Dennis Erickson Is Back in Football at Utah! (Uh, Is That a Good Thing?)
The University of Utah Utes announced on Monday that former Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson has been named co-offensive coordinator for its football team—the 65-year-old Erickson will share duties with 26-year-old Brian Johnson.
Did anyone see this coming?
According to a USAToday report, Erickson will have final say "despite the 'co' in front of his title." So let's translate what that really means: Johnson is a Jedi in training and Erickson is Yoda.
Erickson has been described as a mercenary (by yours truly) because of his short head-coaching stints spanning the country yielding usually very good results. But let's be clear, most of those good results have also been achieved with his predecessors' players.
Erickson won two national championships with the Miami Hurricanes (1989, '91) while he was the head coach from 1989 through 1994—the previous head coach was Jimmy Johnson. At two schools (Wyoming and his second stint at Idaho) he only lasted one year before taking another job somewhere else.
Since 1982, Erickson has been a head coach at 10 different schools (with two stints at Idaho) and two NFL teams.
So yes, Erickson's a bit of a job-hopper, but he also has a career record of 179-96-1 and a 5-7 bowl record. He gets the job quickly done and then moves on to his next challenge.
And right now, Utah is pressing for his services.
Utah's immediate needs on offense are apparent: Among all Pac-12 teams, the Utes finished second-to-last in total offense, last in passing offense, ninth in rushing offense and eighth in scoring offense.
Can Erickson make the Utes more productive?
How long will Erickson stay at Utah?
Maybe, but then again Utah has always been one of the more over-achieving teams in the country—two years ago, Utah was one game away from winning the Pac-12 South (in its first year in the league) when it inexplicably lost to Colorado 17-14. The Utes didn't represent the South in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game but the fact remains that it was contending for it when it wasn't expected.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is big on discipline and sounds like a drill sergeant when he's on the sidelines. Erickson's last stop in Tempe, Ariz., on the other hand, didn't exactly portray discipline as part of his coaching repertoire.
In Erickson's final season (2011) at Arizona State, the Sun Devils were the most-penalized team in the country averaging almost 80 penalty yards per game. Fluke? No. We all remember the Vontaze Burfict saga.
In 2010 the Sun Devils were ranked No. 113 in penalty yards, in 2009 they were ranked dead last, in 2008 they were ranked No. 109 and in 2007—Erickson's first year as head coach at Arizona State—they were ranked No. 78.
Under Erickson, the Sun Devils regressed in discipline, and while some may point to it as a coincidence, current head coach Todd Graham, a well-known disciplinarian, coached up the Sun Devils to the eighth-least penalized team in the country.
Iron-hand Graham coached that turnaround in one year—his first at Arizona State.
On paper, Erickson and Wittingham look like oil and vinegar—a mix that only blends if forcefully shaken every few minutes. Still, Erickson's resume has impressed Whittingham, and according to the Utes' official website, Whittingham believes Erickson "has recruiting connections across the country which should benefit us on that front as well."
That statement is partially true—Erickson has forged many relationships from coast to coast—but how many prospects are going to commit to an offensive coordinator who has a history of not hanging around a program very long? That "benefit" may backfire on Utah.
I've met with Erickson several times and he's a likable guy—he rolls with the punches and is fairly transparent. And while his resume is superb and his persona is witty and sharp, I always got the feeling that he was not ever "all in" on the whole school experience—he's not a Pete Carroll, Nick Saban or Bob Stoops. You won't see Erickson singing a school's alma mater—his presence in a stadium or at a school fundraiser is simply a job requirement.
In the meantime, Erickson is now embracing Salt Lake City—this could be an interesting match. So could young Brian Johnson and Dennis Erickson's relationship.
This could be a case of two opposites getting along beautifully or an unintentional distraction brewing in the Pac-12.
May the force be with them.
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