The way Dennis Erickson sees it, coaching football is one of the things he is good at.
Retirement, on the other hand, he is not.
On Monday, Erickson ended an unhappy year without football by becoming the new co-offensive coordinator at the University of Utah. Though the 65-year-old Erickson — he turns 66 next month — is at an age and in a financial position where he could retire in comfort, what he really wanted more than anything was to coach again.
“(Coaching) is what I’m all about,” said Erickson, an Everett native. “It’s what I do in life.”
Though his resume includes six seasons as a National Football League head coach, two college Coach of the Year awards, and two college national championships, “it’s never been about ego for me,” he said. “I would’ve been happy being a high school coach, but then I happened to move up in the ranks (in his early years).
“For me it’s always been about coaching young people and giving them the help they need to be good. It’s never been about anything else but that.”
Erickson coached most recently at Arizona State, where he had a 31-31 record in five seasons. His first ASU team went 10-3 in 2007, and only a late-season loss to USC kept the Sun Devils out of the Rose Bowl. But four straight non-winning seasons eroded his support and he was fired on Nov. 28, 2011.
Last fall, and for only the second time in the past 44 years (going back to 1969 when he was a graduate assistant at Montana State), Erickson did not coach football. He spent much of the last year and a half playing golf, staying at his vacation home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and following the game from a distance.
“Sitting out a year was not a lot of fun for me,” he said, “and I felt that if I could get back into it this year I could coach for another five or six years. Or, who knows, maybe even longer than that.”
No question, the Utah job will be a new experience for Erickson. For starters, he will be an assistant coach for the first time since 1981. Also, he will be paired with 26-year-old Brian Johnson, Utah’s first-year offensive coordinator in 2012 and a man nearly 40 years Erickson’s junior.
Neither issue seems to concern Erickson.
“I’ll have a job,” he pointed out, “and it’s actually going to be fun. I’ll be calling plays and doing those things that I’ve been good at over the years.
“But it’ll be different. I won’t be dealing with a lot of the issues that a head coach has to deal with. As an assistant coach your time is spent mostly with football and with the players you’re coaching. And that aspect is what I’m looking forward to. That’s what I enjoy.”
In the coming months he expects to “sit down (with Johnson) and decide what we want to do, and then put together an offensive plan that fits our players.”
In a university press release, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Erickson “brings a wealth of knowledge and coaching experience to our program. He has been labeled as one of the original architects of the spread (offense) and we are looking forward to the impact he will have on our offense.”
Erickson knows, of course, that his coaching career is waning. He shrugs off the topic of age, but there are also reminders. Among them, an ailing hip that he finally had replaced just last week.
Otherwise, he said, his ability and desire to coach “doesn’t have anything to do with age. A lot of it has to do with how you feel, what your energy is like, and if you’re doing it well.”
The funny thing is, he added, “when I won at ASU I wasn’t too old. But then when I lost I was too old all of a sudden.
“I’ll know when it’s time to me to retire for good, but right now it’s too early for me to do that,” he said. “Utah is a great place with great coaches, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to coach again.
“As long as I still love doing it, I’m going to coach. And when I don’t, then I won’t coach anymore. Because as soon as you’re not excited about going into the year, then you shouldn’t be doing it. But I don’t feel that way. I just want to coach, and I can’t wait to get started again.”