For the first year since he started his career as a grad assistant in 1969, Dennis Erickson is preparing for a fall season that doesn't include coaching football.
Fired at Arizona State after five years at the end of the 2011 season, with one year left on his contract, Erickson and his wife, Marilyn, have spent the past few months relaxing at their home on Kidd Island Bay.
"Right now I'm just enjoying some relaxation time, and not doing very much - which for me is very hard," said Erickson, 65.
Erickson has a 179-96-1 record in 23 seasons as a college coach - at Idaho (1982-85), Wyoming (1986), Washington State (1987-88), Miami (1989-94), Oregon State (1999-2002), Idaho again (2006) and Arizona State (2007-11). He also is 40-56 in seven seasons as an NFL coach - with Seattle (1995-98) and San Francisco (2003-05).
He coached Miami to national championships in 1989 and '91.
He said he'd like to get back into coaching - preferably in college, most likely as a head coach.
"I'm going to obviously sit this year out - not by choice - and see what happens next year," Erickson said. "And if there is something out there that I would be interested in, or somebody would be interested in me, then I would look at it."
Erickson was born in Everett, Wash., in 1947, and went on to play quarterback at Montana State.
He was a grad assistant at Montana State in 1969, head coach at Billings (Mont.) High in 1970, and was an assistant at Montana State, Idaho, Fresno State and San Jose State before getting his first college head coaching job in 1982 in Moscow.
Erickson touched on a number of topics in an interview with The Press last week.
When you came back to Idaho the second time, most people thought that was your last job, that you’re going to be here a while, and then you’re gone after a year. Do you ever look back and feel bad that you did that?
There’s no question that I felt bad that I did it. They gave me my first opportunity many years ago. When I came back, I had that opportunity at Arizona State, and just decided to take it. No real rhyme or reason, but there were a lot of things involved. There’s no question about it. It’s over and done with. I did what I did, some people forgive, some people won’t forgive. That’s the nature of the business. The people who have been my friends would understand. The naysayers are guys I wouldn’t even probably know, or don’t know me. ... and I understand exactly how they feel. But for me it was the right move. I had to do it.
When I took the job (at Idaho) I didn’t plan on leaving. I didn’t think an opportunity was going to come along like that.
And things change. When you go to a place once, and then you come back, it’s not quite like it was the first time you were there. The most fun I ever had coaching were the four years at Idaho (going 32-15 from 1982-85, when Idaho was a member of the Big Sky Conference). ... we had a great time — let ’er fly.
What should Idaho do now? The Western Athletic Conference is crumbling, and other conferences aren’t interested in the Vandals.
I feel for them. That’s an issue that’s been there for a while. I think (athletic director) Rob (Spear), President (Duane) Nellis, they’re going to make the right decision for the University of Idaho. I don’t know enough about what’s transpiring to even know. Because of the TV market they seem to be getting left out.
Should the Vandals try to remain in the Football Bowl Subdivision, or drop to the Football Championship Subdivision and rejoin the Big Sky?
I don’t know if there’s any right answer for that. I think as a coach I’d want to go where I could win a lot of games (laughs). They’ve got to do what’s best for them. I just don’t know enough about it financially, what they can and can’t do. ... Rob’s done a great job there in a tough situation. So they’ll do the right thing — I don’t know if the right thing is right for everybody. Some will like it, some won’t.
The playoff’s there. You knew it was going to happen 10 years ago. It just took them a long time to do it. I’ve always wondered, why don’t you have a playoff, and keep the bowls intact so that schools in the other conferences that aren’t going to be in that playoff have a reward at the end of the season. What I do think a playoff will do financially, it will help all those other schools, if they do it correctly, because they’ll make a lot of money on that TV (deal). It can’t just go to those big conference schools, it’s got to be divided among people in the WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, to keep their programs going.
What do you think about all this conference shuffling?
It’s all money. That’s why they realigned. Look at the Pac-12 TV contract they signed a year ago. That’s worth 20-some million to each school that they didn’t have before. Down at Washington State, they’re going to do a lot of things as far as facilities are concerned —things they would never be able to do (without the TV money). It’s going to help everybody, but it’s going to help a Washington State, an Oregon State, Arizona State, some of those schools that aren’t making quite as much money as the others.
That’s why everybody’s realigning. That’s why teams are going to the Big East — they don’t know if the Big East is even going to be in the bowl alliance. So people are bailing — Boise goes there, San Diego State goes there. Boise had to do it, because it’s a tremendous football program. (Coach Chris) Petersen’s done a great job; the community of Boise has been unbelievable. They’ve got so many things going down there that now they want that opportunity to get into a national championship game, and the only way for them to do it is to get into one of those conferences. People jump at stuff, and they don’t really know what’s going to happen. Financially they (Boise State) are going to be way better off going to the Big East. And that’s part of the reason they went. And the other reason is they feel they have an opportunity to win a national championship, and I’ll tell you what — last year, I’m not so sure they couldn’t. (Boise State beat Arizona State 58-26 in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas last year, in Erickson’s final game at ASU). They were that good.
Do you like a four-team playoff, or should it be eight?
Four teams leaves guys out. Six teams probably leaves two teams out. Where do you stop? You’re always going to leave somebody out. So I think to start out with, it (four teams) is probably pretty good — better than what we have — and then they may tinker with it as time goes on. Because you know what happens the first time they name those four teams — there’ll be about three or four teams that are (ticked) off. So you won’t keep everybody happy. To me, I don’t think four’s the problem — it’s where the four come from. That’s why eight might be better — now you can take a second team (from a conference), or a team with one loss.
What do you think of what the Pac-12 has done under new commissioner Larry Scott, with the expansion and the huge TV contract?
He’s really been aggressive. When he came in, you could tell things were going to change. And he’s done a great job. He’s put the league out in the forefront nationally, and the TV contract that he negotiated was awesome. He’s done wonderful things. The Pac-12 Network (scheduled to begin this fall) that they have going will be interesting. The Pac-12 really jumped out, probably more so than any other league, trying to get better ... part of the realignment was caused by the Pac-12.
Talk about Cortez Kennedy, who you coached at Miami and with the Seahawks, and you plan to go to Canton to watch him get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.
Jimmy (Johnson) recruited him out of Northwest Mississippi Junior College. And his first year there, he didn’t play very much. But when we came in he just jumped out in the spring, and he had that great senior year. He’s one of the best that’s ever played the game at that position (defensive tackle). I got to be very close to him while he was at Miami and when I went to Seattle for those four years, and we’ve always kept in touch. Actually, he comes up here and does some hunting and fishing — Randy Mueller (former Seahawks general manager and a St. Maries native) and he are pretty good friends. That’s what it’s all about in our business, to see a guy go from where he is, and the things he’s fought through in his life, to be a Hall of Famer. You become a Hall of Famer because you’re a great player, but also because you’re a good person.
There’s a lot of talk these days, particularly in the NFL, about concussions. How were they handled when you were coaching in the league?
Concussions were never a factor 10 years ago. A guy would get his bell rung, he’d sit down, he’d go play. It was never a factor; you didn’t even think twice about it. You didn’t even think twice about it when you were a player. I remember, back in the 18th century when I played, you didn’t even know if you had one or not, you just kept playing.
Now, it’s for the protection of the players. The athletes are getting bigger and stronger, the equipment’s improved. And they do a good job of when they do happen, in college and in the NFL and high school, of making sure they take care of them. Guys will miss games (now). If they don’t pass that test, they don’t play.
If you stay away from the head, you’re OK. But it seems like now you can’t hit anybody. It’s a penalty every time you hit somebody. The game’s different now. One thing people don’t realize, and I realized it when I went from Miami to Seattle, went from probably the best college program to a pretty average NFL team, when the game started, there was a huge difference between college football and the National Football League as far as collisions, as far as speed of the game. If those guys are left out there by themselves and they get hit, there could be damage.
How much control do you, as a coach, have over putting players back in after they’ve had their bell rung?
You have no control over it as a coach. It’s between the doctor and the trainer. And you don’t want to be involved. (Ten years ago) there might have been people who had concussions that played the whole game. It wasn’t as big in those days. They’d put their fingers up and if you could see two you were OK.
Looking back, do you wish maybe more had been done about concussions during that time?
I don’t think we all knew about the seriousness of what happened afterward, with these guys in the NFL, and what’s happening now, because we didn’t have enough knowledge of what was going to happen when Jim McMahon was 50 years old. Nobody knew. And the player didn’t know either. They just kept playing, because they loved to play.
We recruited Junior (Seau)’s nephew, so I got to know him. What a nightmare that guy was (to play against). You had to know where he was on every play, because he might run through a gap he had no business running through to make the play. He was just a happy-go-lucky guy, and something like that happens (Seau died May 2 in an apparent suicide), it makes you wonder. It’s really kind of scary when you think about it.
You were in Miami during its heyday — can Miami be Miami again?
I think they will be — they won’t be the same Miami, because it was a different time. The six years I was there (from 1989-94) it was about the ‘U,’ it was about they played the game. And they had a chip on their shoulder. That’s when they had the riots down there, and they had a lot of pride in themselves and what they were doing for the city.
They’ll win because they have great athletes there and coach (Al) Golden is doing a nice job, but it’s different. I don’t think football will ever be like it was at the University of Miami. It was fun, I learned a lot about young people. They just wanted to be great, and they came from tough backgrounds, and football was their way of life. It was fun to watch them practice. I remember the first time I watched them practice, coming from Pullman, was a little different. We had the first practice in the spring, and I’m telling you what, I’d never seen anything like it. We couldn’t even scrimmage; they were killing each other. That’s how they practice.
But it was a great time in my life, those six years I was there. I thank Sam Jankovich (former Washington State AD, who was the Miami AD when Erickson was hired) for giving me that opportunity. If it wasn’t for him, I would have never gotten that opportunity.
It was enjoyable being around those players. They got a bad rap, really a bad rap. And I hear from those guys a lot, and 90 percent of them are very successful in what they do. And it’s kinda fun to see that; that’s what coaching is all about it — to see the success that those guys have had. Because you listen to people talk, it was like they were carrying machine guns, and they weren’t like that at all. They just liked playing football. They just played it a way that nobody was used to seeing.
When you say it was a different time then, what do you mean?
Then, they were trying to prove a point. When Howard (Schnellenberger) went in there (as Hurricanes coach in 1979), he wanted to keep everybody in Miami there. So then it became a point of, they wanted to play how they wanted to play. They celebrated, they danced, they did all those different things. They liked being the bad guys, and they really weren’t. But once they got that reputation they carried it on. And I had no problem with it either. We didn’t have a lot of troubles like people think. Now, things have changed. Now, there’s a little more discipline involved in all aspects of coaching, which it should be. It’s just changed a little bit.
How well do you know coach Mike Leach, and how will he do at Washington State?
I know him pretty well. I think he’ll do well. Mike came and visited us in Miami when he was an assistant for Hal Mumme at a small school. I spent some time with him at Texas Tech. Really a good guy, really ... interesting. Washington State got something that’s going to get people excited. He’ll score points, with those two quarterbacks that they’ve got, and Marquess Wilson, who I think is one of the best receivers in the country. They’ll score points, but in that league now, whoever plays defense is going to have a chance to win it. And I don’t even know who that is.
How would you sum up your time at Arizona State, where you went 31-31 in five seasons?
Some good, some bad. We went in there with a plan, and we had good success the first year, at 10-3. And then we lost all those players, so we brought a lot of young guys in. Going into our last year we felt it was going to be a good year for us. We go 6-2, beat SC, beat Missouri, beat Utah in Utah. And then, not to be making excuses, we got some guys hurt on defense. And then, to be honest with you, we had a four-game streak that I’ve never ever been around in my life. UCLA, then here (at Washington State, when Connor Halliday passed for 494 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-27 victory) ... it was a combination of we were making plays, getting turnovers to giving up plays and turning the ball over. In all the years I’ve coached, 40-some years, I’ve never seen anything like that happen. Ever. I think about it about every day, and I don’t know what happened. I wish I had the answer. And also, eventually, we didn’t win enough football games. They did what they felt they had to do. I’m disappointed that we weren’t successful, because we built to be successful, and we were there, and it didn’t happen. Certainly I would have liked to have gone out better and it didn’t happen, and there isn’t anything I can do about it. And now I look at the whole body of work, coaching wise, for 40 years, and it’s really been a lot of fun.
There’s the old saying that when you’re hired, you’re fired — they just haven’t filled in the date yet. From the outside, it’s easy for us to look at these firings as merely transactions. But for coaches, looking at it simply as a human being, how do you deal with getting fired?
I was thinking about writing a book called, “Eventually They’ll Get You.” Of course, nowadays they’re paying a lot of money, with the TV and everything ... that’s what it’s come to. The days of seeing Bobby (Bowden) and Joe (Paterno) and Frank Beamer at one school, those days are few and far between. Now it’s what have you done for me lately, and how fast are you going to do it. It creates a lot of pressure on coaches now. Back in the day it was like, let’s just go out there and coach, you never had to worry about that. ... I see these high school coaches that work their butts off ... and sometimes I wonder if that’s not the best way to go. ... It always hurts (getting fired), but you know eventually it’s going to happen.
What do you think of John L. Smith, who coached under you at Idaho in the 1980s, leaving Weber State after just a few months to go back to Arkansas (where he was an assistant) and take over as Razorbacks head coach in the wake of the Bobby Petrino firing?
I’m excited for him. It’s a great opportunity for him, and it’s the right thing for Arkansas to do. He was there with Petrino. John L. is very easy going, players like him, they’ll do a lot of things for him. So I know that transition, him having been there, was the best thing for them. And for John L. ... he left Weber, but you’ve got to look at the bottom line. Plus, they could win a national championship (at Arkansas) and he could have a job there for a long time. It’s almost like he’s on a tryout. I know he feels bad about leaving, but he did the right thing. And (Weber State) hired Jody Sears, a good young coach who played for me at Washington State. I’m excited to see him get an opportunity at Weber. So it kinda worked out well for a couple guys I’ve been around.
What do you remember about bringing in John Friesz from Coeur d’Alene High to Idaho?
I recruited John. Tall athlete, kind of like (Brock) Osweiler a little bit (Osweiler played for Erickson at Arizona State, leaving last year after his junior season, and was drafted in April by the Denver Broncos). We had him at camp (at the University of Idaho). So I had him there for a couple of years, and then Gilby (Keith Gilbertson) came in. Good athlete; could really throw it. And he was smart; great kid. And I had him in Seattle (where he came in as a free agent). He started for a couple of years, and then he got hurt. When John was in there, we were winning games.
(John was a) great leader. And not by talking a lot, just by his work ethic. He was quiet, but he took over the huddle. Taking over the huddle at Idaho is one thing; he took over the huddle in Seattle.
When coaches are being rumored for other jobs, they’ll often say they’re not going anywhere — then they’re introduced a week later at their new school. How hard is it not to let on to the media what you know is likely going to happen next?
Yeah, most of the time (you know), but there’s a lot of time you don’t, because you haven’t made your decision. I don’t think that really started happening until 10, 15 years ago, when the press got involved in everything that was transpiring. Before that there was never any talk about it. It’s hard. You can’t please everybody. You feel bad about doing it, but then again you have to look and see what’s best for you.
That’s why (coaches) don’t return calls, because they don’t want to sit there lying to you about it, but yet, they can’t tell you. It’s a hard situation. Leaving players is the hardest part of it. And it’s worse now than it’s ever been. But then they’re firing coaches pretty fast, too. So, sometimes, coaches in general, at the end of 2-3 years if you’re not winning games they’re going to fire you, so the loyalty of loyalty is what?