A football game will end Thursday evening, and Dennis Erickson will walk across the field at Sam Boyd Stadium and shake hands with opposing coaches and players.
And then reality will set in.
“Now that it’s coming closer,” he said, “I’m thinking, ‘My God, is this really happening?’ ”
Perfect fits don’t exist in sports when it comes to a head coach and a team, but great ones do. Erickson was one at Arizona State, or at least that was an overwhelming opinion five years ago from Tempe, Ariz., to Tallahassee, Fla., and everywhere in between.
He will coach the Sun Devils against Boise State in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, and then consider his next professional move, having been fired by Arizona State on Nov. 28 in response to his team losing its final four regular-season games to go 6-6.
You have to believe things haven’t been the same for Erickson since 2008, when Arizona State lost to a UNLV team coached by Mike Sanford.
Talk about sending a guy into a tailspin of doubt and misery.
I bought into a popular consensus about Erickson when he accepted the Arizona State job: That, given his previous college stops included two national championships at Miami and building Oregon State into a side that resembled more an NFL outfit in boat-racing Notre Dame at the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, he again would prosper at a place willing to extend him academic rope when it came to those he pursued.
Throughout his college coaching career, he has recruited risks in the classroom and, given how undisciplined his Miami teams played at times, on the field. NCAA rules violations are a clear part of his legacy. Erickson hardly arrived at Arizona State with a spotless resume in terms of how he became so successful rebuilding programs.
But the Sun Devils needed someone to improve the annual underachievers they had become under former coach Dirk Koetter, and Erickson was rewarded a five-year, $5.6 million contract to do so.
Arizona State went 10-3 his first season and played Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
It has gone 21-27 since.
“I think different things contributed to it,” said Paola Boivin, a sports columnist for the Arizona Republic. “I think Dennis was at a different place in his career (at age 64), and there were times people weren’t sure he was 100 percent into the job. (Arizona State) is also a school that has had a very hard time raising money, and the support and facilities and what they could pay assistant coaches and things like that around him were lacking. When he got there, the previous staff had also done a poor job recruiting. It was going to take awhile to build things back up.
“Whatever happened after that first season fizzled away the last few years. I very much bought into the idea of (Arizona State) hiring Dennis. He came with championship rings and had rebuilt programs everywhere he had been. He had won at a lot of places.”
Arizona State hired Todd Graham to replace Erickson, and while the new guy in charge is said to own a fiery outlook lacking from the head chair of late, he seemingly also owns little tact.
Graham is the one who informed his players at Pittsburgh he was bolting the program after one season, telling them via an email to the team’s director of football operations.
This just in: Graham won’t be on anyone’s short list of the college game’s classiest coaches.
It’s this sort of bad publicity that accompanied the Arizona State hire that has Erickson most distraught, not for his own sake in losing a job but for those seniors who play their final college game Thursday.
“This is about them and not about me,” Erickson said. “They have been together for what seems like forever and have been a great class. But in this whole process, of me being let go and the whole (coaching) search, nobody seems to have remembered them, and that’s a sad deal to me.
“I don’t know what I will do next. I’d like to coach again. I’d like to stay in football. We’ll see what opportunities are out there. I believe I have a lot to offer. I know my wife wouldn’t want me around the house all the time. As soon as the game ends and it all settles in, I’m sure what happened will hit me. At the end of the day, it’s still about wins.”
It’s another reminder that perfect fits don’t exist in the world of college football programs and their coaches.
Dennis Erickson didn’t even prove to be a great one at Arizona State.
Not many could have predicted that.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.