Erickson, Sun Devils looking to win over skeptics

If conversation lags at the next cocktail party, and you find yourself among a gaggle of college football fans, here's a way to get tongues wagging.

Ask folks what they think of Dennis Erickson.

Everyone has an opinion on Arizona State's first-year coach, whose 3-0 Sun Devils face their first real test Saturday when Oregon State comes to Tempe.

On the one hand, there are national championships and program resurrections. On the other is NFL failure.

What about the mess of NCAA violations he left behind at Miami in 1994? Or the strutting, lawless, undisciplined teams?

Sure, but the guy is one of the game's great offensive innovators, one of the first to use four and five receivers to spread out defenses. Teams might still be running the snore-inducing wishbone if not for him. By the way, guess how many major violations the NCAA has nailed him on? Zero.

Whatever. The guy is a mercenary, chasing the next big paycheck. Didn't you see how after a single season he abandoned Idaho, where he said he planned to retire, to take over the Sun Devils?

Baggage? Let's just say Erickson's doesn't fit in the overhead compartment.

"To be honest, all I had heard about him was … well, national championships and [an] NCAA violation at Miami," Sun Devils defensive tackle Michael Marquardt said. "But that's what you get when you get a new coach -- some of the good things and then definitely everything bad that's ever happened."

Yet when Marquardt first met Erickson, he didn't see a rogue coach whose face belongs on a wanted poster. He, at least for a moment, saw a football saint.

"When he walked through the door, I thought he was Dick Vermeil," he confessed of his initial, confused handshake.

You think you know a person, and then you mistake him for Dick Vermeil. Maybe there's a postmodern lesson there. Not that Erickson is eager to pause for a moment of philosophical reflection, much less Vermeilian tears.

Erickson, 60, just keeps grinding ahead amid the tumult and recriminations hurled by his critics for one big reason. He wins everywhere he coaches. At least at the college level.

"If you win, you win a lot of people over," he said. "That's just the nature of the game."

In his 19th season, he's won 151 games, tied with UTEP's Mike Price for 10th among active coaches, and there's a general feeling in the Pac-10 that if anyone can awaken the sleeping giant that is Arizona State, it's Erickson.

Despite all the advantages a program could want, just once since 1998 have the Sun Devils lost fewer than five games. The program's only consistency has been mediocrity.
And one other thing.

"We had a lot of guys who simply underachieved," Marquardt admitted.

Dirk Koetter's termination bothered Marquardt and more than a few of his teammates, and some skepticism greeted Erickson. But the few players he didn't win over early on with his rousing talk of championships were won over during the spring by a new philosophy.

I think the biggest difference between this year and last year is that we were 3-0 [in 2006], but we weren't playing very good on either side of the ball. This year I think we've played well on defense and on offense to a certain extent.

--Rudy Carpenter

Erickson isn't a fan of long practices. While Koetter regularly held workouts that lasted more than three hours, Erickson likes to send guys home after two. His theory is tired teams aren't as sharp and as motivated as fresh ones.

That went over well. Yet, with the Pac-10 slate beginning, it's time to see if there's still method in Erickson's madness.

It's worth noting that Erickson's first legitimate test after three nonconference patsies is Oregon State, the program that previously provided him a soft landing and which he subsequently led to unprecedented heights. Erickson, however, maintains he crossed that sentimental bridge in 2006 when the Beavers beat the poop out of his Idaho team.

ASU can identify. Last year, the Beavers stomped the Sun Devils 44-10 in a chilly drizzle. That was one of many humbling moments scattered throughout the past few seasons, and Saturday should provide a glimpse of where this reclamation project stands. The winner figures to inch above a pack lingering in the muddled middle of the conference.

"Leaving that field [at Oregon State], I said to myself, 'I swear, I can't wait until next year. I'm going to get mine.'" Marquardt said. "That's kind of the way I look at it."

That sounds Ericksonian edgy coming from the affable Marquardt, an urban planning major who's married and served a two-year LDS mission in Argentina. Edgy just like those eight flags that flew for personal fouls against Colorado two weeks ago, which surely had some recalling Miami's reprehensible lack of sportsmanship in the 1991 Cotton Bowl.

Word is that Erickson recognized that connection, too, and laid into the Sun Devils, knowing full well how fans and reporters would interpret the flurry of flags.

Still, playing aggressively and with a swagger until the echo of the whistle is an Erickson trademark. Sometimes edgy gets an edge. Perhaps that's why the Sun Devils believe this 3-0 start won't presage an 0-3 slide as it did a year ago.

"I think the biggest difference between this year and last year is that we were 3-0 [in 2006], but we weren't playing very good on either side of the ball," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "This year I think we've played well on defense and on offense to a certain extent."

That's true. And while the level of competition is increasing, the Sun Devils won't hit the Pac-10 gantlet until Oct. 27, when a visit from California is followed by road tilts at Oregon and UCLA and a home date with USC.

Winning glosses over a lot in college football. If Erickson starts winning at Arizona State, perhaps he'll get to unpack his baggage.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.