THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Reflections from College Football Hall of Famer Dennis Erickson

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  • Courtesy Miami Athletics Dennis Erickson coached the Miami Hurricanes to national titles in 1989 and 1991. Erickson coached at Miami from 1989-94.

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    Courtesy WSU Athletics Dennis Erickson, heading into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday, was honored by Washington State earlier this fall. Erickson coached the Cougars from 1987-88.

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    Courtesy Idaho Athletics Erickson coached at Idaho from 1982-85, and again in 2006.

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    ERIC ESPADA/University of Miami Athletics Dennis Erickson, center, was honored by Miami on Oct. 19 for his College Football Hall of Fame induction, and also as part of the 30th anniversary of the Hurricanes’ 1989 national title team.

  • Courtesy Miami Athletics Dennis Erickson coached the Miami Hurricanes to national titles in 1989 and 1991. Erickson coached at Miami from 1989-94.

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    Courtesy WSU Athletics Dennis Erickson, heading into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday, was honored by Washington State earlier this fall. Erickson coached the Cougars from 1987-88.

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    Courtesy Idaho Athletics Erickson coached at Idaho from 1982-85, and again in 2006.

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    ERIC ESPADA/University of Miami Athletics Dennis Erickson, center, was honored by Miami on Oct. 19 for his College Football Hall of Fame induction, and also as part of the 30th anniversary of the Hurricanes’ 1989 national title team.

All you need to know about Dennis Erickson’s Hall of Fame coaching career, you can learn by watching him on the treadmill at the local health club.

He’s wearing a pullover from the University of Miami, where he won two national titles in six seasons as coach of the Hurricanes.

Underneath that is a long-sleeve shirt from the Salt Lake Stallions, of the short-lived Alliance of American Football.

“I’ve got to use it for something,” Erickson said with a laugh. “I’ve got to get something out of that league.”

His workout shorts are from the University of Utah, where he was an assistant from 2013-16.

He was wearing his national championship ring from the 1991 season, when the Miami Hurricanes went undefeated, beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Erickson also guided the Hurricanes to the national title in 1989.

And he’s got plenty of workout gear from his other coaching stops — including Washington State, Idaho and Oregon State.

“I got more hats than anybody,” Erickson joked. “I think I’m damn near around the whole Pac-12 with hats.”

He’s in more halls of fame than he can remember. And he’s headed into one more on Tuesday in New York — the College Football Hall of Fame.

“To me, this is the best one that you could get in, as far as college coaching is concerned. It’s a national hall of fame,” Erickson said. “So to me, it’s the biggest honor that you can get in college football.”

His wife, Marilyn, and sons Bryce and Ryan are with him in New York for the occasion, and deservedly so.

“They’re the ones that have had to put up with this for 50 years,” Erickson said.

He’s one of two former coaches and 13 former players to be enshrined on Tuesday — a list that also includes quarterback Jake Plummer, another with North Idaho ties.

As part of the enshrinement, Erickson and others will be in Atlanta just after Christmas, to be honored at the site of the College Football Hall of Fame.

This fall, as part of the enshrinement, he was honored at three of his coaching stops — Washington State, Oregon State and Miami.

He said he enjoyed seeing old players and coaches at those stops, and was impressed at the improved facilities at all three places.

Weird thing, though. At each of the games he was honored, his former school lost — Washington State to UCLA, Oregon State to Stanford, and Miami to Georgia Tech.

“They probably want me to stay away from now on,” Erickson said with a laugh.

Erickson, 72, posted a record of 179-96-1 in 23 seasons as a college coach, a career which began in 1969 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Montana State.

His head coaching stints included stops at Idaho (1982-85, 2006), Wyoming (1986), Washington State (1987-88), Miami (1989-94), Oregon State (1999-02) and Arizona State (2007-11).

He was also head coach of the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and San Francisco 49ers (2003-04).

Currently living at his home on Lake Coeur d’Alene, Erickson also touched on a few other football topics last week.

On the current four-team playoff the Football Bowl Subdivision uses to determine its national champion.

“No. I don’t (like it),” he said. “I’m in favor of an eight-team playoff. If you go to eight, you know you’re going to get at best, at least, 5 or 6 teams in the country. With four, there’s going to be 1 or 2 teams that deserve to be in it that aren’t in it. I just think you need to go to eight and play three games to win it. When you get to four, there’s too many close teams that should be in it.”

“If you get eight, you’re not leaving anybody out that deserves to be in it. And then you just play. To me, it’s simple. You look at I-AA (now called FCS, with a 24-team playoff) ... they seem to do pretty well with that. I wouldn’t go that (many teams).”

On the stress of being a college football head coach — especially in the wake of Chris Petersen’s surprising resignation earlier this week, after just six seasons as Washington coach.

“The stress that you have when you’re a head football coach, particularly in certain places ... yeah, I can understand it,” Erickson said. “The expectations you have yourself, that other people have. The stress is enormous. I felt that at times, at the end of my career. It’s hard; they’re making a lot of money now. Obviously you don’t see a coach last 6-7 years anymore ... the firings happen way more than it did in the past.

“Chris is a great coach and a great person,” said Erickson, who competed against Petersen when he was at Boise State from 2006-13. “Always had a lot of admiration for him.”

On his time as head coach earlier this year with the Salt Lake Alliance, a stint which lasted just eight games (and a 3-5 record), before the first-year league shut down late in the season for financial reasons.

“We were told when we went in there that it was going to last for three years, and had a good chance of making it,” Erickson said. “I enjoyed it; I really enjoyed it. You had players that had been in the NFL, or were trying to get into the NFL, or trying to get back in the NFL, so their attitude was awesome. And they played hard. I really enjoyed being around them. It really was a lot of fun — probably the most fun I’ve ever had. It was going in the right direction ... ”

Until it wasn’t.

“One day we came in, on a Sunday, getting ready to play a game, we had played eight out of 10 games, getting ready to play Atlanta. They called us, I was in a quarterback meeting, at 1 o’clock on Monday, and got a call from Randy (Mueller, the general manager and St. Maries native), and they said they were not playing any longer.

“Players got paid by the game, so they got eight-tenths of their money,” Erickson said. “Coaches got paid by the month, so we got a quarter of what we were supposed to get.

“Once they closed ’er off, you were out of that hotel in a day.”

The XFL will make its second go of it in 2020.

Erickson said the only way one of these leagues will work is if they have the financial backing, and/or the support of the NFL, and basically serve as a minor league to the NFL.

“And the NFL needs it,” he said. “You have guys in college, going to the National Football League, they have never taken a snap under center, because everybody’s in the shotgun. and you have to be able to take a snap under center in the NFL.”

Same with linemen, trying to make the adjustment from a 2-point stance in college to a 3-point stance in the NFL.

“It (the AAF) was starting to make an impact and ‘boom!’ it just blew up in our face,” Erickson said. “It was fun coaching ’em. ... in that way it was like the NFL. If they didn’t play hard, or were lazy, you just got rid of ’em. Unlike college football. They were all trying to make it, trying to get better, so you never had anybody that didn’t play hard or work hard at it. And it was great for me, I was able to coach on offense, which I love to do, and work with the quarterbacks ... “

On the current trend of read-option offenses, compared to the offenses Erickson ran as a head coach, and earlier in his career as an assistant coach.

“We were really doing the same things, we were just under center,” he said. “The read option, we did all that stuff many years ago when the veer and the wishbone were big.”

As offensive coordinator under Jack Elway at San Jose State (1979-81), and later as head coach at Idaho, WSU and Miami, Erickson spread the field with a one-back offense — one of the first coaches to use a one-back offense.

“It was all about, and still is, mismatches,” he said. “You get four wide receivers, or three and a tight end, and one back. They never used to play a lot of nickel (defense), so they’d have a middle linebacker on a slot receiver. I don’t see anything that people are doing in the passing game that are any different than what we did.

“When we started the spread stuff with coach Elway, you’d have two backs. One goes in motion, either give it to the dive back or quarterback keeps it, or throws it to the motion guy. So you had all three options — you had the ability to throw it to the guy in motion, you had the ability to read it and hand it, or read it and keep it.

“That’s what they’re doing now. It’s the same thing; they do it differently, they’re in the gun now.”

On whether he’ll ever coach again. Before coming out of “retirement” to coach in the AAF, Erickson was a volunteer assistant in 2017 at Lake City High under his son, Bryce, who was the T-Wolves’ head coach.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They’re not hiring a lot of 72-year-old guys at this point.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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