A popular poster in Moscow shows Dennis Erickson standing among Idaho football players with a light beaming on him as if he were otherworldly...

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A popular poster in Moscow shows Dennis Erickson standing among Idaho football players with a light beaming on him as if he were otherworldly.

The headline: “He’s back.”

And so he is. Dennis Erickson is back at Idaho. So is hope.

Twenty years after he left the then-Division I-AA school, Erickson is back to direct the floundering Vandals program that has gone 11-47 the past five seasons.

Last Saturday’s 27-17 loss at Michigan State shows the Erickson turnaround has begun.

No one should be surprised.

This, after all, is the 59-year-old coach who won two national titles at Miami and who bluntly told Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, “I can take you to the next level.”


Idaho @ Washington State, 12:45 p.m., FSN

On Saturday, Erickson will take his team to the next town, Pullman, only 8 miles away. He will try to end Idaho’s five-game losing streak against the Cougars.

The Cougars are 17-point favorites, and Erickson’s team won’t get the motivational boost it got last week when The Lansing State Journal’s pregame coverage was headlined “Official Fan Blowout Guide.”

The Vandals, 29 ½-point underdogs, ripped up copies of the newspaper, then almost pulled the upset.

It was a welcome-back-to-the-sideline performance for Erickson, who spent last fall out of coaching after being fired by the San Francisco 49ers after the 2004 season. He was a lousy early retiree. He said he missed “the camaraderie of being around coaches and players.”

Erickson wanted to return to college coaching, but few jobs opened. But when Nick Holt bolted from Idaho seven months ago, Erickson was the first man called. Season-ticket sales jumped the next day and have climbed 40 percent over last year to about 4,000.

Erickson occupies the same office in the Kibbie Dome he had in the 1980s and even lives in the same rental house his family once occupied.

Idaho is paying Erickson $215,000 a year, which is a bargain-basement salary in Division I. The 49ers still owe Erickson millions and the NFL team just deducts what he makes at Idaho from his check.

Idaho’s schedule this season is providing “welcome-back” appearances for the new coach. Erickson took the Cougars to the 1988 Aloha Bowl in his second season at WSU before moving on to Miami, where he stayed six years. After a four-year stint with the Seahawks, where he was 31-33, Erickson landed at Oregon State, where the Vandals will visit Sept. 23.

Erickson calls his decision to leave OSU for the 49ers “a dumb mistake.” He said he didn’t do his homework and didn’t realize the 49ers had no salary-cap room to acquire talent.

When he arrived at Idaho in February, Vandals players fed on the buzz of Erickson’s notoriety and now have adjusted to the different dynamic he has brought.

Nate VanderPol, a senior tackle from Federal Way High School, said practices are “definitely intense.” He also said they are more efficient and that better preparation is demanded. He said the new coach “promotes the team aspect as much as he can — coming together and playing as one rather than people doing their individual things.”

Reggie Jones, a junior cornerback from Kent-Meridian High School, said, “He wants to teach rather than yell at us. That’s something I love.”

Asked how he has changed as a coach over the years, Erickson replied, “I’ve been down the road a lot of miles. You learn as you go through different things. … I’m maybe a little calmer to a point than I was. Maybe I put up with less than I used to put up with. I think I know how to get it done. I have a pretty good idea now what is necessary to be successful at the college level. I know the direction and the steps we need to take.”

Among those steps is an upgrade in Idaho facilities. He wants a new performing arts center that can accommodate a basketball arena built so the Kibbie Dome can be expanded from its present 17,600-seat capacity to about 25,000.

An architect is working on the plans, but no fund-raising has begun.

A standard question for Erickson is why he has been so much more successful coaching college teams than pro teams.

“I wish I knew that answer, or else I might still be in the NFL,” he said. “Sometimes it’s situations. … There are so many different things involved in it. I think that’s an old question. Obviously, I didn’t have the success that we had hoped for in the NFL, but we’re happy where we’re at right now.”


• Starting running back DeMaundray Woolridge (thigh bruise) practiced Wednesday. On Tuesday, he had been labeled “doubtful” for Saturday’s game.

Craig Smith: 206-464-8279 or csmith@seattletimes.com