by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen Dennis Erickson agreed to attempt to walk on water and revive the moribund University of Idaho football program for the second time, eyebrows rose across the nation.
When Erickson announced his intention to have a winning season in his first year back at Idaho, eyebrows arched even higher.
And when Erickson followed that up by expressing his desire to win the Western Athletic Conference and go to a bowl game this season... well, a lot of eyebrows came crashing down. After all, you can't cringe when your eyebrows are in an elevated state.
Erickson, of course, doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks. Anyone, that is, except Idaho's players, coaches and fans.
"Our goal every year is to win the conference and go to a bowl game. That goal will never change," Erickson says.
Erickson stops short of promising a winning season after six straight years of losing under predecessors Tom Cable and Nick Holt. That said, Erickson clearly does not want to suffer through just his third losing season (one each at Washington State and Oregon State) in 18 years as a college head coach.
"There's no promise, no magic wand. It's going to take time," Erickson says.
At 59, Erickson is still low-key on the outside, fiercely intense on the inside. The former Montana State quarterback standout (at a scrawny 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds) can schmooze with a rich booster at a black-tie dinner just as easily as he can charm a youngster seeking an autograph after practice.
"A lot of people are expecting a lot of things," Erickson says. "I know that. There's a little heat when that comes about, no question about it.
"But I've been dealing with those types of things for 30 years. It's not anything new."
Excuse Vandal fans for expecting miracles out of Erickson -- again. The Vandals were perpetual losers of the lowest order when Erickson made his college head coaching debut at the University of Idaho in 1982. That first season, Erickson set a school record (since broken) with nine wins, including one over Montana in the school's first-ever postseason game, an NCAA Division I-AA playoff contest.
Erickson posted a 32-15 record in four years at Idaho, capped in 1985 by the Vandals' first Big Sky Conference title in 14 years. Erickson kick-started a run of 15 consecutive winning seasons (and 12 straight wins over arch-rival Boise State) at a school that previously had posted as many as three straight winning seasons only once -- and that was way back in 1903-05.
Now, of course, the Vandals play I-A football, and they strike fear only in the hearts of the scoreboard operators who often must count opponents' points by the dozens. Idaho hasn't won more than three games since 2000, hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 1999, and hasn't beaten Boise State since 1998.
Erickson was aware of all that when he jumped at the chance to return to UI after spending a trying year away from the game ("Too much golf") for the first time since he started playing football as a child in Everett, Wash. Erickson also knew about the Vandals' daunting season opener Sept. 2 -- a road game with Michigan State, coached by John L. Smith, a former Idaho head coach and a Vandal assistant coach under Erickson.
"The pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself; it's never outside pressure," Erickson says. "Any pressure I've felt in coaching was created by me because I want to win so bad."
Booster donations, ticket sales and general interest in Idaho's football program have skyrocketed since Erickson's return. His likeness is plastered on billboards, posters and newspaper ads all over the state and beyond. He's made countless personal appearances and met with a long line of high school coaches.
Erickson expresses equal measures of amusement and frustration that he works out of the same cramped office he occupied two decades ago during his first run as Idaho's coach. Also, he couldn't find a suitable home to purchase in the airtight Moscow housing market (he's still trying to sell his ritzy house near San Jose, Calif.), so he's renting the same house he rented when he became Idaho's head coach for the first time in 1982.
Idaho is paying Erickson about $225,000 a year -- a relative pittance by I-A standards -- but the NFL's San Francisco 49ers still owe him approximately $2.3 million each of the next two seasons.
The man who won two national college championships at Miami (and two national Coach of the Year awards) never duplicated his success in the NFL. Hampered by shaky management in Seattle and San Francisco, Erickson was fired after going 31-33 in Seattle from 1995-98 and 9-23 (including 2-14 in 2004) in 2003-04 with a San Francisco roster scuttled by injuries and salary cap problems.
"I'll never go back to the NFL. Never," Erickson says.
"Obviously, it didn't agree with me. I got into a couple bad situations there... the last two years in San Francisco weren't fun. It was brutal, particularly the last year."
Still, Erickson says he "had a good experience" with the Seahawks and "probably" would have taken an NFL assistant coaching job if the Idaho position had not become available.
"I really didn't want to be an assistant coach. I prefer being a college head coach," says Erickson, who briefly talked with San Diego State (and former UI athletic director Mike Bohn) about the Aztecs' head coaching vacancy last winter.
Of course, that was before Holt suddenly jumped ship at Idaho for an assistant coach's job with the NFL's St. Louis Rams, then pulled a U-turn and headed to USC as defensive coordinator. Suddenly, Erickson was back where it all began -- and where the much-traveled coach said he expects to finish his coaching career, provided the Vandals move forward with plans to improve or replace the undersized and aging Kibbie Dome.
"Then," Erickson says, firmly, "I'd have no reason to leave."