Commentary

Sun Devils draw confidence, swagger from Erickson

Originally Published: November 1, 2007
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- By now, autumn's chill would be gripping the rolling hills of the Palouse, and the sandals would be packed away for calmer times. Coach Cool likes his sandals. He flops around in them on the Arizona State campus, the warm desert sun a daily affirmation that what Dennis Erickson did was right.

If Idaho athletic director Rob Spear can wish him well, turn on Saturday's ASU-Oregon game (ESPN, 6:40 p.m. ET) and not root for the Ducks to hang 70 on Erickson, then maybe everyone has moved on. Spear is the man who hired Erickson 21 months ago, who listened as Erickson pondered spending the rest of his life in Idaho, of finding peace in a 16,000-seat venue called the Kibbie Dome.

[+] EnlargeDennis Erickson
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireDennis Erickson and the Sun Devils have plenty of reasons to smile about their 8-0 start.

Now, the Idaho panhandle sees Erickson from its television sets, flip-flopping the Sun Devils to an 8-0 record, crashing into the national championship hunt. The "Welcome Back, Dennis" posters are gone in Moscow, Idaho. This year's football team is 1-8 and has no slogan.

And 1,300 miles away, Erickson's wayfaring career has been reborn -- again.

"We wish Dennis the best," Spear says. "We have a saying: 'Once a Vandal, always a Vandal.'"

It should be noted that, by most accounts, Erickson can fit in on just about any college campus. His charming wit, look-everyone-in-the-eye attentiveness and two national championship rings helped season ticket sales spike 30 percent within months at Idaho. His calming, laid-back demeanor has taken the Sun Devils from the middle of the Pac-10 pile to BCS title game dreams.

Arizona State has the third-largest student population in the country and sits in a metropolitan area of more than 4 million, but it went 11 seasons without back-to-back sellouts of its picturesque football stadium. The desert has been watching, if from afar, ASU athletic director Lisa Love says. "They've been waiting, I think, for it to really take off."

In late November last year, Love fired Dirk Koetter, who took the Sun Devils to three straight bowl games and " put us on a wonderful stage," she said at the time. But they wanted a higher platform, and Erickson was just finishing up his first year at his seventh head coaching stop -- eighth if you count a first swing through Idaho in the 1980s. And this time, things weren't going so well in Moscow.

Spear says Erickson didn't seem happy and that the coach might have underestimated the rebuilding process. The Vandals were 4-8 in 2006, and Erickson, who had a .694 winning percentage as a college coach through 2006, wanted success faster.

So here were the Sun Devils, who returned 10 offensive starters but were 2-19 against ranked teams under Koetter. And there went Erickson.

"People ask me if he met expectations," Love says. "I say, 'No. He blew right by them.'

[+] EnlargeDennis Erickson
AP Photo/Ronen ZilbermanBefore hitting the road to Tempe, Dennis Erickson suffered through a 4-8 season at Idaho.

"There's so much excitement and fun and joy surrounding Sun Devil Stadium within our team, our fan base and our campus. He's added a wonderful component in a very short amount of time."

One of the most notable changes, it seems, has been in the Sun Devils' second-half psyche. After collapsing at times in '06 under Koetter, they have outscored their opponents 153-29 in the second half this season.

The Sun Devils don't hope anymore to overpower their opponents in the final two quarters. They know they will. Last Saturday, ASU fell behind 13-0 to No. 21 Cal, a team it was 0-4 against since 2000. The Sun Devils shut out the Golden Bears in the second half, creating a near mob scene on the field after a 31-20 victory.

"He's not afraid," ASU linebacker Robert James says of Erickson. "In the past, we'd play big games, and we could sense nerves and tense in the coach. [Erickson] gives us that confidence to go out and play."

Erickson first met the team in a cafeteria last winter, just before a news conference to introduce him as coach. Most of them knew him from somewhere, be it his NFL days in San Francisco and Seattle, his Pac-10 stints at Oregon State and Washington State, or his title runs at Miami.

Soon, they would see the championship rings he occasionally wears around campus.

"It was almost like he came in with a blue light behind him," wide receiver Mike Jones says. "It was kind of cool to see him in person. I'm a big college football fan, and I've seen him coach a lot of teams. I knew that he's won at almost every place he's been."

Players say Erickson "has a little swagger to him," from the gold bracelet and watch to the rings. They call him a players' coach, a 60-year-old, sandals-wearing guru who works them but won't drive them into the ground.

Practices might not be as physically grueling, Jones says, but the players are fresher and more mentally sharp.

Erickson obviously has found a second wind. One year after starting over in one of Division I-A's smallest corners, he has somehow found his way back to the top.

"I don't think he needed this to get [back] into college coaching," Spear says. "I would like to go on the record saying his credentials speak for themselves. But I do think his stop at Idaho helped him become a more viable candidate for Arizona State than he might have been had he sat out for two years."

But that one year in Idaho left the Vandals back where they started. They're on their third coach in three years. Trust comes a little harder, even if you're once a Vandal, always a Vandal.

Would they do it again, knowing the abrupt and inevitable outcome?

"Given the instability our football team has experienced, hiring a person for one year would not have made sense," Spear says. "But on the other hand, we wouldn't have traded the excitement he generated when he was here."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.