Angry Wyoming Faces Ex-Coach : To His Former Team, Erickson Has Become a Rhinestone Cowboy

Times Staff Writer

On an "Erickson's Air Express" poster hanging in the sports information office at the University of Wyoming, somebody has drawn a bar over the eyes of Dennis Erickson, former Wyoming football coach.

That says a lot concerning this state's feelings about Erickson, who left Wyoming last January, ditching a five-year contract after only 13 months to become coach at Washington State.

Even more galling to Cowboy supporters than Erickson's departure was the way he left, without saying so much as goodby to his players.

Six weeks earlier, in withdrawing himself from consideration for a similar job at Wisconsin, Erickson had issued a public statement, saying that his work in Laramie was not finished and that he planned to continue building the program.

He called his players together after practice one day, telling them that he was staying at Wyoming and that if he ever did leave, they would be the first to know.

But when Erickson accepted the job at Washington State last Jan. 5, several of his players learned about it from a local sportswriter. Others heard it from a cook in their dormitory. And still others heard it on the radio.

None heard it from Erickson.

Arriving back on campus that week after Christmas break, the players were stunned.

"He did it undercover," one said.

John Haughey of the Laramie Boomerang reported: "The Erickson Express slipped away from Laramie like a darkened train in the night."

Erickson later wrote letters to a few of his former players, but he has not been back to Laramie. He didn't even come back to move his family. He has said that his wife, Marilyn, who stayed behind for a week with the couple's two sons, received threatening phone calls and that rocks with obscene notes attached were thrown through the windows of his university-owned home two blocks from campus.

His secretary cleared out his office and sent his things to Pullman, Wash.

And somebody, obviously knowing the answer, wrote on the poster in the sports information office: "Where will this man be Sept. 12, 1987?"

The answer is that Erickson will be in Pullman, standing with Washington State across the field from his former team in what one Rocky Mountain reporter has dubbed the Bitter Bowl.

Wyoming's new coach, Paul Roach, has tried to downplay today's match-up, saying that all this talk about Erickson is a distraction and that, besides, his players can't block or tackle Erickson.

The marquee at the Wyo Motel across the street from the Wyoming campus urges the Cowboys to "Beat the Cougs, not Dennis D Menace."

But they go hand in hand, of course.

Wyoming quarterback Craig Burnett said that, after Erickson left, all anybody wanted to talk about was the Washington State game.

"The fans all over Wyoming want us to annihilate them," he said. "It seems like this is the only game they really care about."

Only about 500 are expected to make the 1,100-mile trip from here to Pullman, but that has more to do with the distance involved and the inaccessibility of Pullman than a lack of interest in the game.

Roach, admitting that the bitterness toward Erickson will be a factor, said that if the game were being played in Wyoming's 33,500-seat War Memorial Stadium, "you couldn't get in with a can opener and they'd be checking for rifles at the gates."

If that's a slight exaggeration, it's only because Roach's popularity has helped to dilute the resentment toward Erickson.

Roach has kept the offense that enabled the Cowboys to rank second in the nation in passing last season and helped make Erickson so popular, despite a 6-6 record. Erickson had scrapped the wishbone attack favored by fired former coach Al Kincaid.

"Basically, nothing really changed," linebacker Galand Thaxton said. "Just the faces."

Also, as a former offensive coordinator under former Cowboy coach Lloyd Eaton in the late 1960s, Roach represents a link to the glory days of Wyoming football. Under Eaton and his staff, the Cowboys posted 10-1 seasons in 1966 and 1967, making trips to the Sun and Sugar bowl games, and added a third straight Western Athletic Conference championship in 1968, when they were 7-3.

Roach later coached in the National Football League--he was an assistant with the Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos--before returning to Laramie in 1985 as executive director of the university's Cowboy Joe Booster Club.

A year later, he was named to replace Gary Cunningham as athletic director. Cunningham, a former UCLA basketball coach, left for Fresno State.

It was in his role as athletic director that Roach met with Erickson's former players last Jan. 7.

Two days earlier, he had arrived with Erickson in San Diego for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. convention. A message was waiting for him from Washington State Athletic Director Dick Young. Although by all accounts Washington State had been negotiating with Erickson for at least a week and probably more, Young asked for permission to talk with the Wyoming coach.

Less than 24 hours later, on what has become known in Wyoming as Black Tuesday, Washington State called a press conference to announce Erickson's hiring. Erickson flew straight from San Diego to Pullman for the Jan. 7 press conference.

Erickson has said that he had planned to meet with his former players, but that the news of his departure broke too quickly and made it impossible. But Roach said that when he spoke with Erickson on the morning of Jan. 6, Erickson told him he had no intention of returning to Laramie.

"I had to go up to Pullman to take the job and they wanted it done right away," Erickson said by phone this week from Pullman. "With recruiting and all, I just couldn't get back."

Wyoming, of course, had recruiting concerns of its own.

It had no coach, and Erickson had scheduled 25 recruits to visit Laramie the weekend of Jan. 10-11. And more than $20,000 had been invested in a recruiting film and brochure featuring Erickson. Both recruiting visit and film had to be dumped.

Roach flew home to Laramie on Black Tuesday, spoke to the team in an emotional 45-minute meeting on Wednesday afternoon and made the three-hour drive to Denver on Thursday to meet with the school's trustees, who were there interviewing candidates to succeed Donald Veal, university president.

Roach, who brought with him the name of a potential successor to Erickson, was stunned when the trustees, after discussing the candidate, asked Roach if he would be interested in the job.

Roach, 59, had not been a head coach since 1956, his last season at Dickinson Central High in Dickinson, N.D., and had not been a coach of any kind since his last season with the Broncos in 1980.

But the trustees had grown tired of coaches who, in the words of Sally Michalov, Casper Star-Tribune columnist, had "used the state of Wyoming as if it were a slab of cement between two mud puddles."

LaVell Edwards, Brigham Young coach, seemed to express the sentiments of many coaches with his comments after the Jim McMahon-led Cougars were beaten by Wyoming in a blizzard at Laramie in 1981.

"I'd rather live and lose in Provo than live and win in Laramie," Edwards said.

Roach is Wyoming's sixth coach in 12 years, and the school has a history of coaches bolting for greener pastures after winning seasons.

Pat Dye stayed one season, 1980, before leaving for Auburn. Fred Akers stayed two, 1975 and '76, before leaving for Texas.

Others who have fled after a few good seasons include Bowden Wyatt to Arkansas, Phil Dickens to Indiana and Bob Devaney to Nebraska.

Some took to calling Wyoming: Steppingstone U. No wonder the theme for this season is "Making New Memories."

In Roach, who won his opener over WAC rival Air Force last week, 27-13, Wyoming believes it has a coach who isn't going anywhere.

"People think he'll be here four or five years and then he'll hand-pick his successor," said Bob Hammond, a Laramie native and sports editor of the Laramie Boomerang. "And then we won't have to go through all these coaching changes all the time."

As athletic director, Roach has included in the five-year contract of Benny Dees, new basketball coach, a financial liquidation clause that would cost Dees $100,000 to get out of his contract after one year and $50,000 to get out after two.

In answer to the obvious question, Roach said that he, too, has a liquidation clause in his three-year contract.

But Roach and others said they don't begrudge Erickson's leaving.

Erickson, 40, was raised in Everett, Wash., and his father, Pinky, is a former Washington State assistant coach. He was a graduate assistant coach at Washington State in 1970 and, before moving to Wyoming, was the head coach for four seasons at Idaho, which is in Moscow, Ida., only 10 miles from Pullman.

He said it had always been his dream to coach at Washington State. And when Jim Walden left after nine seasons last December to coach at Iowa State, Erickson had his chance.

But what about those promises?

Last Nov. 25, in the week before Wyoming's season finale at Hawaii, Erickson withdrew himself from consideration for the Wisconsin job and issued this statement through the sports information office:

"I have decided that it is best for me and the goals I have set to remain at Wyoming and continue to build the program. We have a lot of things to accomplish here to take this football program where we want it to be."

He told his players not to believe everything they read in the newspapers, that he planned to stay at Wyoming. A few weeks later, in another meeting with the players before they left for Christmas break, he told them the same thing.

But when the players returned to campus in January, their coach was gone, with nary a word of explanation.

"I felt betrayed," said Thaxton, who clenched his fists and fought back tears when he heard the news from sports editor Hammond. "It really hurt."

Said teammate Jeff Knapton, a defensive lineman: "Everybody was in a daze for about a week."

Hammond said many in the state took Erickson's departure as a personal affront, a rejection of their way of life. He said they thought that Erickson at least owed his players and supporters an explanation.

"He was a rah-rah guy, and everybody rallied around him," Hammond said of Erickson. "The kids loved him. I mean, they loved that guy. They believed everything he said. This was the guy who was going to lead them out of the dark ages.

"Suddenly, they found somebody they could believe in, and then they found they couldn't even believe in him.

"I just can't understand why he didn't care enough about the kids and enough about the people he was associated with to come back and tell them personally."

Erickson, meanwhile, said that he was "naive" and that he underestimated his popularity and the effect his leaving would have on his players and all of Wyoming, a sparsely populated state that in many ways revolves around the university. There are no other four-year colleges in the state.

Erickson said he had no intention of leaving, but that Washington State made a strong pitch, even bringing university President Samuel H. Smith to San Diego to try to persuade him. His ultimate decision, he said, boiled down to where he wanted to be in the future.

"Knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I would have made the same decision," he said. "I love it here and this is where I want to be, but if I had to do it over again and I could look at the effect it would have on the people, I don't know if I would have done the same thing."

He said his departure was poorly handled and that the folks in Wyoming were probably justified in regarding him as a carpet bagger.

"I've got mixed feelings on what I did and how I did it," he said. "There have been a lot of times when I haven't felt very good about myself.

"Nobody likes not to be liked."

As for today's game, he said: "If I had my druthers, I'd just as soon not play this game, because I have strong feelings toward those players."

And they toward him.

"If there's a brick wall on the field," Thaxton said, "I'll run through it."

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