‘My cross to bear’
LARAMIE -- In just two seasons at the helm, Dennis Erickson turned the Oregon State football program from the tattered doormat of college football into Fiesta Bowl champions.
The once toothless Beavers from Corvallis hadn't reached double-digit wins once in their 83 years of existence. Until Erickson arrived in 1999, OSU suffered a then-NCAA record 28 straight losing seasons.
My how the times have changed.
To make things even sweeter, that 41-9 Bowl Championship Series rout in the Arizona desert came against one of the most storied programs in the sport, Notre Dame.
"We're a football program that is on the rise," A stoic Erickson told a television reporter on the field following the win. "Hopefully we can continue to be. It's a program that is going to get better and better all the time. This will just help us get to the next level."
Seemingly, before the Gatorade even dried on Erickson's white polo, his phone rang. It was USC. They wanted the miracle worker to become head Trojan.
Erickson has been in this spot many times before. From humble beginnings in Moscow, Idaho to hoisting a pair of National Championship trophies on South Beach to the sidelines of the NFL, changing addresses was all-too common.
History would suggest Erickson would be on the first flight to Los Angeles.
Not this time.
"Because of what I went through, particularly at Wyoming, I just didn't do it. I stayed there," Erickson said Wednesday over the phone from his home in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "Sometimes there are things that affect you, you know? I just got tired of doing it and second guessing myself."
Erickson spent just one season in Laramie. On the surface, he coached a 6-6 team in 1986 before bolting for Washington State. No harm, no foul, right?
The "Erickson Air Express" took the Western Athletic Conference by storm. No longer were the Cowboys a mediocre team with a dated wishbone-option attack. Four wide receivers were running go-routes and tight ends were finding openings all over the yard against opposing defenses. No matter who was under center in '86, the ball was flying.
Erickson said he learned the spread offense from Jack Elway during his time as an offensive coordinator at San Jose State. You might have heard of his son. John Elway has a home two doors down from Erickson in northern Idaho.
"I just felt they weren't spreading them out that much in a WAC at that time," Erickson said. "I thought we could take off with that offense. Everyone was in the 'I' and wishbone back then, so it was really exciting."
The impact was immediate. Junior college transfers like quarterback Craig Burnett, wide receiver James Loving and tight end Bill Hoffman only expedited that.
The results were coming faster than expected, too.
"He changed our dynamic big time," said UW's Sr. Associate Athletic Director Kevin McKinney, who was the team's Sports Information Director in those days. "We were in the dumps when Dennis took over. He got us going again."
The Cowboys opened that season at home against 12th-ranked Baylor.
On a snow-covered Saturday inside War Memorial Stadium, Wyoming gave the Bears all they could handle. In fact, if it wasn't for a late Scott Runyan interception, coupled with a pair of missed field goals, two failed extra-point attempts and a couple of unsuccessful two-point conversions, this one doesn't end in a 31-28 victory for the visitors.
Runyan completed 28 of his 53 pass attempts for 343 yards in the loss, but it was apparent, it was a new era in Laramie.
"I told everyone who would listen to me that it was going to be close," Baylor head coach Grant Teaff told the Associated Press after the game. "We had a couple of chances to grab a lead, but we did not execute."
A year prior, Wyoming fell in Waco, 39-18.
After eking out a 23-20 home win over Pacific, the Cowboys traveled to Colorado Springs to take on Fisher DeBerry's unbeaten Falcons. Air Force, coming off back-to-back wins over Hawaii and UTEP, was a heavy favorite in its home stadium.
Mike Schenbeck and the Cowboys defense had other ideas.
In the second quarter, Wyoming's linebacker snagged a tipped pass of the right arm of Air Force quarterback Troy Calhoun -- yes, that Troy Calhoun -- and cruised 16 yards untouched into the end zone. Runyan was injured during the contest and was spelled by Randy Welniak, who helped the Pokes slip past the Falcons, 23-17.
A year prior, Wyoming was blasted by their Front Range rival, 49-7.
The Cowboys traveled to Madison, Wisconsin the following week. Underdogs once again, Erickson's bunch, despite turning the ball over eight times, including five fumbles, pulled off the unthinkable. The faithful inside Camp Randall showered the Badgers with boos and chanted "Boring, boring" as they left the field after the 21-12 stunner.
A year prior, Wisconsin came to Laramie and handed the Pokes a 41-17 setback.
The higher ups in Madison took notice. They were fascinated with Wyoming's lightning-fast turnaround. They were even more impressed with Erickson's innovative aerial assault.
They traveled to Laramie in the offseason in an attempt to woo Erickson. They wanted him to be their next head coach.
"That's just not what I wanted to do," he said. "We had some pretty good guys coming back the next year. I was looking forward to that."
He even reiterated that to his team before Christmas break when it became known Wisconsin was courting him.
Those words seem awfully hollow now.
Wisconsin may not have been on Erickson's wish list, but Washington State was.
He was from the state. He spent his first four years as a head coach just 10 miles across the border from Pullman at the University of Idaho. His father, Robert "Pinky" Erickson was a coach there. So was his college coach, Jim Sweeney. There were plenty of friends and family on the Poluse, too.
There was one issue with that though -- Washington State already had a coach.
That didn't look to be changing anytime soon, either.
Former Wyoming quarterback Jim Walden was at the helm of the Cougar program over the previous nine seasons. The "Mississippi Gambler," who led the Cowboys to a Sun Bowl victory over Hardin-Simmons in 1958, was seemingly safe in Pullman. His record was just 44-52-3 overall, but he did lead WSU to the Holiday Bowl in 1981, the team's first postseason appearance in 51 seasons.
In late December, to the surprise of many, Walden left his post at Wazzu and accepted the head coaching vacancy at Iowa State.
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Erickson got the call. He couldn't say no.
"The Erickson Express slipped away from Laramie like a darkened train in the night," the local paper read.
"... he left without saying so much as a goodbye to his players," the LA Times reported.
The latter part is true. It's a memory Erickson admits has stayed with him over the past 32 years. Did he want to avoid his players and exit stage left? Absolutely not, he says.
Timing was the issue.
"Before I could come back to Wyoming, (the media) announced it," he said. "It was my intention was to go back talk to the team, but the team wasn't there, number one. And number two, they announced it before I could even get down there. That's how it went down. It wasn't that I turned my back on everybody."
The notion he "left in the middle of the night" is false, he says. It makes for good headlines in newspapers, he added.
That doesn't mean the divorce was any less painful. Does he have regrets? You bet. Not facing his players is right at the top of his list.
"A guy told me, sometimes there are crosses you have to bear in life. That's one of them for me," he said. "That's the last thing I wanted to do, but that's how it ended up. I know nobody was very happy and I don't blame them.
"I didn't particularly care about what people in the public thought, I was more disappointed in not being able to sit down and tell the players that I was taking the job before it got out. I think about a lot, actually. It wasn't done on purpose. It wasn't done to hurt anybody."
Robert Midgett, a linebacker at Wyoming, was in Erickson's first and only recruiting class. He was on winter break back home in Detroit when the news came across his television that his head coach was on the move.
"When he left, the only reason I was mad is because he told us he wasn't going anywhere," he recalled. "I was mad for a couple of days after but I got over it. I understood business is business."
Schenbeck didn't hear the news until he arrived back on campus in January. A local reporter called him and wanted a reaction.
"I said, 'no, he isn't leaving. He told us he wasn't leaving,'" Schenbeck said. "Then the reporter told me he went to Washington State. I was in shock."
McKinney recalls the day he discovered Erickson was bound for Pullman. He said the athletic department "took some bullets" in the form of disgruntled fans demanding answers.
He wanted the players to get those answers first.
"The kids were pretty hurt that he never did gather them and tell them why he was leaving," he said. "Plus, we looked at that move as lateral at best. Washington State was not very good at the time. He had it going here so it was a tough pill to swallow. The players had all the faith in the world in him. They saw nothing but greatness in the future with the kids he recruited. It was heading in the right direction.
"Some of them still harbor grudges again him."
A Los Angeles Times article from 1987 says the Ericksons received threatening phone calls. Rocks with obscene notes were tossed through windows of the family home in Laramie.
It got ugly.
Erickson's departure represented another source of misery for the Wyoming faithful: Their beloved program was officially becoming "Stepping Stone U."
Before Erickson, Pat Dye drew the ire of Cowboys fans when he stayed in Laramie for just one season before taking the head coaching gig at Auburn. Fred Akers spent just two seasons at UW before taking over at Texas. Before them it was Bowden Wyatt leaving for Arkansas and Phil Dickens taking the job at Indiana. Bob Devaney headed to Lincoln in 1962, turning the Nebraska program into a national power.
How would Wyoming find a new coach. A solid one who would actually fulfill a contract?
That task was dropped on the lap of first-year athletic director Paul Roach. And like Erickson just weeks prior, Roach made the team a promise -- he would find that man.
Roach, 59 years old at the time, went to the school's board of trustees to discuss the next move. Tired of the turnover, the movers and shakers in Laramie had an out-of-the-box idea.
McKinney remembers it fondly.
"The players were all hurt," he said. "Paul met with them and promised he was going to go out there and get a good coach. The trustees talked him into it. He came back in front of the team and said, 'I promised you a good coach and it's me.'
"His sense of humor was awesome. That turned out to be the greatest move we could've ever made. It was like dumb luck."
Schenbeck remembers that meeting. Not with as much enthusiasm as McKinney.
"We thought, 'who is this old dude?' This is our new coach? Here we were finally winning games and feeling good, our coach leaves and we have this old guy," he laughed. "Erickson was the ultimate players' coach. How will this guy be?"
Midgett was right there with him.
"That's exactly it -- who is this old dude? That's exactly what I thought," Midgett said with a smile. "This old dude is not going to make it through the season. We knew who he was because he was the AD. I just thought, 'OK, here we go.'"
Roach wasn't just an AD. He coached during Wyoming's heyday under Lloyd Eaton in the 1960's. He was on John Madden's Raiders staff in Oakland from 1972-74. He also coached with Bart Starr in Green Bay.
This wasn't his first rodeo, but it was his first head coaching job outside of the high school ranks.
Roach's first executive decision was one that would impact this program over the next four seasons and beyond.
"He didn't change a damn thing," Schenbeck said.
Midgett said the same. So did McKinney. Even Erickson noticed.
"He's a smart man," he said of Roach. "That was a heck of a move when he became the head coach. I knew they were going to have success."
By the time spring practice rolled around, McKinney said the players were all on board with the new head man. They saw that he meant what he said about not tinkering too much with the system. And aside from asking players to cut their hair and not wear earrings, Midgett laughed, Roach also was very much a player-favorite.
There was just one hurdle remaining before the players and fans could eventually slam the book on Erickson.
The Cowboys were scheduled to play in Pullman in Week 2.
That game earned the moniker "The Bitter Bowl."
There was no skirting the issue -- the Cowboys were fueled by anger, just like the LA Times article states: "Angry Wyoming faces ex-coach: To his former team, Erickson has become a Rhinestone Cowboy."
That article talks about a defaced Erickson poster hanging inside the UW sports information office. A marker crudely jotted on it: "Where will this man be Sept. 12, 1987?"
Even a local motel marquee, according to the article, features the sentence "Beat the Cougs, not Dennis D Menace."
"The fans all over Wyoming want us to annihilate them," Burnett told the newspaper. It seems like this is the only game they really care about."
It wasn't the only one, but it was certainly one that star linebacker Galand Thaxton had circled.
"If there's a brick wall on the field, I'll run through it," Thaxton told the paper during game week.
Midgett told a tale that would prove that wasn't just lip service from Thaxton.
"He was on the warpath that whole week," he laughed.
Midgett said during a Tuesday practice, Thaxton knocked three offensive linemen out with concussions in the first 20 minutes. The hole in the front five required replacements. Midgett was one of them.
"Galand never yells in practice," he recalled. "He is literally the nicest guy you will ever meet. If you meet someone who has anything bad to say about him I want you to take a step back and think, 'what is wrong with this person?' That's the kind of guy he is. But, that day, he yelled at us to get out and block him like Washington State's line was going to do.
"I can tell you that was a good week of practice. Galand was upset."
Shenbeck recalls the build up of that game. For him, it was simply closure. The fact that the Cowboys fell 43-28 is the only grudge he holds. He said former coaches made their way to the UW locker room after the game to share hugs, tears and well-wishes, something Shenbeck said, doesn't happen in football.
"That was a real hard one," Erickson said of facing his former team, adding that some of the UW players expressed their disappointment with him after the game. "We almost got our ass beat, to be honest with you. We were all upset with what went down."
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Once that one was out of the way, Schenbeck said the Cowboys were all about the business at hand. The numbers prove that. Wyoming won 16 straight conference games and claimed back-to-back WAC Championships. They played in consecutive Holiday Bowls.
"Erickson built the foundation," Shenbeck said. "Roach built the house."
Erickson, now 73, would coach at WSU for just two seasons before taking the head job at the University of Miami where he won a pair of national titles. He then made the jump to the NFL where he became the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
His final season as a college head coach came back in 2011 when he led Arizona State to a 6-7 mark. He has since served as an offensive assistant at Utah and the head coach of the now-defunct Salt Lake Stallions of the Alliance of American Football.
Occasionally, Erickson said he'll bust out old tapes of his '86 team at Wyoming. He still marvels at the fact defenses were lost when it came to covering guys like Anthony Sargent, Loving and Hoffman. He said he's always kept a close eye on the Cowboys, though he hasn't stepped foot in the state since the day he left for Wazzu.
That nearly changed though.
Erickson, who graduated from Montana State, was on an advisory board as the Bobcats searched for their next head coach this winter. If the school failed to secure anyone in time, he said he would've volunteered to "help out."
MSU opens the 2021 campaign Sept. 4 in Laramie.
Instead, the school hired away UW's longtime offensive coordinator, Brent Vigen.
Shenbeck and Midgett say they forgave Erickson long ago. Both have talked with him since. Mitch Donahue also expressed his love for the coach that brought him to Laramie. They serve on the Montana Sports Hall of Fame Board together.
There's still one elephant in the room.
Erickson wanted to address the Wyoming fans.
"They're the best fans in the world," he said. "They really are. I've been in a lot of places -- maybe too many -- but those were the best fans I've ever been around. They live and breathe Cowboy football. I think about how big that state is and how far you've got to go to get to Laramie. Even nearly 35 years later, I still love that place. They care.
"I loved it there. I love the fans. unfortunately, you know, I didn't leave the way that they wanted or I wanted. To me, that was just that was the unfortunate thing and I apologize for that. I've apologized many, many times."
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