Dennis Erickson Looks Back, To Look Ahead (Everett Herald, Feb. 24, 2008)

May 15, 2008

By Kirby Arnold, Everett Herald Writer (Feb. 24, 2008)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Outside Dennis Erickson's office window, Sun Devil Stadium reaches out like an invitation to college football paradise.

The view is spectacular from where Erickson sits above the south end zone, with 73,000 seats framing the sun-splashed field.

It's been 14 months since Erickson, a native of Everett, left Idaho to take over an ASU program that has long been considered a sleeping giant but needed a coach to wake it up.

With only a few weeks to put together his coaching staff and build a recruiting strategy, he scraped up a solid class of players in 2007 and followed it with a 10-victory season.

His second recruiting effort, completed early this month, was rated among the top 20 in the nation.

There's a renewed enthusiasm over the Sun Devils, attendance is up and so is fundraising. A new indoor practice facility is being built, eliminating not only the outdoor workouts on 115-degree summer days but also the recruiting target the program has always worn because of it.

And perhaps most important to the scenario is that Erickson, often remembered as much for the programs he has left behind as the victories he has brought them, wants to stay here forever.

'I've said that before, unfortunately,' he said.

Yes he has, and people at Washington State, Miami, Oregon State and Idaho will never forget.

But this time it's different, Erickson says.

He'll be 61 next month, and the 2008 season will be his 25th as a coach, including six in the NFL. He has reached a time in his life when he thinks about more than the next recruiting class or the next offseason meeting with his assistants on how to protect better against the blitz.

Erickson is able to reflect on what he has accomplished in his career, and he also thinks about his own mortality. Age does that, but so does the loss of people who were important in shaping who he is -- his father, his close friend in high school, his most influential coach.

'The older you get, you look back and then you look ahead, and you start counting those years up,' he said. 'When you're 40 it's a little different.

'Hopefully I can coach another 10 years. Maybe I can, maybe I can't. I like living here. I don't have anymore ladders to climb. I've pretty much done it all now.'

Dad isn't here anymore

Family is important to Erickson.

His wife Marilyn and his two sons, Bryce and Ryan, are with him here. Bryce is a graduate assistant who works with the ASU quarterbacks; Ryan is completing his education, and Dad doubts he'll become a coach.

'He's probably smarter than the rest of us,' Dennis Erickson says. 'I've got my son coaching for me and my youngest son is finishing up school here. We're all together and that's what's really fun about it.'

He talks fondly of his 84-year-old mother, Mary, who lives in Everett and works nearly every day at the jewelry store his sister owns on Colby Ave. He has two other sisters in the Everett area and the family gets together throughout the year, especially during football weekends.

Erickson also returns home when he can, especially in the summer when he can squeeze in a few rounds of golf with his old high school buddies at the Everett Golf and Country Club or at Legion Memorial golf course.

Still, there's an emptiness that tugs at Erickson every day.

It has been nearly four years since his father, Robert 'Pink' Erickson died at age 79. Pink was his assistant early in his career at Idaho and his advisor and confidant at the other stops -- Wyoming, Washington State, Miami, the Seahawks and Oregon State.

'It's a huge void,' he said. 'He was so important to every team I ever coached. I miss having the opportunity to talk to him. I used to talk to him after every game.'

Pink Erickson died during Dennis' second and final year with the San Francisco 49ers.

'He was pretty sick,' Erickson said. 'He probably didn't want to stay around and watch that fiasco. Maybe that's why he checked out. I don't blame him, I would have, too.'

Others close to Erickson are gone, too, and the losses hurt.

Former Everett High School basketball coach Norm Lowery died last August. Terry Ennis, the former Archbishop Murphy football coach who went to Everett High with Erickson, died of cancer in September.

'Terry was very close to me. He's older than me but we grew up together,' Erickson said. 'We used to spend a lot of time together and talked quite a bit when I was coaching college and he was coaching high schools. We all tried to hire him at times.'

Erickson considers Lowery one of the most influential people in his life.

'It was how he treated people, how he had fun coaching the game, how he dealt with you on a personal level,' he said. 'We were close to that family because my dad coached with him. Probably the most fun I ever had playing and being involved in sports was my senior year in basketball in 1965. We had a pretty good team -- lost a couple, three games. When we lost him, that was hard.'

About a month after Ennis died, Arizona State played at Washington, outscoring the Huskies 31-3 in the second half to win. The Sun Devils players, knowing their coach was hurting because of Ennis' death, gave him the game ball. In turn, Erickson gave it to the Ennis family.

'They're leaving us, unfortunately,' he said. 'I think the older you get, when you lose people like that, you realize that everybody's human and it's going to happen to you.'

Looking back

Erickson says it's easier for him to look back on what he has accomplished, but he still dwells on his mistakes more than his victories.

'That's the nature of being a human being,' he said. 'But I do look back at the successes.

'I look at my short time at Washington State, which was fun. I could have been there forever. Then the Miami thing just happened to come along. For a program like that to hire a coach from Washington State, that just doesn't happen.'

Of the national championships he has won and programs he has turned around, Washington State's victory at No. 1-ranked UCLA in 1988 is one of his greatest achievements. Just three unranked teams have beaten a No. 1 on the road since then.

'That was one of the biggest wins I've ever been involved in,' he said. 'I look at what we did in Miami in six years, we won a lot of football games, we won the national championship twice and played for it two other times. That's unprecedented anymore.'

He's proud of his four seasons coaching the Seattle Seahawks, when those teams went 31-33 from 1995-98. After going 8-8 his final season, the Hawks made a change, going with Mike Holmgren.

'I thought we did a good job there,' Erickson said. 'They had been 2-14 (in 1992) and we got it to where we were 8-8 and just right there, and the next year Holmgren wins the division.'

Back in the college game in 1999 at Oregon State, he turned a perennial Pac-10 doormat into a program of national prominence. The Beavers went 31-17 in four seasons, including 11-1 and a final No. 4 national ranking in 2000.

'Oregon State was a lot of fun,' he said. 'Then the dumbest move I ever made was going to the 49ers.'

He lasted just two years in his return to the NFL, going 7-9 and 2-14.

'That was idiotic,' he said. 'I just wanted to try the NFL again. It was an ego problem I had with trying to go to the Super Bowl.'

He swears the NFL is out of his system.

'Oh God yes,' he said. 'It should have been the first time.'

His return to Idaho in 2006 looked like a sweet bookend to his career. He signed a five-year contract at the school where his coaching career began in 1982. He stayed there 10 months.

The Arizona State job came open and the Sun Devils saw Erickson as a coach who could immediately create the enthusiasm -- and victories -- needed to elevate the program.

Idaho, naturally, felt jilted and angry. It rekindled the criticism that Erickson absorbed throughout his career when he left schools for better deals.

He says the comments don't bother him anymore.

'Most of them don't even know me, most of them don't have any idea what I'm about,' Erickson said. 'Probably the person who takes it worse than me is my mother when she reads it in the newspaper.

'People are going to have opinions, and that's just how it is. When you're in it as many years as I have and been as many places as I've been and made the mistakes that I have -- I'm not saying I haven't made a lot of mistakes, because I sure in hell have -- but you just can't worry about it.'

Still goals to achieve

For all Erickson has accomplished, there's one thing he wants badly at ASU, and it's not necessarily a national championship.

'I've never won the Pac-10 or been to the Rose Bowl,' he said. 'I've been to the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Cotton, and I'd like to get to that one before I retire or die.'

He's also closing on 200 victories, having pushed his total to 158 with the 10-3 record in his first year at ASU.

'I haven't thought about it a lot,' Erickson said. 'But God willing, I'll have enough time to do it. But it's not the most important thing in my life.'

What is important?

There's football, obviously, and the quest to elevate Arizona State's program to a consistently elite level. Last year was a huge first step, and this month the Sun Devils signed a promising class of recruits.

'I've never been big on all the (recruiting) ratings,' he said. 'We sure didn't do it on ratings at Oregon State or Washington State. Because of the season we had, we're getting into living rooms we haven't gotten into before. We beat a lot of good schools on some, lost some.'

This spring and summer will be Erickson's first chance to really unwind since he came to ASU.

'It's pretty much been a 'go' since then,' he said. 'It's been fundraising, recruiting, the football aspect of it. We've been getting a lot of things done that haven't been done around here. Part of that is the fundraising.

'This is really a great place. It's great weather, it's a big town. There are so many positives here and we've got to use them in recruiting. I feel like we can compete against most people.'

All that's left is for Erickson and his staff to put in the time and effort needed to produce a consistently prominent program. The challenge still motivates him.

'I probably have more energy now than I've had in a long time,' he said. 'It's fun to work with these young kids. I'm probably in a better state of mind than I've been in a long time. It proves that nobody's ever over the hill until they want to be.'

'This is a good place for me at this time in my life.'

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