Dennis Erickson's tenure at Arizona State, age five, passed away this week.
Erickson rose to prominence during his tenure as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes from 1989 to 1994, a highly successful run that included two national titles. He used that as a springboard to the NFL, coaching the Seattle Seahawks before bouncing around to Oregon State, the San Francisco 49ers and most recently for a season at Idaho before coming to Tempe.
He took over for Dirk Koetter, who had managed to keep ASU in low-level bowl games but never could lift the team into the conference's upper-tier. It was hoped that an accomplished coach like Erickson could get the Sun Devils over the hump.
The early indications were sensational.
Erickson guided ASU to an astounding 8-0 start, including a tremendous win in late October over then No. 21 California. After that victory, the Sun Devils rose to No. 4 in the BCS standing and received a pair of No. 1 votes in the AP poll. They lost their first game of the season to fifth ranked Oregon the next week, and alternated wins and losses the rest of the way, ending with a Holiday Bowl loss to Texas. Despite that, ASU finished 13th in the Coaches Poll and earned a share of the Pac-10 title, which made Erickson the winner of the Pac-10 Coach of the Year award.
With several key members returning, hopes were sky-high in 2008. After an easy 2-0 start, the team hosted lowly UNLV with a marquee showdown with Georgia coming up the next week. However, UNLV blocked a Thomas Weber field goal in overtime, handing ASU a crushing loss that sent the team into a traumatic six-game skid that ruined their season. While the defense remained strong, the offense tanked, dropping nearly 50 spots to rank 100th in the nation.
The same story continued in 2009.
Always a strong recruiter, Erickson brought in the school's highest ranked recruit ever, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and his addition to an already strong defense resulted in one of the nation's elite units, as the Devils ranked 13th overall. However, the offense was pitiful under new quarterback Danny Sullivan. The Devils ran a very simplistic and predictable scheme and simply couldn't score enough points. They ended 2009 on another six-game losing streak, one that saw the team held to just 21 points or less in every game. This prompted Erickson to make his finest move, firing offensive coordinator Rich Olson and installing Noel Mazzone.
Not surprisingly, 2010 brought with it rock bottom expectations, as the Sun Devils were picked to finish ninth in the preseason media poll. They dispatched their two FCS opponents to open the year, but with highly ranked Wisconsin and Oregon next, the outlook was bleak. However, the Devils played exceedingly well in each game and arguably should have won both, had it not been for a harrowing hallmark of Erickson coached team--self-inflicted wounds. Nevertheless, ASU was beginning to show it could hang with the big boys, as they battled USC and Stanford to the bitter end in close defeats. They ended the year with a big wins over UCLA and Arizona, and for the first time since early 2008, optimism reigned.
When he took the ASU job, Erickson said that he was building towards a five-year plan. With the new division structure of the Pac-12, an abundance of returning talent and the momentum from 2010 still fresh, the pieces were in place for ASU to win the South division and appear in the inaugural conference title game, and justly those were the expectations.
A win over No. 21 Missouri in Week 2 stoked the fires and two weeks later the Erickson era hit its high point with a huge win over USC. The win ended an 11-game losing streak to the Trojans and seemed to serve as a legitimizing accomplishment for both the program and Erickson. Even a loss to Oregon before the bye week did little to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding the team, and after a win over Colorado, the Devils stood at 6-2 and were in complete control of their destiny.
Then the season, and his career in Tempe, fell apart.
Erickson was always known as a player's coach, and the lack of discipline was evident in his team's penalty totals. But it also manifested itself in a sense of entitlement and a lack of hunger in the players. ASU had a slate in front of them that featured UCLA, Washington State, Arizona and Cal, all teams that the Sun Devils should have easily defeated. Instead, the once effective defense disappeared, replaced by a lackadaisical unit that refused to make adjustments to their opponent's game plans. As a result, the Devils lost each game and finished their second straight season at a pedestrian 6-6.
However, Erickson did do some good. His skills as a top recruiter were evident. The talent present on ASU's roster is now markedly better than anytime in the recent past and a loaded class in 2012 speaks to the possible success the program could soon have.
Ultimately, that talent could not overcome the glaring weaknesses in player and game management. The Sun Devils continuously were their own worst enemy with ridiculous penalties, turnovers and other avoidable mistakes. By the end, the players seemed to have lost the fire, which in the case of this season's game against Arizona, was simply inexcusable. Undoubtedly and deservedly so, these five years will be remembered as a failure at ASU, where talented teams fell well short of their goals.
Arizona State is now back exactly where they were five years ago--a program loaded with equal parts disappointment and potential, looking for the right man to lead them.