As I walked out of a roaring Mill Avenue establishment following Arizona State’s victory over Washington Saturday night, the mood following the game was joyful yet reserved.
The Sun Devils just won a must win game on the road in brutal conditions. ASU evened out their record at 3-3 and surprising to many observers, played nearly mistake free in the process.
As the game was winding down folks watching the game began to look forward and discuss the remaining schedule. Every "Johnny two cents" had their opinion on the matter, and following a solid win, a good margin tossed aside any thought of the Sun Devils earning a bowl and succeeding the remainder of the year.
I needed an explanation.
Most of the responses included, “Who has ASU beat other than the Washington schools?” “The Sun Devils can’t recruit!” “I want a coach who can win now.” Taking a second, I began to evaluate the outcry.
To be honest, Dennis Erickson has done all of the above.
Let’s take a look back.
Former ASU coach Dirk Koetter could not win the big game especially on the road. So, fans were clamoring for a quick fix. An instant winner in Erickson was called upon.
And he delivered.
In 2007, the Sun Devils were 10-3 and Pacific Ten Conference Champions. Whether you believe the “co-championship” title or not, the fact is every member of the team, coaching staff, training staff, equipment managers and administrative members received a Pac-10 championship ring.
Just kiss the ring.
Was anyone unhappy about the instant improvement in 2007? No, but fans in the Valley of the Sun enjoyed the success and wanted more.
Who wouldn't, right?
Unfortunately football does not work that way.
Recruiting is a very heavy component of a successful football program. The 2007 season proved how good of a football coach Erickson was and still is.
Koetter could not win "enough" with the players his staff recruited, but Erickson moved the chess pieces nearly to perfection, and engineered a tremendous turnaround in the desert.
From that point on, Erickson has recruited his tail off in an effort to make up for the lost time left by Koetter’s staff in ’05 and ’06.
In response to one fan’s outburst about poor recruiting by Erickson, I had to stand up and reply. I Subsequently named off a handful of players on the spot that ASU recruited in nearly 30 days of Lisa Love hiring Erickson in December of 2006.
All of them are either starters or were starters. The names I brought up were Omar Bolden (chose ASU over USC on live TV), Kerry Taylor (starting WR), T.J. Simpson (starting WR), Jarrell Holman (2-year starting S), Luis Vazquez (2-year starting DE), Morris Wooten (former starting LB), Garth Gerhart (2-year starting OL).
I could have continued, but due to a short attention span, or fear of agreement, the subject changed.
“Those players haven’t won anything, have they?”
This is where Sun Devil fans are at right now. The coaching is good. The players are entertaining and athletic. But the wins are not consistent.
Unfortunately, that is true the past three seasons.
Keep in mind: Erickson arrived in Tempe with the idea of gunning for the top. At the time, Southern California was on the top of the college football world and was a mainstay at BCS games every January.
The only way to be the best is to beat the best.
Erickson has yet to beat the best on the field, but on the recruiting trails ASU’s staff is going toe-to-toe with the big boys on the college football landscape.
Schools like USC, Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan have lost out to Erickson for recruits. Sure, the recruiting wars that those heavyweights have won against the Sun Devils are more frequent, but the small battles along the way to the top are the toughest to obtain.
Fighting through budget restrictions in terms of recruiting have limited the depth that coaches can search for kids. Not to mention one of Erickson’s best recruiters, Grady Stretz is limited due to his role at the University of New Mexico back in 2004.
Without budget numbers being involved or coaching restrictions, it is already tough enough to recruit players to a school that is not a traditional power, as is the case at Arizona State. Erickson chose the "be a part of the rebuilding process" route.
Rightfully so, Erickson made the pitch and it is a true statement. ASU does not get the term “sleeping giant” slapped on the sun-drenched campus in Metro Phoenix for no reason.
Erickson has attracted upper-echelon recruits and "diamonds in the rough" kids to sign scholarship papers to play for an elite Pac-10 team. Currently, however, ASU is a middle of the road Pac-10 team.
Arizona high school football has its desired prospects being sought out by many. In fact, this upcoming recruiting cycle will be very interesting with four local seniors in the ESPNU 150 rankings among others.
It would be nice to keep the homegrown talent local and wearing maroon and gold.
However, the real gem that ASU has found has been about 200 miles west: The Inland Empire in California.
Erickson has lured top prospects from the "Golden State" to wear maroon and gold, and that has made all the difference. While at Miami, Erickson had all the speed in the world at his fingertips and much of the same is across the border in California.
ASU has learned the hard way over past few years that speed kills. There have been numerous occasions against the game’s best teams where the Sun Devils were burnt due to lack of speed.
That is not the case anymore.
In analyzing Oregon, potentially the nation’s best team and the Pac-10’s elite, no team dealt with the Ducks speed and athleticism quite like ASU. Stanford tried to punch Oregon in the mouth, but that did nothing.
Speed beats speed, and ASU was not afraid. In fact, ASU believed that their team was better than the Ducks. Whether that is true or not, Erickson’s team ended that conversation with seven turnovers.
The phrase recently has been “next year is our year”. That was the saying the past two seasons once ASU hit a bump in the road, or a four game losing streak (take your pick).
This season many of those same comments were expressed following three straight losses; albeit, those losses came to Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State, one win would have been nice.
In actuality, ASU is not far from that one win. The Sun Devils lost those three games by a combined 15 points. Yes, I know, “a loss is a loss, and a win is a win.” But, ASU won on Saturday night, and people who were sporting Sun Devil colors were the first to cast a stone.
Just imagine what Louisiana State’s head coach Les Miles is thinking. Miles is 6-0 and the fans are calling for his head just two years removed from a BCS National Championship in 2008. Tempe seems pretty light compared to fans in Baton Rouge.
Nothing like a "negative nancy" after a win, especially after a game that the Sun Devils absolutely needed.
The fact is, ASU has the players to compete with, and beat the best. Erickson has a very undervalued staff that consists of former players, former assistant head coaches, young tireless recruiters, and staff members with innovative NFL minds.
All of those attributes are now starting to blossom.
Erickson has lived up to instant expectations and continued to build up the program in the desert. His goal upon arrival in Tempe was winning the Rose Bowl, and that was not just coach speak.
The one BCS bowl Erickson has yet to win is the Rose, and that has always been an achievable goal for ASU as experienced in the past. The Rose Bowl is a passion and desired stage for every team in the conference, including future members Colorado and Utah.
Saturday night was the first time in a long time where the Sun Devils displayed that passion and desire in a victory. It looked and felt great.
Did you witness the celebration by Erickson as the clock wound down to zero?
That is a coach I want running my football program, and Sun Devil fans should jump onboard as well.