When Dennis Erickson, the new football coach at Miami, held his first meeting with his players last month, the atmosphere was charged with suspicion, hostility and betrayal—feelings people usually don't have about Erickson until they've known him awhile. "There was a lot of skepticism when he walked in," says sophomore quarterback Craig Erickson, who's not related to his new coach. Dennis Erickson briefly described his plans for the team and asked if there were any questions. There were.
The week before, the Hurricanes had been abandoned by Jimmy Johnson, who left to coach the Dallas Cowboys, and they were worried. Johnson had set the tone for the Hurricanes, and now that he was gone, the players wanted to know whether Erickson would allow them to continue to intimidate, taunt and generally woof the bejesus out of their opponents. Or would he require them to help opposing receivers to their feet after turning them into road kill? Erickson assured his charges that he had no intention of curtailing their spirited approach to the game. "We're still going to style and profile," said wideout Randal (Thrill) Hill last week, as the Hurricanes wound up their spring practice. "A lot of people like the way we somewhat show off. That's Miami."
Miami will have a lot to somewhat show off next season, including a somewhat new offense, a somewhat new quarterback and a new coach who is somewhat likely to be around when his contract expires in five years. While Erickson's contract imposes stiff financial penalties if he tries to break it, a similar clause didn't stop him from leaving Washington State ahead of schedule.
Erickson has had four head coaching jobs in eight years, including three in the last four, and he has never been fired. After leading Idaho to a 32-15 record from 1982 through '85. Erickson took over a Wyoming team that was coming off a 3-8 season and pulled the Cowboys up to .500 in 1986. While attending a coaches' convention in San Diego in January 1987, he was offered the Washington State position. He never returned to Laramie to explain to his players why he accepted it. When his abrupt departure was announced, a rock was thrown through the window of the Ericksons' Laramie house, and his family received several death threats.
Erickson, 42, says that he had intended to stay with the Cougars for a long time, but last season they finished 9-3 and upset UCLA, and suddenly Erickson was everybody's favorite hot young coach. So when Johnson left Miami. Erickson found himself being wooed for the coveted position. Mindful of what had happened in Wyoming, Erickson at first told a Washington newspaper, "I am not interested in that job." But then he began to feel the knot in his stomach that told him it was time to move on. "It was an agonizing decision," says Erickson. "I didn't want people to think I'm a vagabond coach. But there was no way I could turn Miami down."
If Erickson the coach hopes to accomplish the minimum that will be expected of him this season—beat Notre Dame on Nov. 25 and contend for the national championship—he'll need plenty of help from Erickson the quarterback. In Miami's succession of notable signal callers—from Jim Kelly to Bernie Kosar to Vinny Testaverde to Steve Walsh—Erickson, who played his high school ball at Cardinal Newman in West Palm Beach, is the first Floridian.
He signed with the Hurricanes when Walsh was still an unknown freshman from St. Paul. For most of his first two seasons, during which Walsh guided Miami to 23 wins in 24 starts as well as to the 1987 national championship. Erickson was forced to accept that he would not be starting ahead of Walsh. "I was very frustrated at times," says Erickson, who has thrown a grand total of 86 passes in his Hurricane career.
When Johnson bolted for Dallas on Feb. 25, Walsh said that if Miami didn't give offensive coordinator Gary Stevens the top job, he would give up his final year of eligibility and turn pro. But by the time Erickson arrived, Walsh was reconsidering his stance. Erickson persuaded him to try his new system, which calls for more short passes than Johnson's pro sets did, and when spring drills opened, Walsh was in uniform. Two weeks later Walsh, who will have his degree by this fall, announced that he would not return for another season at Miami, saying only that he had achieved all his goals as a collegian.
But Erickson had already won his teammates' admiration by practicing without a chin strap on his helmet and by boldly sticking his chin into harm's way. When he thought that defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy had given him a cheap shot during the first spring scrimmage, Erickson tried to fight him, despite giving away a hundred pounds to Kennedy. Says Hill, "We call him the Jim McMahon of college football."
Erickson isn't cast entirely in the McMahon mold, though. He has been choosing his words carefully, trying to keep the spotlight—and as much pressure as possible—off himself. Erickson the coach hasn't been as restrained, however, saying that Erickson the quarterback is a direct descendant of Kelly. Kosar, Testaverde and Walsh. "I think he can be as good as the rest of them," says D. Erickson. C. Erickson did his best to justify that confidence on Saturday by completing 22 of 33 passes for 274 yards in the Hurricanes' spring game.
The Miami offense may not be quite as pretty to watch as Johnson's attack, but it will be efficient. Last season Washington State finished third in the nation in total offense, Cougar quarterback Timm Rosenbach led the country in passing efficiency, and running back Steve Broussard led the Pac-10 in rushing. With even better athletes, the Hurricanes could run up some monster numbers. "It's a control passing game," says Craig Erickson. "You carve away at the defense, and when the opportunity [to go long] presents itself, you take it."
"This offense is dump off, dump off, dump off, take off," says Hill. "The Bomb Squad is still intact. People across America don't have to worry."
They can leave that to Dennis and his wife, Marilyn—and whatever's left of their stomach linings. Marilyn woke up on the morning of last season's Washington State-Arizona State game with an ulcer, and she now brings Maalox to every game. Erickson routinely loses his breakfast before games, and once, while at Idaho, he hyperventilated so badly during a halftime speech that he fainted in front of his troops.
If he puts on that much of a show to get a team roused for Montana State, what will he do when his Hurricanes play Notre Dame? Set his pants on fire? No one knows. In Miami, the fans are just hoping he sticks around long enough for them to find out.
Coach Erickson, a demonstrative sort, may finally have met his equal in the Hurricanes.
Fall was very much in the air at Saturday's spring game.
Quarterback Erickson has shown everything in practice but a chin strap.