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

September 12, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

LARAMIE, Wyo. — 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.

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