Utah football: Coach Dennis Erickson is still looking forward
All those years ago, when the new guy walked into his initial meeting with his new team the Miami Hurricanes having replaced the stylishly plastic former coach, Jimmy Johnson, the first question one of his players lobbed at him was: "Coach, how much hairspray do you use?"
The room exploded in laughter.
Dennis Erickson was as likely to wear lipstick and mascara, pantyhose and culottes, as he was any kind of violet-scented spritz. It just wasn't him. The man wasn't even sure he owned a comb. He often wore a cap, and even then his hair looked like it was on some sort of prison break.
"There was always something sticking up and out of place," says Gregg Smith, Erickson's longtime assistant coach. "Jimmy took a lot of pride in looking good. Dennis is the opposite of that."
Appearances never really mattered, and Erickson knew it. The disheveled one hired out of the backcountry at Washington State could coach football and he proved it again during his subsequent time at Coral Gables, Fla., where he won two national championships and became a bright light to a suffering community before moving on to other adventures. That's just a quick hit along a vast coaching chronology that winds from coast to coast, from the Big Sky to the NFL, from the heights of his profession to its absolute nadirs and finally, to Utah.
This past week, the same coach, 22 years later, jumped out of his seat to fetch a thirsty visitor with a notepad and a recorder a Diet Coke. Erickson, now 66, decked out in a Utah sweatshirt and baggy blue jeans, is a man made for comfort, not for pretention. His office at the Ute football facility, with its barren gray walls and a few bits of furniture, gives no hint of his coaching accomplishments. The only glimpse of past glory is the rather large national championship ring he wears from his undefeated Miami team in 1991. Other than that, you'd think he was there to fix a plumbing problem.
Erickson carries himself easily and honestly, without the arrogance and insecurity that plague so many younger coaches who have achieved far less. He acts precisely like what he is: a coach who already has seen it all and now continues on simply because it's what he does best. It's what he wants to do. He's played enough golf including a round at Augusta National back in the day out of his home in Arizona. He's pulled enough trout out of the lake adjacent to his cabin in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"What else would I do?" he says.
It's more a statement than a question.
"I want to help this Utah program get to the Rose Bowl," he says. "That's what I want to do. I coach now for the love of the game. And for the relationships with the players. And for the winning."
As for the losing, he says: "It sucks."
Same as it ever did.
More in the tank
Just four days earlier, the Utes had had their trash kicked in by the USC Trojans at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, and Erickson's still feeling that loss. His offense, which he runs as coordinator in his first season under Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, was particularly inept. His quarterback, Travis Wilson, played hurt and played awful. The Utes gained a total of 201 yards, scoring just three points.
And the man Erickson blamed for the poor performance himself hadn't gotten any sound sleep at his apartment in Sugar House in the ensuing nights: "It's really true that losing hurts worse than winning feels good," he says. "When you win, you just get ready for the next game. When you lose, it eats you up. But â¦"
"â¦ I still love it. We're not that far away here. We aren't. We're close."
Erickson has been coaching football for 44 years. He's been far away. He's been close. He's been flat-out on it. And not necessarily in that order. He surprised some football people when he took Whittingham's offer to assist at Utah, a struggling startup trying to find its way in the Pac-12. But since his recent firing as head coach at Arizona State, Erickson decided he had more football in him.
"My whole life has been football, football, football," he says.
One tough kid
Erickson grew up the son of a high school coach in Ferndale and Everett, Wash. He played schoolboy football, basketball, baseball and track. He was a pole-vaulter because that's what his dad, Robert, did. He also worked in a mill pulling lumber and on the docks loading ships enough to know he did not want to do either for a living.
"I wanted to be like my dad," he says. "I wanted to be a high school coach."
En route to that goal, Erickson played quarterback at Montana State for legendary coach Jim Sweeney from 1966-68. Years later, at Robert "Pinky" Erickson's funeral, Sweeney paid the younger Erickson a large compliment according to Keith Gilbertson, who grew up with Dennis and later coached with him.
Says Gilbertson: "Jim said Dennis Erickson was the toughest football player he ever coached. Now, Jim Sweeney coached a lot of tough players. That's a great compliment."
The toughness factor is significant and of interest now because of Erickson's frame of reference for his own players, including, say, Wilson. Wilson played in the USC loss despite a sprained finger on his throwing hand, which some say should have benched him. Here's what Erickson says about sitting out when he was a quarterback: "You didn't miss games unless you couldn't walk. It was unheard of not to play."
Erickson started coaching as a graduate assistant at Montana State, then was head coach at a Billings, Mont., high school. He returned to MSU as an assistant, then became Idaho's offensive coordinator in 1974. He later coordinated Sweeney's offense at Fresno State and Jack Elway's offense at San Jose State, where they developed their version of the spread offense. He became a candidate for the head-coaching job at Weber State, but wasn't hired.
"In '79, '80, '81, we were doing the spread, no backs, four wides, early motion," Erickson says. "Everything everybody's doing now. Everybody thinks they invented that offense. We were doing it back in '79. Everything in football has been around ... We're all copycats ... We did it back then because everywhere I coached, we had less talent than the teams we played. "
Until he got to Miami.
Before he landed with the 'Canes, Erickson blew through a remarkable head-coaching trajectory, from Idaho to Wyoming to Washington State, helping turn around programs that hadn't seen much previous success. Over that span, he soaked in all kinds of information from other coaches and boiled down the points most applicable to his version of winning.
"I met Bear Bryant once," he says. "I bowed. The guy was god."
Unlike Bryant, who made his name at one or two schools, Erickson was a rocket to ride at multiple locations. He bounced from Miami to the Seattle Seahawks to Oregon State to the San Francisco 49ers to Idaho to Arizona State and now to Utah.
"Leaving some of those places as quickly as I did, I regret that," he says. "In my mind, I was thinking, right or wrong, that it was about going to a place where you had a chance to be the best at your profession. â¦ It was about expanding opportunity. Looking back now, maybe I could have been happy staying where I was. Talking to players when you're leaving them behind is the hardest thing to do."
Catalyst for a community
Erickson was hired at Miami through the influence of his friend Sam Jankovich, the school's athletic director who previously had worked at Montana State and Washington State. "Usually, Miami wouldn't have hired Dennis Erickson from Washington State," Erickson says. "But Sam knew me and trusted me. I might have been happy to stay in Pullman for the rest of my life, but at Miami, I had a chance to win everything."
Over a ridiculous stretch in south Florida, Erickson did exactly that. He won the aforementioned two national championships and nearly won a third; he compiled a record of 63-9. The 1991 title was particularly memorable for the coach because that following year, Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 monster, devastated the region, destroying thousands of homes and hundreds of neighborhoods, including Erickson's.
"My house was gone," he says. "Everything was gone. We had to practice at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. The team, the success of the team, was kind of a catalyst in helping Miami get through that."
NFL comes calling
What wasn't a light on a hill was an ensuing scandal at Miami after investigators discovered the Hurricanes had broken NCAA rules on Pell Grants. The program was put on probation after Erickson took the head-coaching job in Seattle.
"Somebody in our department took advantage of that situation," he says. "We had no idea what was going on. ... It was different back then. You had a lot of hats to wear, like the CEO of a corporation, and you had 85 kids going through a lot of things in their lives. It was hard to keep track of everything."
With some of his winning at Miami ebbing a bit, Erickson listened when the Seahawks came calling, although he earlier had turned down the Broncos and the Eagles.
"I grew up there," he says. "It was my hometown team. I knew eventually I had to try the NFL. But I didn't really look at the franchise that closely."
He should have.
"It was his dream job," says Smith, who coached under Erickson for the better part of three decades. "But the ownership deal, it was tough."
Challenges onand off the field
The owner who hired Erickson didn't have enough money and a few seasons later, by the time billionaire Paul Allen bought the club, the head coach suspected he was toast. He was right. Although Erickson had made his way through .500 seasons, and his final year, nearly made the playoffs, he was fired.
His return to the Northwest also was challenging in other ways. In April 1995, Erickson was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. The Seahawks coach was ordered to undergo counseling and join Alcoholics Anonymous for two years.
"It was just a mistake I made many years ago," he says. "It was dumb and stupid and embarrassing. But it was a long time ago."
In January 1999, Erickson returned to college coaching at Oregon State, where he transformed the Beavers into an impressive outfit, losing just one game in 2000 and sharing the Pac-10 title. That postseason, OSU crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Erickson considers it a career highlight. He also regrets his decision to leave, calling it "the biggest mistake I ever made." He took the 49ers' job in 2003, where salary-cap and ownership troubles plagued that proud club and he was let go after two seasons.
"I had good people to work with but if there's any split, if everyone doesn't work together, it doesn't work in the NFL," Erickson says. "It's a fast-food world now. 'How fast can you get that burger ready for me?' I guess I couldn't get it ready fast enough. I was told we'd all sit in the foxhole together. At the end, I was the only guy in the foxhole."
An Arizona State collapse
He returned to coach Idaho for a season before being hired at Arizona State, which set up and led to initial success, but eventually took him to one of his greatest disappointments. He led the Sun Devils to a 10-2 regular-season record before losing in the Holiday Bowl. He was named Pac-10 coach of the year. Thereafter, he dragged through seasons of 5-7, 4-8, 6-6 and 6-7. In that final season, ASU started 6-2, then failed to win another game.
After that last collapse, Erickson was fired. "I don't know what happened there. I still think about that every night," he says. "I was disappointed in myself, not being able to do what we could have done. We had some good players."
Says Smith: "It just seemed like the wheels fell off our football team. â¦ That hurt him."
Still looking ahead
Erickson thought that might be the coaching end for him. But then Whittingham called after the 2012 season, asking if he'd be interested in "organizing" the Ute offense. "I missed football," he says. "I missed the players. I wanted to get back in it."
With Erickson's wife, Marilyn, spending most of her time in Idaho and his sons grown Bryce coaches at Idaho and Ryan manages a sports bar in Tempe, Ariz. he packed up and moved to Sugar House. Now, Erickson is plowing through what he believes will be his last football challenge: get Utah winning in the Pac-12.
"There are some great coaches here. Maybe they were just trying to do too many things," he says. "Hopefully, I can calm things down. I think I can help win in this league. I've been around it a long time."
Despite the losses over the past two games at Arizona and USC and the abysmal offensive showing, Erickson insists the Utes are nobody's lost cause. "We've had some ups and downs," he says. "But we're close. We're not that far away from turning this thing. It's my responsibility. [The offense] starts with me. We'll get it straight. I like the future of this program. "
As for Wilson, Erickson says the sophomore quarterback is a big-time talent, the right QB for his offense: "He's going to be a great player. He's young. His injury set him back but he's tough. I think he'll be a top-five Pac-12 quarterback. He's just going through growing pains. We're all going through growing pains."
Erickson's had 44 years of them.
From those undulations, the old coach says he's learned one prevailing lesson:
"You get knocked down, you better get your butt back up. I've told my players that for years. You look forward. You always look forward. So, that's what I'm doing myself."
A long and winding career
Dennis Erickson's coaching time line:
2013-present • Utah, co-offensive coordinator
2007-11 • Arizona State, head coach
2006 • Idaho, head coach
2003-05 • San Francisco 49ers, head coach
1999-2002 • Oregon State, head coach
1995-98 • Seattle Seahawks, head coach
1989-94 • Miami (Fla.), head coach
1987-88 • Washington State, head coach
1986 • Wyoming, head coach
1982-85 • Idaho, head coach
1979-81 • San Jose State, offensive coordinator
1976-78 • Fresno State, offensive coordinator
1974-75 • Idaho, offensive coordinator
1971-73 • Montana State, running backs
1970 • Billings High School (Mont.), head coach
1969 • Montana State, graduate assistant