You put in a call to Mitch Barnhart, the Oregon State University athletic director, and explain to his secretary that you want to speak with him about “Dennis.”
“And I guess you know which Dennis I mean,” you say.
“We only have one Dennis here,” she replies, laughing.
That Dennis is the most famous one in the state of Oregon right now. And the most popular, if you’re a Beaver football fan.
That Dennis performed a miracle in just two short years as the OSU head coach.
That Dennis even stunned his father.
“No,” Pink Erickson says. “I didn’t think he’d do it this quickly. I thought it would take him a lot more time than this.”
When Dennis Erickson was hired as coach on Jan. 12, 1999, anyone who knew anything about the Everett native realized that if there was one guy in America who could build OSU into a winner, it was Pink and Mary Erickson’s son.
But this … this is almost beyond belief.
“To do as well as we did is kind of a shock,” says Gregg Smith, the Beaver offensive line coach. “The one guy who might not be surprised is Dennis. He might have thought if we get these guys going in the right direction, we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”
The Beavers weren’t pretty good. They were superb. By the end of the season, they might have been playing as well as almost any team in the country.
On Jan. 1, they’ll take a 10-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking into the Fiesta Bowl against 10th-ranked Notre Dame in Tempe, Ariz.
It’s one of the most remarkable stories in sports: that Oregon State, which hadn’t had a winner in 28 years when Erickson arrived there, will be playing in a New Year’s Day game against a team from the most storied program in college football.
“No,” Barnhart says. “Probably not in our wildest imaginations did anyone think it could happen this quickly.”
Even the head coach had some misgivings when the team struggled early, sneaking past Eastern Washington 21-19 and New Mexico 28-20. “I thought we would have a good team and compete in the league pretty good,” Erickson says. “I obviously didn’t have any idea we would be this good after the way we played in the first couple of games.”
Smith says the game that convinced the Beavers they could do things never done before by an OSU team was the one against Southern Cal on Sept. 30 at Reser Stadium in Corvallis. Losers of 26 straight to the Trojans, the Beavers spanked the visitors 31-21.
“That was the game that got us kick-started,” Smith says. “That was the day these guys started believing things were going to be OK.”
Except for a three-point loss to Washington the next week, things were much better than OK as the Beavers closed out the season with six straight victories and a share of the Pac-10 title.
“We’ve had some good things happen to us in our coaching career,” Erickson says, “but this is probably the best, to take this program where it was to where it is right now, it’s probably as gratifying as anything I’ve ever been involved with in football.”
Is there a happier place on the continent than Corvallis, Ore.?
Maybe one. The state of Florida. It’s rid of all those D.C. lawyers.
Erickson, of course, coached in Florida, at the University of Miami. His first year there still ranks as one of his finest coaching jobs. He took a team that was expected to win and not only won, but captured a national championship, the first of two he would get in six years at the Hurricane helm. “Maintaining what we had in Miami,” he says, “was a lot harder than people think.”
Miami fans were used to winning. Oregon State fans weren’t. That, to Erickson, is what makes what has happened in Corvallis the last two seasons so special. “It’s had a more positive effect on more people here,” he says.
“It’s a neat moment in our institution,” Barnhart adds. “After last year (when the Beavers went 7-5) people wondered if we were a one-hit wonder. Dennis is the kind of coach who can sustain this (success).”
OSU gave Barnhart his first athletic directorship, and he hired Erickson. Barnhart is in the running for the A.D.’s job at Louisiana State, but he may go a lifetime without making as good a hire as he did to fill the football coaching job at OSU. Erickson’s got to be among the five top coaches in the country. Look at the record: 130-46-1 and two national titles in 15 years in the college ranks.
There was a four-year detour to the NFL, which, he might admit in a moment of candor, was a mistake. He’s got passion, he’s got enthusiasm, he’s not one to stand on the sideline stoically watching what goes on on the field. Bottom line: He’s a college coach. It’s where he belongs. It’s where the fun is.
“He has a great passion for the game of college football,” Barnhart says. “There’s not a more fierce competitor than Dennis Erickson.”
Something else that defines Erickson is loyalty. Seven members of his coaching staff worked with him before he arrived at OSU.
Smith, who is like a brother to him, has been with Erickson the longest, 18 years. They got started together at the University of Idaho, Erickson’s first head coaching job.
Because his coaches know one another and his system so well, they don’t have to spend much time in meetings. “Dennis has done a great job of putting the staff together,” Smith says. “It’s a staff he knows and trusts that they will coach the kids the right way. We’re all on the same page, especially Dennis and I. We can look at one another and know what the other is thinking.”
The less time they spend together in meetings, the more time they can devote to coaching their players. “A lot of our success is due to how fast the kids were able to adapt to our system and coaching philosophy,” Smith says. “The kids have responded well. Once they got a taste of winning and knowing they could beat some people and go on the road and beat some good people, things started to snowball.”
Smith says Erickson has a unique gift “to pull a team together. If there’s another guy around who’s better at it, I’ve never seen him.”
Erickson perceives his coaching staff as the best in the country. “The bottom line is, the players believe in us,” he says.
To keep a staff intact builds continuity and confidence. “What’s happened here is we’ve been able to get some money to raise the salaries to keep the staff together,” he says.
There were rumors near the end of the season that Southern Cal was going to make a strong pitch for Erickson. “You’re always kind of interested in something like that,” he admits, “but I just felt I owed it to these players and these people to stay here.”
He had bailed out after one year at Wyoming and two years at Washington State. “I didn’t want to do that anymore. Been there, done that, had something going here.”
And so, Pink and Mary Erickson will do something they’ve so often done: They’ll spend the holidays in a warm clime, watching their son pace the sideline in a bowl game. It’ll be their ninth in his 15 years in the college game.
“Two Orange Bowls, one national title; two Sugar Bowls, one national title; two trips to Hawaii; two Fiesta Bowls and one Cotton Bowl,” Pink recounts.
He got his second trip to the Fiesta Bowl much sooner than he thought he would.