There has been a lot of speculation about Dennis Erickson‘s future at Arizona State going into the 2011 football season. The failure of the fifth-year head coach to notch a winning season over the last three years puts him squarely on the ol’ hot seat in the final year of his contract.
In fact, so much speculation has centered on the future of the ASU coach that it’s easy to overlook the tenuous situation of his rival down in Tucson.
Mike Stoops has been winning at the University of Arizona, so his job is safe for now. But after seven seasons, his program is showing signs of hitting a sticking point.
And that could spell trouble for the young coach, who has struggled to get out from under the long shadow of his older brother, Bob, who has enjoyed enormous success as Oklahoma’s head coach.
Both Erickson and Stoops opened their 2011 campaigns this week when they appeared at the first-ever Pac-12 Media Day (since the rebranding from Pac 10). And both were brimming with the usual optimism that comes with a new season and a fresh start.
“It doesn’t really affect me at all,” said Erickson when asked about being on the hot seat this season. “I have high expectations for our football team this year. We all do. And that’s all I can worry about.”
The Sun Devils evidently aren’t the only ones with high expectations this season. ASU is projected by the media to finish second in the South Division of the new conference structure, behind the generally-accepted favorite, Oregon.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, were picked to finish in fourth place this year, which is getting to be all too common.
“It doesn’t affect me,” said Stoops at the Media Day, when asked about the pre-season placement. “We’ve never been picked high, so it’s not unusual for us, is it?”
And then he smiles and says, “They must think I’m a bad coach.”
Well, bad coach or good coach, it all comes down to wins and losses. In that regard, Stoops is doing better lately than his Tempe counterpart.
But that can be deceiving.
Stoops, who is entering his eighth season as Arizona’s boss, has enjoyed winning seasons the last three years – unlike Erickson. His Cats are coming off a couple of back-to-back 8-3 campaigns, followed by last year’s 7-6 finish.
However, Arizona jumped to a 7-1 start in 2010, climbing to No. 9 in the national polls, and then lost the rest of the way. So they’re going into a new season with a five-game losing streak.
On top of that, they have closed out the past two seasons in humiliating fashion, losing major bowl games to Nebraska (33-0 Holiday Bowl) and Oklahoma State (36-10 Alamo Bowl).
So it’s only natural for fans and boosters to begin questioning whether Stoops has hit the ceiling of his ability. He’s done an impressive job of bringing the Arizona program back into national contention, following years of disappointing performances by his predecessors. It has been the result of relentless recruiting and hard work.
He returned the program to the national rankings in 2009, reaching No. 18, and has taken the team to bowl games the last three years. An acknowledged mastermind on the defensive side, he has combined that with a high-octane offense that has been fun for the fans and effective in finally producing consecutive winning seasons.
And his program is putting fannies in the seats at Arizona Stadium – which makes the school administration happy. The Cats just finished their seventh consecutive season with an average of 50,000-plus fans per home game.
However…college football fans are a fickle lot.
Erickson proved his ability to take the ASU program to greater heights, going 10-3 in his first season in Tempe and securing a share of the Pac-10 championship. He’s also been to the college promised land more than once, winning two national championships while at Miami.
That has helped him earn a pass from the administration for the past three years. His boss, Lisa Love, knows she brought in a winner when she hired the 64-year-old coach and she is still holding out hope that he will finish the job in Tempe.
But Arizona was Stoops’ first opportunity as a head coach in the college gamel. He has yet to prove that he can take a program to the next level.
And the pre-season prediction for a fourth-place conference finish is no indication that 2011 will be the breakthrough season.
Now Stoops just has to hope that his bosses, and the Wildcat nation, will continue to give him their vote of confidence – and the time he needs to prove that he can get where Erickson has already been.
But a “pretty good” team will only keep college fans happy for so long – regardless of which college it is. And, if the coming season takes a wrong turn and really goes flat, that 7-1 start last year will be nothing more than a distant memory.
And Mike Stoops will begin to feel the seat warming up.