College Football's Odd Couple: Utah's Dennis Erickson and Devontae Booker

Greg CouchNational ColumnistOctober 20, 2015

Utah running back Devontae Booker (23) carries the ball for a score against Arizona State during the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Salt Lake City. Utah won 34-18. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

It was the spring of 2011, and Devontae Booker couldn't get his life going. He didn't have the SAT score to play for a major college football team and couldn't get down to the junior college two hours from his home in a rough part of Sacramento, California, because he didn't have a car. He was out of school and out of football. And after a few months of lying around on his parents' couch, he took a job at FedEx, loading and unloading packages at the conveyor belt.

At the same time, Dennis Erickson's stellar coaching life was reaching its end. He had won two national championships at Miami, been the Pac-10 coach of the year at three schools, coached two NFL teams, and dealt with politics and bad owners and scandal and success. And his team at Arizona State wasn't going the right way. He would be fired by the end of the year. And then, a little jaded by his profession, he retired and went fishing.

There was no way to predict their stories would intersect in Salt Lake City. But they did, on the Utah Utes football team. Booker is the star running back on the No. 3 team in the nation and an Academic All-Pac-12 student. Erickson, at 68, is his running backs coach—yes, from a big-name head coach to a position coach—not because he needs the job but because he loves it.

"He's like another father figure to me," Booker said.

"I hope so," Erickson said. "That's what I've felt I've always been as a coach, a second father to players. It's more than just about football. It's about life in general."

These are two opposite stories working together so beautifully, with Erickson helping Booker to develop and grow. But also, Booker is helping Erickson to reconnect with the roots of coaching.

Erickson could have stayed retired and "hit golf balls crooked," he said. But he took a job far below the heights he had reached because he remembered what it once felt like.

"When I was growing up, my dad was a high school coach, and I was in the locker rooms all my life," he said. "That's what I love to do. When I started, all I wanted to do was be a high school coach like my dad.

"I had some opportunities, and I took them. I had some successes, some not. You become so involved as the head coach at some of these schools that it's all about PR and other things. It's not coaching. You get caught up in other stuff, and you get an ego. Now I'm back around to why I really got into coaching. You lose that a little."

Devontae Booker stats

Booker, a senior, isn't going to win the Heisman Trophy, but he's the best player on the team that has accomplished the most in the country. He has run for 130.5 yards per game, and Utah is the only undefeated team in the Pac-12. He considered turning pro after last season, but on the advice of Erickson, who went to his NFL sources to see where Booker stood, he decided to give Utah one more season.

If anyone has learned patience, it's him. It took Booker four years after graduating from high school in Del Paso Heights, near Sacramento, just to get to a major college.

But let's go back a little. Booker describes Del Paso Heights as a good community but a dangerous, gang-riddled one. Listen to this description.

"It was actually one of my friends in high school, his older sister," Booker said. "I think it was her birthday, and they got her a little car. She was just going out to a high school party. I was a freshman in high school. She was sitting on top of her car, and some guys came down to shoot up the party.

"A bullet hit her, killed her. Bullets have no names on them. I actually saw it, but I didn't see who was shooting. I rolled to the ground and started to crawl into the house over a bunch of people. As soon as the guys stopped shooting, [someone said], 'Someone got shot.' I just saw the girl lying on the ground."

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

This is what Booker grew up in. His dad, Ronnie, who helps veterans file claims for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said that shooting happened only a few blocks from their home.

"If there were 100 parties a year, in high school, Devontae might go to three of them," Ronnie said. "And every time, something happened. Shooting, gang stuff. Devontae was never a problem, never one to get in trouble. But I was always telling him, 'You have friends who are out there gang-banging. You cannot be out there.

"'Bullets don't have a name. If you see them, and they're going to do something, turn and go home.'"

Two of Devontae's gang-banging friends, Ronnie Booker said, were looking out for him, too. They didn't want to interfere with his future in football.

"Yeah, they'd say, 'You're trying to do something. Play football,'" Ronnie Booker said. "'Devontae, we're going over here. There might be trouble. You need to go home.'"

Booker was not highly recruited out of high school. He did get an offer to play for Washington State, but when he didn't get the needed college entrance exam score, the offer was rescinded, Ronnie said. Booker didn't know what to do. He had several friends going to junior college in San Mateo, about a two-hour drive from Sacramento, but he didn't have any way of getting there.

So what did he do? "I was just sitting at home," he said. "Sitting on my mom's couch. I wasn't doing anything."

His dad said that wasn't exactly accurate. He said Devontae was staying in shape, working out and sitting on the couch with his laptop all day, taking online courses. Then he got the job at FedEx. But why didn't Devontae mention that job?

"Probably because he didn't do it very long," Ronnie Booker said. "It was hard, a lot of work for basically minimum wage."

Think about his path. Now, he's among the top players in the country, two months from earning a college degree in sociology with a B-plus average, he and Erickson said, and then heading on to a likely NFL career. (He and girlfriend Destiny also have a two-year-old son, Deashon.)

Booker ended up playing two years at American River junior college near his home, where he got his grades up and earned some attention as a player. That landed him an opportunity at Utah.

Salt Lake City is a beautiful, quiet town. And it's like absolutely nothing Booker had ever seen.

"I remember just sitting there when I first got here," Booker said, "thinking, 'Man, there are no helicopters overhead all night.'"

What Booker's dad remembers was Booker calling him several times a day saying the team wasn't accepting him and that he wasn't comfortable. That was just two weeks into his time there. Ronnie Booker told him to give it two more weeks, and if that didn't work out, come home.

He got comfortable, in part because of his position coach: Erickson.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Ronnie Booker said the one coach Devontae always talks about is "Erickson, Erickson, Erickson." He said Erickson preached patience when Booker arrived and now preaches ownership of what he has earned.

"He's very positive," Devontae Booker said. "He's been through it all and gives good advice when I need it, about anything. He tells a few stories now and then. He's a great coach, a players' coach."

A winning coach.

Erickson quickly climbed in the coaching world. He seemed to have a million jobs. At Miami, he replaced Jimmy Johnson and won national championships in 1989 and 1991. Miami then underwent a harsh NCAA investigation and was placed on probation. Erickson wasn't implicated.

He went to Seattle in the NFL but had four mediocre years and was caught up in an ownership change. Then he went to Oregon State, where the Beavers nearly won the national championship. Then, on to the San Francisco 49ers, where he had to deal with the oddities of the York family ownership, a sour relationship with general manager Terry Donahue and the dismantling of the team to get its salaries in order. He was fired after two bad years. His most recent head coaching job was Arizona State, where he got off to a big start, then fizzled.

That would have been the normal time to retire for good. But Erickson helped his son, Bryce, coach at a high school in Oregon and then signed on in 2013 at Utah. He also is officially listed as assistant head coach.

Why don't more big-name coaches do that? For the love of coaching, why not just jump in at a lower level?

"Some guys have such a big ego," he said. "I know I called the plays forever, and then when I went to the NFL, I didn't have time to do it. At Arizona State, I didn't do it either. If I had a chance to do it over again, I would.

"You get caught up in all the other stuff, and then you get an ego. You start asking, 'Why should have I have to do this?' But that's not what I was in coaching for."

No, he was in coaching for guys like Booker.

Erickson is addicted to the coaching. And after sitting through an NCAA investigation, two weird ownership situations in the NFL and also winning big, he just wanted to have that old, pure feeling back again.

It's rare when you see that. But there's something hopeful about it, too. Former Green Bay Packers and Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman is now coaching a high school team on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Erickson said that big college teams, like Utah, have great support systems: tutoring and such. And Booker just grew up and took advantage of it all—became more accountable on the field and off.

He wouldn't take much credit for Booker's transformation but did say this: "That's what's rewarding about coaching. The situations with young people, regardless of their background, just helping them be successful. In my first head coaching job, at Billings Central High School, I got just as much enjoyment out of that as when we were winning the national championship.

"The pressure to win is so unbelievable at some places it kind of ruins the fun. Now, I'm back around to why I really got into coaching."

Booker helped Erickson to find the fun again. Erickson helped Booker to find his way.

Opposite stories going in opposite directions finish with the same happy ending.


Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.