The dream began to form for Dennis Erickson when he was 6 years old, riding buses with the Ferndale High School football team his dad coached. When Pink Erickson moved next to Cascade High School in Everett, young Dennis continued to hang around practice fields, and the notion crystallized.
“All I ever wanted to do,” he says now, “is be a coach like my dad.”
Here Erickson is, at age 68, still coaching, 46 years on the job and loving it just as much as ever. Maybe more, because Erickson, now the running backs coach for the Utah team that will face Washington at Husky Stadium on Saturday, has discovered a purer form of the craft.
Yeah, the guy who won two national championships at Miami, who has been head coach at more Pac-12 schools than anyone – Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State – who had two stints in the NFL with the Seahawks and 49ers, and oh, yeah, coached Wyoming and Idaho (twice) along the way, is perfectly content to be a position coach, far removed from the spotlight he used to command.
“I’m really in it for the reasons I’m supposed to be in it, the reason I started,” Erickson said by phone from Salt Lake City. “More than anything, it’s about the love of the game, being around players, being around young coaches, being around the things I’ve been around my whole life. I missed it.”
Erickson was fired at Arizona State in 2011, and spent a very unsatisfactory season in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as a civilian. Turns out a life of golf and leisure wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be.
“I was just bored to death,” Erickson said, “When you have it in your blood, and all of a sudden you’re not doing it, it’s tough. I’m not a good person to retire. It’s just not me. You can only hit it out of bounds so many times. It gets a little old.”
So when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, an old Pac-12 friend, called in 2013 to offer Erickson a job as co-offensive coordinator (with Brian Johnson), he jumped at it. And when Whittingham decided after that season to bring in former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen as the Utes’ offensive coordinator, Erickson accepted what most (not him) termed a demotion, and did so without a second thought.
“I don’t have a big ego at all,” he said. “I just wanted to coach. I’ve been there, done a lot of things at the top and some things at the bottom – the whole gauntlet. Coaching titles don’t mean anything. I’m back where I started.’’
Before this season, the title “assistant head coach” was bestowed on Erickson – “whatever the heck that means,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think it means a whole lot.”
What does mean something is the job for which Erickson is credited in turning junior college transfer Devontae Booker into one of the best running backs in the country. Erickson is eager to see what Booker and the Utes do against a Husky defense he says will be “by far” the best Utah has faced this year.
“You can see that in the stats. No one has moved the football against them,” he said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
Spoken like a true coach, one who emerged from the fertile breeding grounds of Everett, where high school and junior college coaches like Pink Erickson (who died in 2004), Walt Price and Jim Ennis were kings. They spawned future coaches like Dennis Erickson, Mike Price (Walt’s son), Jim Lambright and Keith Gilbertson.
Erickson’s mom and three sisters all still live in the Everett area. But returning for a game is all business. The last time Erickson coached at Husky Stadium was with Arizona State in 2010 (“I don’t remember the year,” he said. “I just know it was raining, and I know we won.”).
“It’s still home, and it always will be,” he said.
But Erickson is not ready to go home for good. He’s having too much fun working with kids who are now 40-plus years younger than him. That number will keep growing, but Erickson is undaunted. He says he committed to a workout regimen three years ago and lost a lot of weight, leaving him full of energy.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt – way better than I did four or five years ago,” he said. “I’ll go as long as I feel comfortable. Shoot, it might be six or seven more years.”
Erickson has had his share of controversy along the way, but he’s satisfied when he looks back at his career.
“I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “I’d like to think that the players who played for me had respect for me and enjoyed me as much as I enjoyed them. I know I helped a lot of kids over the years.
“You can be at the top and win national titles, or be at the bottom when you’re fired. It’s what’s in between that it’s all about. I have some time now to look back, and I’m looking forward to what’s happening Saturday. I couldn’t be any luckier than the opportunity and career I’ve had.”
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