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High hopes

August 29, 2007

As Sun Devil fans celebrate the first game of the football season, Head Coach Dennis Erickson is approaching his challenges with optimism and drive.

Erickson has arguably the most impressive view in Tempe, an office that sits high in the sky and looks out over Sun Devil Stadium through enormous bay windows. As he discusses the great things he hopes to bring to Arizona State’s football program, Erickson calls the view “inspiring.”

But that view can be potentially disquieting as well, a constant reminder of just how big college football is in so many ways, and how much is expected out of any head coach, especially one with Erickson’s remarkable accomplishments. At ASU, where the football program in recent years has fallen just short of major success, the expectations are specific and unambiguous: get the team to a championship level.

Staring down at the empty stadium, with its eye-catching mosaic of maroon and gold seats, Erickson muses over his plans for accomplishing this, as well as the potential for ASU to win back local fans in a big way.

“They have the NFL here, but to me [Tempe] is a college football town,” he says.

Erickson, who was named head football coach late last year in the wake of Dirk Koetter’s departure, is as equipped for this task as any current head coach in the nation. Among his achievements are nothing less than two national championships, as head coach of Miami in 1989 and 1991, and victories in three of the four BCS bowls.

Closer to home, Erickson has been Pac-10 Coach of the Year twice, at Washington State and Oregon State, programs at which he implemented immediate turnarounds. His accomplishment at Oregon State in particular is considered one of the most remarkable coaching feats in recent years. There, he took a team that had not had a winning season since 1970 and, in his second year, coached the team to an 11-1 record and a 49-10 drubbing of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.

Altogether, he has amassed 148 wins as a head coach at five different schools. He currently sits at number 11 on the NCAA active coaching victory list, and would almost certainly be in the top five if not for his two stints as a coach in the NFL. He says his personal goal is to reach at least 200 career wins.

But first things first: before that happens, he must take ASU’s program to the next level through savvy recruiting and the realization of a plan for success that has worked for Erickson and his staff for many years.

One key to that plan is bringing on board assistant coaches who have been a part of Erickson programs in the past. Amazingly, despite the fact that they were spread out across the country, Erickson had a relatively easy time convincing them to join him.

“The thing that I have with this coaching staff is a relationship that goes back many, many years,” says Erickson. “Everybody except Grady [Stretz, defensive line coach] has either played or coached for me . . . We have a philosophy that’s very similar, so it’s not like we have to sit down and get to know each other. We know what our goals are and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Their philosophy starts with the idea that, whatever else football is, it is first and foremost a game, and that means having some fun on the field.

Stretz, one of only two coaches remaining from the Koetter regime, says the sense of fun has been immediately palpable. “[Erickson has] brought new energy and enthusiasm and excitement to the program and to the community as well,” he says.

A newcomer to Erickson’s methods, Stretz is in a good position to impartially observe their effects. He is impressed with the new coach’s overall philosophy and how it translates across the board—in upper management, on the field, and in recruiting. “He’s a great communicator,” says Stretz. “He’s very personable. He knows how to garner respect of his players. [They] believe in the plan, [in the] recipe for how to get things done.”

In terms of on-field strategies, Erickson says that the average fan won’t notice major differences. He does plan to step up the running game, a part of the offense some say was undernourished in recent years.

Erickson, who has never had a losing record in his tenure as head coach, is enthusiastic about the coming season. Looking out at the stadium again, he reminisces about his experiences here as a visiting coach, when the seats were heaving with fans and the place blazed with excitement. His eyes seem to settle on the field, a rectangle of lush green at the center of all that architecture, and it’s obvious he can’t wait to get back down there to do what he does best.

By Michael Green, a Tempe-based freelance writer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is reprinted from the August 2007 issue of ASU Magazine. For information about ASU Magazine, visit the ASU Alumni Association.