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November 19, 2011

Erickson era hangs in the balance

Other than perhaps an opportunity to keep alive a perfect season and potential BCS Title game appearance, it's difficult to imagine more on the line than Arizona State has today in its Territorial Cup game against Arizona at Sun Devil Stadium, which includes but is not limited to the following:

  • A chance to stay alive in the race for an appearance in the first-ever Pac-12 Championship game (in which a win against Oregon would lead to a Rose Bowl berth)

  • A chance to continue its quest to save the job of head coach Dennis Erickson, who finds himself on the proverbial hot seat following back-to-back losses to UCLA and Washington State in light of three straight seasons in Tempe without a bowl game. It may take wins in at least the next two wins for Erickson to earn a contract extension.

  • Bragging rights over its geographical rival.

  • An ability to make a positive impression on approximately a dozen official visitors, five of whom are 4-star or better prospects, and also maintain its standing with the 25 current commits, some of whom have said they'll only play for the Sun Devils if Erickson remains into next season.

    Let there be no doubt, this is not only a season on the brink but an era. Erickson, in his fifth season in Tempe, has spent a lot of time pointing to 2011 as the season he expected to deliver returns to the athletic department and alumni base that has invested in him with great patience.

    Through two months of the season, it seemed as though even crippling injuries to a number of key players, including Omar Bolden, Brandon Magee, Deantre Lewis, T.J. Simpson and Junior Onyeali, wouldn't keep Erickson's forecast of an impressive 2011 season from coming true.

    Respectable losses on the road at Illinois and Oregon were his team's only blemishes and there was a groundswelling of support for Erickson for as a conference Coach of the Year candidate. A contract extension seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

    Then, the other shoe dropped.

    Three missed field goals, glaring defensive lapses and poor clock mismanagement proved costly in the Sun Devils' difficult-to-swallow 29-28 loss to UCLA to start their November. Seedlings of doubt sprouted through the surface a week later, when ASU had its worst defensive performance in years in an inexplicable 37-27 loss at Washington State.

    A loss to Arizona Saturday would lead to a full bloom of panic; an abandonment of whatever support remains in the community.

    Erickson's teams at ASU, other than in his first season, haven't overachieved relative to their potential. It's one of the reasons why talent acquisition is so important, perhaps even more vital to hi than many other programs. His programs, historically, haven't been hallmarked by disciplined play on the field or easily identifiable regimentation in practice.

    The Sun Devils typically have finished among the most penalized teams in the conference in his tenure, and you're unlikely to see it change. He's not the type of coach who runs his players into the ground or is overly animated about precision to the point of being manic.

    In short, Erickson is what's typically referred to as a players' coach. He's someone players and recruits find very likeable - to his credit, Erickson is a genuinely good person and easy to get along with, which makes him arguably his staff's best recruiter - and therefore want to play for.

    As a result of that, in part, and his willingness to go up against the regionally elite programs for talent in the Southern California hotbed, Erickson has clearly upgraded the talent in Tempe over the last four or five years.

    But there's a downside to his approach, that being more reliance on players to self-motivate and be responsible for doing the extra things that enable success. As we've discussed in detail this week, even with a senior-laded team, as the Sun Devils have this year, that doesn't always ensure appropriate preparation.

    If the Sun Devils had won the last two games, as they easily could, and perhaps should have - despite playing poorly they were in both games until the end - most would have said Erickson had finally turned the corner, the well respected recruiting class he's tentatively assembled would likely follow through to completion and progress could perhaps be sustained.

    That's how close he's been, but things are more up in the air now. Recruits don't have the historical and contextual depth of understanding that fans have, which can work in Erickson and ASU's favor. Even though this season likely won't ever be considered an unmitigated success locally, an appearance in the Pac-12 South title game would allow Erickson to sell the program's continued growth in a way that would probably work...so long as he's around next season with a contract extending beyond 2012.

    There are too many variables to list that need to be contemplated as to whether ASU should elect to extend Erickson - including how recruiting unfolds in the next month and how much money would the athletic department be willing and able to throw toward a potential replacement - that make the decision-making process difficult if not impossible to navigate based on knowledge currently available.

    But without two wins to end the regular season, that's probably a moot point.

    The Sun Devils have talked throughout the season about constantly having a 1-0 mentality, a hyper-focus on the game ahead and that game only. They haven't always lived by that credo, but they'd better now, because it's win or go home.

    For Erickson, that's Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to be specific.


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