In years past, the loss of a head coach at this time of year would have been a death-blow to the program.
Not this year. Not now, as the University of Idaho program continues to rebuild as the newest full member of the Western Athletic Conference. Conference affiliation in the WAC has led to more facilities upgrades in recent years than the program instituted in the previous 25 years combined. New practice fields, the new Iverson Strength and Speed Center, and new locker rooms are the beginning of what has become a revitalized Idaho athletics program. Idaho's commitment to competing at the 1-A level, even during the wandering years (2000-2004) when football was a member of the far-flung Sun Belt Conference, is beginning to pay off.
Today, that commitment got another boost as Dennis Erickson was named Idaho's 32nd Head Coach of football at the University of Idaho.
The announcement comes at the end of a tumultuous week which began with an announcement last Wednesday of an impressive RECRUITING CLASS of 20 athletes, with reports citing coaching continuity and new facilities as the driving force behind the class.
Then things got crazy.
Within days news reports surfaced that Idaho's head coach Nick Holt had accepted an offer from the St. Louis Rams as defensive line coach for his good friend Scott Linehan, who had been hired as the Rams head coach in the off season. In a press conference Monday, Nick confirmed this by announcing he would be leaving the Idaho program, then left the conference without taking any questions. Within hours of the press conference new reports began surfacing that Nick would instead be headed to USC, not the Rams. VandalVenue.com confirmed last night that Nick had indeed received an offer he couldn't refuse from USC to become their Defensive Coordinator, and was heading to Southern California, not the pros.
In the wake of it all, Idaho was left without a head coach at possibly the worst time of year to be looking for a new leader.
Or so one would think.
Two years ago Idaho was looking to replace former head coach Tom Cable and was doing so without a firm conference affiliation (Idaho was a member of the Sun Belt Conference, but it was unlikely that could go on forever), no new facilities, an interim athletic director, and an interim University President. This time around the fax machine was whirring. Unlike last time, there was interest in Idaho's recently vacant head coaching office.
While Dennis was gone, his career hit "rock star" status. The next 20+ years for Dennis would include stops at Wyoming and Washington State before landing with the Miami Hurricanes in 1989 and leading them to two National Championships (1989 and 1991). After Miami he would take his shot twice at the NFL, coaching the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, though he never matched the dominance he displayed on the college gridiron. That dominance was reinforced by a 4-year stint between his pro gigs in which he became the head coach at Oregon State and delivered the Beavers' their first winning season in 28-years, followed by an 11-1 season and 42-9 dismantling of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
Today the speculation ended and Erickson was announced as Idaho's new head coach. He will be bringing with him a new staff which will be named at a later time.
Unlike the Idaho program of the 80's and 90's, he inherits a program that has endured 6 consecutive losing seasons. However, despite the mounting losses, he also inherits a program that is beginning to reap the benefits of WAC membership with stronger recruiting classes (courtesy of Nick Holt and his excellent staff), new facilities being constructed, new facilities being planned, and a reinvigorated fan-base, particularly on the Palouse.
The challenges ahead will be plenty, highlighted by a rugged 2006 schedule. The WAC schedule alone is tough (with road games at Fresno State and Hawaii), as is the 2006 non-conference schedule which includes trips to East Lansing to play Michigan State (and his protégé John L. Smith), Corvalis to take on his former Beavers, and a jog over to Pullman to take on his former Washington State Cougars.
But if anyone can handle the rigors of this '06 schedule and the challenges of keeping this program moving forward, our bet is on Erickson to get the job done.
Congratulations to the University of Idaho, and in particular Dr. White (University President) and Dr. Spear (University Athletics Director), and everyone involved on another fine hire.