Dennis Erickson is overqualified for the job he has had for the past season--Oregon State's head football coach.
And after leading the Beavers to their first postseason appearance since the 1965 Rose Bowl and their first winning season in 28 years, the former NFL head coach and winner of two college national championships at Miami could have done much better if he wanted.
But before he could make any plans for that next move--to a place such as Louisiana State, which had fired Gerry DiNardo--Oregon State officials ripped up Erickson's less than year-old five-year contract and whipped out a new five-year deal. It will pay him a relatively modest $480,000 a year in base salary, and television and radio income, but that's $180,000 more than he had been making.
Now, he would like the crowning touch: Oregon State's first bowl victory since 1962, which it can get Saturday, when it plays an even more surprising Hawaii team here in the Oahu Bowl--a game that easily could be dubbed the Turnaround Bowl. The Beavers are 7-4 after going 5-6 last season; the Rainbows are 8-4 under first-year coach June Jones after going 0-12.
"Other than the national championship game, this is the best bowl game going," Erickson said. "Where else are you going to find two teams like these playing against one another?
"What June Jones has done for Hawaii is the best story of the year. But ours isn't too bad, either. There are a lot of happy people in Corvallis who haven't had a lot to cheer about the past three decades. We gave them a year they'll never forget."
Not that Erickson wants the turnaround to end here. He is looking at the Oahu Bowl as an opportunity to establish Oregon State as a viable Pacific-10 Conference alternative for players also being recruited to the conference's marquee programs, Southern California, UCLA and Washington.
Former Beavers coach Mike Riley, who left Oregon State after last season to become the San Diego Chargers' coach, helped Erickson, who was fired last year by the Seattle Seahawks. Riley recruited sophomore sensations Jonathan Smith at quarterback and Ken Simonton at running back. He brought the Beavers to the brink of eligibility for a bowl game in 1998--their 5-6 mark was their best since 1971, when they also went 5-6--only to fall one victory shy.
"I was very excited when I heard Coach Erickson took the job because of his reputation," Smith said. "Any time you can be around a coach who won a national championship and who worked in the NFL, you'll take it."
Smith took Erickson's one-running back, three-wide receiver system and made it his own. He passed for 405 yards in a 21-17 loss to Pac-10 champion Stanford.
At 5 feet 10, Smith, a resident of Pasadena, Calif., isn't a prototype quarterback. But he threw for 2,784 yards and 15 touchdowns to give the Beavers a balanced offense that averaged 434 yards a game--11th in the nation--and scored a school-record 330 points. He also has been intercepted once in his past 173 passes, spanning five games.
Simonton, another Californian of modest stature, complements this aerial show. The 5-7, 175-pounder was fourth in the Pac-10 in rushing as a freshman (93.5 yards per game; 1,028 yards overall). This season, he improved to 1,329 yards (second in the Pac-10) and a school-record 17 touchdowns. He also has 18 receptions for 194 yards.
"This has been a great year for us, but we're not through yet," Simonton said. "We want to get a win to prove that we are for real. A lot of people around the country don't know that much about our program, so this is a chance on national TV to change all that."
Smith, Simonton and promising freshman cornerback Dennis Weathersby could keep Oregon State competitive in upcoming seasons, even though it will lose 16 seniors, including middle linebacker Jonathan Jackson, the team's leading tackler. But Jackson and his classmates are the ones who cherish this season most. They began their careers with a 1-10 season.
"We probably appreciate this season a little more than the younger guys because of where we've been," Jackson said. "The best way to end this for us would be with a win this Saturday."
However, as Erickson said, it's already been a pretty memorable season at Oregon State.
Even Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart came away a winner. On the day that Erickson's new contract was announced, Oregon State President Paul Risser also announced that Barnhart, in his second year at the school, had been given a new four-year contract worth $180,000 per year--a $15,000-per-year increase. But Barnhart was instrumental not only in landing Erickson, but getting a new indoor practice facility in place to the tune of $8 million.
Barnhart also secured more money for Erickson's coaching staff. Signing Erickson to a long-term deal and improving the packages of the assistants should keep turnover from being a problem.
"We have a good situation here and I think our assistants realize that fact," Erickson said. "This has been a magical season. But we want to have a long-term plan in place to help make us even more competitive in the future."
CAPTION: Coach Dennis Erickson, with Aaron Koch, got new 5-year deal before 5-year contract was year old. He led Beavers to first winning season in 28 years.