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Erickson begins fresh chapter

On Sports


Dennis EricksonThrough nearly four decades in the sportswriting business, I've been fortunate enough to get to know some of the great coaches in the world of football.

I'm not sure I've ever met a guy who understands the essence of "coach" as well as Dennis Erickson.

Erickson has his faults. Discipline, at times, has not been his strong suit.

But the man can coach. He is a leader of men. And he is beyond question a winner.

Now Erickson, a year removed from his dismissal after five disappointing years as head coach at Arizona State, is back at it as co-offensive coordinator at Utah.

I caught up with Erickson via telephone from the Los Angeles International Airport, where he was about to deliver a eulogy at the service for Tevita Moala, who played for him at Oregon State in 1999 and 2000.

Moala, most famous for returning a fumble for the game-clinching touchdown against California in '99 that secured OSU's first winning season in 28 years, died after a bout with cancer. He was 37 years old, leaving behind a wife and six children.

"His wife asked me to come and speak," Erickson says. "It's tough.

"I think of all the players I had during my first two years at Oregon State. There were plenty of great ones. Tevita — he was one of my first recruits — probably had more of an impact on that program in how he played the game than anybody on our defense.

"He wasn't very big for a linebacker, but he made so many plays. More than that, he was an emotional leader for everybody those two years. He smiled all the time. He had a great personality. That's how he was."

This is the first time Erickson, 66, has not been a head coach since 1981, his final season as offensive coordinator at San Jose State. Let go after going 21-28 his final four years at Arizona State, he was away from coaching last season, though he spent several weeks helping son Bryce in his first head-coaching assignment at South Albany High.

Whittingham first called Erickson last December. Utah went 5-7 last season and Whittingham was looking for some experience to add to his coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball.

"I was a little bored," Erickson admits. "I wanted to coach again, but I could have not coached and been OK. Kyle and I talked a couple of times. I wasn't sure. Finally, I thought, 'Heck, I better do it now, or who knows?' "

To say Erickson is overqualified for his current position is an understatement. He has been head coach at five major universities — including OSU, ASU and Washington State in the Pac-12 — as well as Seattle and San Francisco in the NFL. He won a pair of national championships with Miami in the early 1990s.

After a spring practice in Salt Lake City, Erickson has found the job to his liking. He didn't know Whittingham well — not as well as he knew Kyle's father, Fred, a former assistant coach at Brigham Young and Utah and for many years in the NFL.

"It's been good for me," he says. "Kyle is a good guy and coach. I enjoy the staff. It's been fun to focus on just coaching offensive football as opposed to all the headaches as a head coach. I've been dealing with that for 30 years. Going to work every day, that's the most important thing."

Erickson is sharing offensive coordinator duties with Bryan Johnson, 25, the former Utah quarterback who was the O-coordinator for the Utes a year ago.

"Bryan is going to be a star in the profession," Erickson says. "He's bright. We're working well together."

Will Erickson be calling the plays next fall?

"We're working that out," he says. "The best thing for both of us is for me to go upstairs (to the press box) for games. I haven't been up there in 30 years. I see things pretty good up there.

"I have no problem with (the arrangement) at all. I'm enjoying the coaching aspect of (being an assistant). Guys get in trouble, you deal with your own people. I kind of like it. I forgot how much fun being an assistant can be."

Erickson has implemented the no-huddle offense he employed during his final two seasons at Arizona State. He'll use aspects of the spread offense, though with two tight ends and more than a measure of control.

"I'm the one who decided to use it," he says. "I like it a lot. We're not going to be Oregon, not that fast-paced a deal. We'll run some option stuff. You don't have to be 100 miles per hour. We'll have three wideouts a lot and use a lot of stretch stuff. The offense will be a lot like we had at Oregon State, except we'll do it all in the shotgun."

Utah's quarterback is Travis Wilson, who started the final seven games as a true freshman last season.

"He has a chance to be pretty good," Erickson says. "He improved this spring. He's a big, tall athlete who can throw it. Smart kid. Young, but I like him. He can make some things happen."

I was wrong in my assumption that Erickson's duties would include fewer recruiting trips than most assistants. I figured he'd be a pseudo-head coach — maybe a guy who would be called on to close a deal along with Whittingham.

"I'll do a pretty normal load of recruiting," he says. "I'm going to move around a little bit as far as where I go. I'm in L.A. now, and I've done pretty well in the inner city in the past.

"I don't know that I'll have a real (recruiting) area. I think I'll kind of trouble-shoot. I'm in Arizona next week, and I'll go to Miami the week after that. I'm pretty busy. I'll be on the road a lot more than I thought I would be going in."

Erickson underwent hip replacement surgery in February. His health is "the best it's been in five or six years," he says. "I was able to go through spring ball with just a little pain. When you get to my age, you always have pain. But I'm moving around now a lot better with less pain."

The old ball coach laughs when I ask if he wants to be a head coach again.

"I'd like to some day," he says. "But I'm running out of days."

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