TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love gave coach Dennis Erickson a long leash in molding the program the way he wanted it, bringing in the players he thought would fit.
She applauded the veteran coach’s efforts on both fronts, believing he had built a solid foundation for a program that had been foundering.
But after four years of seeing many of the same mistakes being made and the win totals remaining stagnant, Love believed it was time for a change.
Love announced Monday that Erickson will not return after a five-year tenure marked by the occasional lack of focus and punctuated by this season’s monumental collapse.
“You’re going to allow someone to build a program,” Love said. “Those first years were building-process years and I would give him a great deal of credit in that building process. But it was the completion of that toward the end where we began to not feel the on-field presence that ultimately led to the decision.”
Arizona State became bowl-eligible for the first time in four years after starting this season 6-2 before losing its final four games to miss a shot at playing in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game.
Erickson took the fall after going 31-30 in his five years in the desert, though he will be allowed to coach the Sun Devils in their bowl game, to be announced on Sunday.
Erickson, a graduate of Everett High School, will receive half of his $1.5 million salary for the remaining year on his contract.
“I am proud of what we accomplished in five years,” Erickson said in a statement. “The program is in good shape for the next coach.”
A two-time national champion at Miami, Erickson was the Pac-10 coach of the year in 2007 after leading Arizona State to the Holiday Bowl and its first 10-win season in nine years.
After that, the Sun Devils never lived up to expectations.
Arizona State won five games the next season, four in 2009 and missed becoming bowl eligible last season because two of its six wins were against Football Championship Subdivision schools.
Love stuck with Erickson after the 2010 season and refused to offer him a new contract this season, even after the Sun Devils opened 6-2 and were apparently in control of the Pac-12 South.
It turned out to be a wise decision.
Arizona State lost its grip on the division with a loss to UCLA on Nov. 5 and couldn’t make up ground after that, despite the Bruins’ own struggles down the stretch.
The 64-year-old coach’s tenure took a big blow with a home loss to rival Arizona, which had already fired its coach during a lackluster season, followed by another home loss against California on Friday.
“Lots and lots of conversations about extend him, extend him, extend him, (but) my point being no, let’s finish,” Love said. “To put it in a football analogy, we’ve got the fourth quarter to play, which is basically the month of November. Let’s finish the season and then we’ll make an assessment of where we stand and what we want to do.”
Love said there’s no timetable for finding a new coach, but realizes the need to be aggressive in such a competitive market with so many schools searching for coaches.
Arizona State should be in good position financially with the Pac-12’s new television deal and its new network bringing in millions of extra dollars. The Sun Devils still have some talent and play in a place where the weather is great eight months out of the year, which could help draw prospective coaches in.
Love said she would like to bring in an energetic and well-spoken coach who can represent the university enthusiastically, though said that didn’t necessarily mean bringing in a younger coach. She would prefer to hire someone with previous head-coaching experience, but didn’t rule out hiring an up-and-coming coordinator.
Love also said she’d like to hire a coach with an innovative offense mind to keep up the excitement who also stresses the fundamentals.
“The one thing that is important to the process is following every thread because you never know where it leads,” she said.During his 23-year career as a head coach, Erickson won national championships with the Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991, was named the Pac-10 coach of the year at Washington State and Oregon State, had two stops at Idaho and one at Wyoming. He ranks sixth among current college coaches with 179 victories.
Erickson’s stint with Arizona State will be marked by the inconsistency of his teams.
While Love applauded his ability to recruit and the foundation he set for the program, she became frustrated by the lack of focus that often plagued the Sun Devils.
Arizona State was unable to make big plays down the stretch while losing numerous close games last season and went from a team that seemed to have a legitimate shot at playing in the Rose Bowl to one that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.
“It was difficult because of the dramatic change from how we played (early) to how we played (late),” Love said. “The big shift was not something that I had witnessed before and, according to Dennis, he’s never witnessed it before. But it became prevalent in the program, it became some kind of challenge or issue that we were having a hard time ridding ourselves of.”
And because of that, Love got rid of Erickson.