Thirteen years ago, Dennis Erickson stormed onto the University of Idaho campus - amid a cloud of confidence and high expectations - for his first head coaching job.
“It sounds like you plan to pass the ball a lot, the fans should like that,” a sportswriter offered in one of those vague question/statements.
“The fans will like winning,” Erickson volleyed, cocky as a banty rooster. When he talked, he tilted his head to the side, as if he were trying to wedge an invisible telephone between his ear and his shoulder. He squinted and he blinked and he pinched his lips together tightly.
His manner was almost as if he was challenging somebody to prove him wrong. Just try to stop him. Go ahead, try.
After all, he had trained for that moment since before he had toddled off to grammar school. He was unwaveringly certain he was about to do something very special.
In the subsequent 13 years, Erickson has done many things, but perhaps above all else, he has proven that he was right about himself.
Thursday, Erickson accepted the head coaching job of the Seattle Seahawks and the million-dollar salary that goes with it.
But he no longer wears his determination like armor. His record gets up and struts on its own.
And those gnawing gremlins that fire his competitiveness are now mostly on the inside. Down deep in the gut where they chew at the viscera with a relentlessness that causes him to carry a pack of Rolaids at all times.
He can afford, these days, to be friendly, joking, affable - which he is. He has proven himself.
But it has not come easily. Despite two national championships at Miami, he has been criticized for having lost nine games in six seasons.
“You’re all right at Miami as long as you never lose a game,” he said Thursday. “There isn’t much room for error.”
He has been roasted across the country for his inability to just say, “Hey, I may look at this job offer and decide on what is best for myself and my family,” instead of instantly and publicly rejecting offers, only to kick up ire when he occasionally reneges.
Looking back through clips on Erickson’s career, he has probably been mentioned in 20 job searches that he ultimately shunned. He stayed at Idaho for four years and turned down a half-dozen offers. The NFL has been unsuccessfully sniffing for at least half of his six years at Miami.
Several other dark perceptions of Erickson exist.
Some see him as a guy who cuts and runs for the money, like that human subspecies with the bumper stickers “If you’re rich, I’m single.”
If that were the case, he would have milked juicier offers from Philadelphia and Denver before signing with Seattle. In this situation, clearly, money was not the prime factor.
The exuberance of Miami players also gave Erickson a bad image. The Hurricanes formed conga lines and performed everything short of the tush-push after making a tackle.
Mostly, that was a legacy of Jimmy Johnson that Erickson hated, but could not entirely throttle. “They need to play with emotion and need to have fun playing the game, but there’s a fine line,” Erickson said. “It was disappointing to me. Some of the (fans) weren’t happy, some were, some were happy with the score.”
Consider as proof the fact that Erickson’s teams at Idaho and Washington State never acted like idiots. The Seahawks won’t, either.
But they can surely stand a little bit of that Miami spunk.
“One of the things I’ve thought since I got to Seattle is you can’t afford to be the kind of team people push around,” quarterback Rick Mirer said. “You want to have some of that energy and excitement, but you want to have some class, too. (Erickson) lets his guys play and he gets the most out of them.”
Some, too, see Erickson as somebody sneaking out of Miami before the NCAA can ride in to string up a gang of miscreants.
“We’ve had some problems, but I don’t think it’s any different than other university,” Erickson said. “It wears on you a little bit. (But) it really didn’t have anything to do with (taking the Seahawks job).”
Here’s a prediction: Erickson will be a better coach in the NFL than he was in college. And in very short order, the Seahawks will return to the playoffs and fans will return to the Kingdome.
Why? He will challenge Mirer instead of giving him the velvet-glove coaching he has received for two years. “I think Rick has a chance to be a great player,” Erickson said. “But he needs to be coached, he needs to be schooled and he needs experience. That just takes time.”
The elements of college coaching in which Erickson was least adept are those things he won’t have to face in the NFL eligibility, sucking up to alums, licking the boots of 17-year-old recruits.
“What you get into in college and the NFL is that the bottom line is winning,” Erickson said. “You can talk about graduation rates and all these different things in college football, but I’ve never seen a coach get fired because of graduation rates. He gets fired for not winning.”
And now there will be precious little to divert his attention from the game itself.
“Now I can spend a lot of time on the football aspect of it,” he said. “And that’s something I’m very excited about.”
And that’s a feeling that victory-starved Seahawks fans should share.
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