Dennis Erickson is declaring his love again, and you have to laugh.
"Of course," Arizona State's coach says when asked if this is his retirement job. "I'm not very smart but I'm smart enough not to leave here."
|Erickson has a chance to twice win a national title in his first year at a school. (Getty Images)|
Erickson saying he's a long-timer at the desert paradise campus is a good thing until the next best thing comes along. Right? That fact is not only in his resume, it is in his DNA. Ask Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami, Oregon State and Idaho again. Throw in those NFL stops at Seattle and San Francisco, too.
Former Washington State head coach Jim Walden recently called Erickson the big elephant in the parade, because "you know after he's gone, there's going to be some cleanup."
Except that this time there might be no next best thing. Simple math and Father Time dictate there aren't that many jobs left to take. Erickson is 60 and maybe has done it all. Won national championships, coached in the NFL, recycled a career that, frankly, is bordering on Hall of Fame worthy; he is in the top 10 among active coaches with 156 wins.
It's hard to find a person to speak a cross word about him, except maybe Idaho where he stayed a year (surprise!) before coming to Arizona State. But who can blame him now? If coaching Arizona State to a 7-0 record in the first season is his idea of a retirement job, then bring it on. The Sun Devils will take a tie for the third-best start by a Pac-10 coach in his first year at a school.
Just remember this is Erickson's third Pac-10 school.
In a short amount of time, the Sun Devils have found themselves playing one of the biggest games in the country this week, against No. 18 Cal. The program is one of five undefeateds and one of the least talked about. Except in the desert, where Arizona State is off to its best start since the Rose Bowl season of 1996.
This should be no surprise. Erickson has always liked college better. It just took him a while -- well, two failed NFL jobs -- to figure it out.
He tried to "win the big, brass ring, which is impossible in that league. I should have been back (to college) a long time ago," Erickson said.
Before there were Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban taking their championship and ego to the NFL, there was Erickson. They came back to campus as humbly as Erickson. College is where he knows his stuff, where he is a legend. A legend who loves life off the field as well as on, but still a legend.
In his second year at Washington State, Erickson got the Cougars their first bowl win since 1931. Miami won national titles in two of his first three seasons. In his first year at Oregon State, the Beavers achieved their first winning record in 29 years. Two years later they finished fourth in the country and trounced Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
The man is pure charisma. Oregon State was $12.5 million in debt when he arrived. By the time he left three years later, the school had built a $12 million indoor facility and a stadium expansion was well under way.
"Dennis was like your next door neighbor that you wanted to go have a beer with," said one Miami insider from the 1990s. "(Former coach) Jimmy Johnson had sort of an inner circle that he was close with. Dennis likes to be friends with everybody."
The only other active coaches with multiple national championships are Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll and Joe Paterno. Paterno and Carroll have had one college head-coaching job. Paterno has been the head man at Penn State since 1965. Bowden has been at his current position since 1976.
Meanwhile, America's Coaching Guest has had nine jobs since 1982. None of the above, though, have won national championships twice in their first year at a school, which Erickson could do if he takes Arizona State all the way this season.
ASU will be the fourth school he has led to a bowl game. Only Lou Holtz (five) has guided more teams in the top 20. There are 26 victories against ranked teams in a 13-year period.
All of it pales to Erickson being one of the fathers of the modern spread offense. How many people know that? It goes back to the 1970s when a high school coach named Jack Neumeier was running the prototype to today's modern offense at Granada Hills (Calif.) High School. His quarterback: John Elway.
Erickson was hired as offensive coordinator in 1979 at San Jose State. His boss: Elway's dad, Jack, who had studied Neumeier. Jack Elway and Erickson installed and refined the spread. On Nov. 1, 1980, the Spartans upset 10th-ranked Baylor 30-22 in what has become one of the seminal moments of college history.
That was the Baylor of All-American linebacker Mike Singletary that went on to win the Southwest Conference. That day the Bears were completely frustrated with Singletary out in a slot covering receivers in four- and five-man sets.
San Jose State's quarterback was Steve Clarkson, who went on to establish the Air 7 quarterback camp in Southern California. These days you're not elite if you're not invited to the Air 7 as a high schooler. Erickson is the godfather of Clarkson, who was baptized Catholic while in college.
|QB Rudy Carpenter has been a beneficiary of his coach's offense. (Getty Images)|
"It kind of kept growing when I left and went to Idaho (1982)," he said. "When I went to Washington State (1987) we were the only one-back team in the country. When I went to Miami (1989) they thought I was crazy. People are doing a lot of it now."
And it has come full circle. The spread is the pre-eminent offense of this decade, having come a long way from 1987 when Bo Schembechler called it a "trick 'em up" offense after a 44-18 victory against Erickson's Washington State team in 1987.
Full circle? Appalachian State took Erickson's old concepts and threw them back in the faces of Bo's old team earlier this season. Full circle? Last week, quarterback Jack Elway from Cherry Creek (Colo.) High School committed to Arizona State for 2008. That's the son of John, grandson of Jack.
Who knew the sleeping giant of Arizona State was going to wake up this quickly, coming complete with a Dirk Koetter-stocked team?
"He's a guy who I thought could take inferior talent and beat you," that Miami source said of Erickson. "He was a guy who always made his talent better with his scheming."
Erickson followed the familiar script in the desert. Install the spread, toughen the defense and play with that certain "edge." The edge that earned his Miami team 16 flags (for 202 yards) in a 43-point victory against Texas in the 1991 Cotton Bowl. It got his 2001 Fiesta Bowl champion Oregon State team flagged a school-record 18 times for 174 yards.
Erickson seems to accept that walking-the-line style of play as long as it produces aggressiveness. The Sun Devils are No. 11 nationally in penalty yards per game.
"They just play hard," Erickson said. "We let them play. Our penalties here, we haven't really had any late-hit type celebrations. On defense, you've got to play on the edge. You just have to make them understand the line. Nothing is done on purpose; that's just the way it is."
Which is a good way to sum up Erickson's nomadic ways: That's just the way it is.
For now, these Sun Devils reflect their coach and his career: Wide open, rambunctious, aggressive and, once again, chasing a national championship.
If Erickson sticks around, who knows, things could get even better.