May 20, 1995 in Sports

Erickson’s Leeway Shrinks As More Mud Leaks

Art Thiel Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 

For those who recall a scene from “Jurassic Park” in which a Tyrannosaurus rex nips at the backsides of the jeep-bound heroes, you now have a visual metaphor for the life and times of Dennis Erickson.

The unpleasant past just keeps on coming. With big teeth.

Disclosures by the Miami Herald this week that the new Seattle Seahawks coach had been ringmaster of a bacchanalian circus in shoulder pads at the University of Miami is juicy reading.

But is there a discerning sports follower who can express genuine surprise?

The Hurricanes’ debauchery goes back to the Jimmy Johnson era and has been headline material for more than a decade. It was continued and embellished under Erickson for a simple reason - that’s the way most people around the football program wanted it.

The desire to win national college football championships, from the university president down through the most mouth-breathing of fans, superseded any priority on education, NCAA rules, public statute and even simple civility.

If Miami wanted it the other way, the school would not have hired Erickson, whose two-year tenure at Washington State was distinguished by a team gradepoint average below the Mendoza line, not exactly the trademark of a reformer.

While the twisted culture created by the university administration and its wealthy alums and zealots preceded Erickson, it doesn’t excuse him from responsibility. He had numerous opportunities to say enough’s enough. He chose to keep winning.

The trap is seductive. Or have the lessons of the University of Washington football program been forgotten?

The Huskies, bowl-less four years earlier, shared the 1991 national championship with the Hurricanes, and are just now getting out of college jail - just in time to clear a cell for Miami.

There are differences in the programs, but mostly of degree, not kind. What most here will recall of the Husky scandal was that an overzealous, jealous Pac-10 nit-picked the Huskies into a two-year probation, made worse by a university president who helped fumble the punishment between TV bans and bowl bans.

Forgotten amid the howls about college-sports felonies such as hotel fruit baskets were the real issues that hacked off university officials, faculty and alums who had bigger priorities than the Rose Bowl - the team’s miserable GPA and its multiple episodes of criminality and outlaw attitudes.

None of those issues are the responsibility of the Pac10 or NCAA, organizations whose chief responsibility is to keep money out of the hands of the people who have produced it.

In theory, grades and civility fall within the purview of the athletic department. But practice shows, at Miami, Washington and most every other football factory, grades and civility are too often incidental to, if not in the way of, success.

The difference between Miami and Washington, which fancies itself higher on the academic food chain, is that there were at least some UW bosses genuinely embarrassed by abuses in the football program, chief among them president Bill Gerberding.

His anger helped usher out former athletic director Mike Lude, and put big pressure on former coach Don James, who avoided a public showdown with Gerberding by quitting and wrapping himself in the flag of indignation over sanctions.

Because of his popularity, football success and a previously unsullied reputation, James had the advantage of departing a martyr. He attempted to discredit his critics as disgruntled players, jealous rivals, unsupportive bosses and misguided rulesmakers and enforcers. Many believed him.

Erickson can and probably will round up similar suspects. While there is some truth in both cases, he lacks James’ credibility with much of the public. And because Erickson was never embraced by the Cane constituency as was his predecessor Johnson, he becomes a target of opportunity for everyone with a mad-on against Miami.

After four Miami national championships, all punctuated by a finger in the face of the sports world, the Orange Bowl will be needed to hold the crowd seeking to grind axes.

That is Erickson’s problem as Seahawks coach. Even though he is no longer in college football and has a job that requires less pretense about behavior and conduct, Miami’s notorious past and his part in it will continue to interrupt his present.

His future? He can stonewall his accusers and hope that an 11-5 season with playoffs will be an answer of sufficient eloquence to make everyone forget. Knowing the priorities of most sports fans, the strategy will work.

But room for error, normally part of the honeymoon for a rookie coach, shrinks with every headline out of Florida. He desperately needs some football wins to get people out of his past, to end the speculation about his likelihood of repeating it.

And he thought he had pressure in Miami.

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