The Arizona State University football team was 6-2 in late October, and there was talk of a contract extension for head coach Dennis Erickson.
One month and four losses later, Erickson was out of a job and perhaps out of a career.
The 64-year-old Erickson — he turns 65 on March 24 — has been a football coach for every year but one since becoming a graduate assistant at Montana State in 1969. And for every year but one since 1982 he has been a head coach in either college or the NFL.
But since his firing at ASU on Nov. 28, Erickson expects to sit out the 2012 season. And after that, he said, “I don’t know if I’ll coach again.”
“Chances are that I probably won’t,” said Erickson, a 1965 graduate of Everett High School. “I’ve addressed that possibility with myself and with my family. And if I don’t coach another day, I’ll be a happy person. I’ll go on with the rest of my life, whatever that might be.”
More and more, top Division I programs seem to be hiring ever-younger head coaches. Steve Sarkisian was 34 was he was hired at Washington in 2008. Lane Kiffin was 34 when he was hired at USC in 2010, and 33 when he took over at Tennessee a year earlier (and before that he spent two seasons as head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders). David Shaw was 38 when he became head coach at Stanford a year ago.
Erickson would like another chance to coach at the highest rung of college football, “but the reality … is they’re not hiring a lot of 65-year-old coaches,” he said. “So the chance of it happening is probably not very good.
“If there’s an opportunity for a guy like myself, then certainly I’m going to look at it. Because I feel great. I feel young. I have lot of energy. I’d like to (coach again).”
As a boy growing up in Everett, Erickson always knew he would follow his father Robert “Pink” Erickson into coaching. He initially figured it would be at the high school level, like his dad, but then he was hired to assistant coaching jobs at Montana State, Idaho, Fresno State and San Jose State before getting his first head coaching position at Idaho three decades ago.
He had five other college head coaching jobs (including a second stop at Idaho), wrapped around stints with Seattle and San Francisco of the NFL, before taking the Arizona State job in 2007. Along the way he won national titles at Miami in 1989 and 1991, and was the national Coach of the Year as selected by The Sporting News while at Oregon State in 2000.
Erickson’s five seasons at ASU started promisingly. His 2007 team finished 10-3 and went 7-2 in the Pac-10 to tie USC for first place. Only a home loss to the Trojans on Thanksgiving Day kept the Sun Devils out of the Rose Bowl.
But the next four seasons were decidedly less successful. ASU did not have a winning season in those four years while compiling a 21-28 record, and that mark coupled with last season’s late losing streak led to his dismissal (the Sun Devils also dropped a bowl game with Erickson as a lame-duck coach, making it five defeats in a row).
“We lost the last four games of our (regular) season and that probably put a lot of pressure on (school officials) to make a change,” Erickson said. “I’m disappointed about the season, no question. I thought we had (the program) in good shape and I was excited about the future. But the bottom line is, we didn’t win enough games.”
Still, when he looks back on his five seasons at ASU, “I’m proud of what I did when I look at the big picture.”
Since his firing, Erickson has experienced a significant drop in his stress level and a corresponding rise in restlessness.
“I’m already bored,” he said. “It only took two weeks. Now I get up every morning, go to LA Fitness and work out — I probably feel better now than I ever have — and then I come home and get on the computer to fiddle-diddle around. I’m also playing more golf than I’ve ever played and I’m getting worse.”
Something else bothers him, too.
“The one thing you find out when you don’t have a job is that all those people who used to call you and needed your help and you were able to help them, I’m not hearing from them much anymore,” he said. “The phone goes real silent. It’s an interesting thing in this profession and I have a hard time with that.
“It’s not about me. I just want to help my (ASU assistant) coaches find jobs. But you just don’t hear as much from people as you normally would, and I’m finding that out real fast.”
Erickson says he has little interest in returning to the NFL or in being an offensive or defensive coordinator at the college level. If he is not hired as a college head coach in the next year or so, his coaching career is likely over.
“But I’m not going to retire from working,” he said. “I’m going to find some other things in football. I really can’t tell you what, to be honest, but I’m going to do something.”
Joining the media as a television commentator is an obvious option, “and that one’s probably the biggest one to look at,” he said. He might also keep busy with consulting work and speaking engagements.
“All this just happened a few months ago, so I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time figuring it out,” he said. “So for now I’m sitting back and seeing where I’m at. But I would like to stay involved in football. I’ve been around it since I was 6 years old, and it’s kind of hard to get away from.
“And I’ll never get away from it. I’m a football fanatic. I’ll be watching it on my deathbed.”
Erickson and his wife Marilyn will keep their home in the Phoenix area for now. But they also own a residence in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and expect to spend increasing time there while making make more frequent visits to the Everett area where his mother Mary and sisters Julie, Christie and Nancy still live (his father died in 2004).
“Regardless of what happens, Everett will always be home,” Erickson said. “That’s where a lot of my close friends are. My true friends.”