:

He won two national championships at the University of Miami.

He led downtrodden Oregon State to an 11–1 season capped off by a 41–9 rout of Notre Dame in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl.

He’s the all-time winningest coach in University of Idaho history, he guided Washington State to its first bowl victory since 1931, and his record in the college ranks is a gaudy 148–65–1.

This, too, is Dennis Erickson: His 1987 WSU team had a 1.94 grade-point average when it won the Aloha Bowl. During his six-year tenure at Miami, players fraudulently received more than $200,000 in Pell Grant money.

The Hurricanes were slapped with multiple rules violations that resulted in the loss of 31 scholarships and a one-year ban on postseason play. The NCAA also found that Erickson allowed three players who failed drug tests to play in games.

Miami’s 46–3 drubbing of Texas in the 1991 Cotton Bowl was tainted by the Hurricanes’ nine personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, leading Miami president Edward Foote to say it was “an unfortunate end to an otherwise outstanding season.”

Arizona State researched the good and the bad before it hired Erickson last December.

Its verdict?

“I feel comfortable with who this man is,” says Lisa Love, ASU’s vice president of athletics.

It’s easy to understand why the Sun Devils hired Erickson. They were perennial underachievers under coach Dirk Koetter, fashioning a 40–34 record in his six seasons in Tempe and never finishing higher than third in the Pac-10 Conference.

In addition, Koetter was 0–12 in Pac-10 games played in California, 21–28 overall in conference play and 2–19 against top-25 teams.

Erickson, 60, should change all that. He’s won wherever he’s coached in college, with the exception of his one-year stint at Idaho in 2006, and the Sun Devils expect nothing less.

“This is not a guessing game,” Love says. “This is not a roll of the dice. His track record is extraordinary. He is not only a big-game coach. He is a big-season coach. And he is a program builder, which is what we are seeking. We are not seeking a success on one great game day; we’re seeking a great season, and then a repeat.”

UTEP coach Mike Price, a friend of Erickson’s since high school, says: “Wherever Dennis goes, he fits right in immediately. He won’t have to start from scratch at ASU. He’s got good coaches and a good plan, and he’ll put it to use. I’m excited for ASU. It will be a lot of fun with him there.”
The Sun Devils could use a little fun.

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“I don’t think our team had a personality (last year),” says quarterback Rudy Carpenter. “We didn’t play with a swagger or attitude. It was a little suppressed.”

That won’t happen under Erickson, who signed a five-year, $5.6 million contract. He’ll want his players to be intense, outgoing and vocal. His Miami and Oregon State clubs weren’t wallflowers, and ASU won’t be either.

Erickson’s players appreciate the freedom and, in turn, are fiercely loyal to him.

Former Oregon State and current Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson once said, “If I was 90 years old and he recruited me, I would play for him.”
In the days leading up to the 2006 Hawaii Bowl, Koetter said it would be difficult for any coach to consistently win in Tempe. “The thing is — and I was guilty of this — a lot of people look at ASU on the outside and have a perception of what Arizona State is. That’s not what it is,” said Koetter, declining to be more specific. “The only way to know that is to go on the inside. Arizona State is not what it is perceived to be on the outside. It really isn’t. That’s been proven.”

ASU has been to two Rose Bowls (1986 season, 1996 season) in its 28 years in the Pac-10. Since 1986, it’s won more than seven games in a season just four times.

Erickson, however, doesn’t believe the Sun Devils have to be trapped in a spin cycle of mediocrity. “I’ve always felt, from the outside looking in, that ASU is a place where you have an opportunity to win a Pac-10 championship and compete nationally,” he says. “This job opened at the right time. It’s an opportunity for me and my coaches to get back in the Pac-10 and get to a Rose Bowl, which is the only big bowl I haven’t been to.”

“Dennis’ message has been clear ever since we got here,” says offensive line coach Gregg Smith, an assistant to Erickson at every coaching stop since 1982. “He wants ASU to not be satisfied with seven-win seasons or lower-tier bowls. … When things look impossible, Dennis will sit you down and show you the light at the end of the tunnel. And he’ll get you there.”

It helps to have two championship rings to show off to the players. Getting the players’ attention won’t be an issue for Erickson. 

“Going in, they know we’ve been there and what we’ve done,” he says. “They have respect for that. They know that, if they listen to what we ask them to do, they have a chance to be successful. If you do these things and are accountable in all aspects of what we ask you to do, you will be successful.”

The question is, what price will ASU pay for those victories? Erickson’s hire, while greeted enthusiastically by boosters, was met with skepticism by the media and some fans. Sun Devil alums Dan and Barbara Driscoll showed up for Erickson’s introductory press conference holding a sign that said, “Erickson, Go Home … ASU Deserved Better.” They were upset Erickson left Idaho after only one season. 

“I’m amazed,” says Dan Driscoll, who grew up in Moscow, Idaho. “You trust what the guy says, and 10 months later, he’s gone.”

The second question at his press conference: “Coach, I was just wondering what the words commitment and loyalty mean to you?”

ASU officials bristle at the notion that in Erickson, they hired a man who runs a renegade program and has little regard for NCAA rules or on-field sportsmanship.

“He is a person of character,” says university president Michael Crow. “I was assuming a Barry Switzer-type, a cocky personality. He’s more professorial, a master coach. I became convinced in talking to him that, with the right support that we provide in academics and compliance that other programs might not have, he’ll be great.”

Erickson hasn’t ducked the hard questions, including queries about his DUI arrest in 1995. He will not admit the criticisms have any merit, though, particularly in regard to his teams’ lack of discipline. “You talk about discipline,” Erickson says. “I see it (undisciplined behavior) happen sometimes, but I don’t see that’s something that has happened regularly in Dennis Erickson’s program at all.”

Erickson has held nine head coaching jobs in the past 21 years: Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami, the Seattle Seahawks, Oregon State, the San Francisco 49ers, Idaho again and now ASU. He has been, by any measure, a coach always looking for the bigger job and the bigger paycheck. But that doesn’t bother ASU. 

“I personally hope that he is here for the long haul,” Love says. “If he’s not, we’ll go hire another great football coach.”

“I am here to build a program,” Erickson says. “If I do leave — and that may be 20 years down the road, I don’t know — it will be a very solid program that people will be proud of.”