How might the history of the University of Wisconsin football program been rewritten if the late Elroy Hirsch had hired the head coach who was No. 1 on his short list in 1986? That coach was Dennis Erickson, who had just completed his first season at Wyoming.
In seeking a replacement for Jim Hilles, who had served as the interim coach in ’86 after the death of Dave McClain in April of that year, it was no secret that Hirsch, the former UW athletic director, favored Erickson over Tulsa’s Don Morton, who got the job.
Erickson wound up at Washington State, where he stayed for two seasons before replacing Jimmy Johnson as the head coach of the Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes. Erickson won national championships in 1989 and 1991 with the ’Canes.
Morton, meanwhile, was fired after the ’89 season at Wisconsin after the program bottomed out during his 6-27 tenure. Once the Morton experiment failed, there was no shortage of finger-pointing within the administration.
Irving Shain, who was the UW Chancellor when Morton was hired, told The Capital Times that his only role in the hiring process was putting together a financial package. Nonetheless, there was some concern on Bascom Hill that Erickson would rely too heavily on recruiting junior college transfers.
Hirsch insisted that he recommended Morton for the job only after Shain had rejected his choice of Erickson. “We had two or three guys in mind,” Hirsch told The Capital Times. “But Erickson was the guy who was most highly rated.”
Erickson, now 63 and in his fourth season at Arizona State, will be making his third visit as an opposing coach to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when the Sun Devils take on the Badgers in a 2:30 p.m. game televised by ABC.
In 1986, his Wyoming team survived an injury to its starting quarterback and eight turnovers (five lost fumbles) to beat Wisconsin 21-12. Trailing 14-3 at halftime, the Badgers left the field to boos and chants of “Boring, boring” from the students.
The last time Erickson was here was 1989, when Morton was clearly on the hot seat for a lack of success on the field and a lack of interest in the stands. An announced crowd of 38,646 showed up for the opener, which was televised nationally by ABC and called by Keith Jackson.
Erickson’s No. 3 ranked Miami team crushed the Badgers 51-3. Whoa Nellie.
In a twist of irony, Erickson is feeling some heat today after back-to-back losing seasons with the Devils.
“It’s not my first time (on the hot seat),” Erickson told the Arizona Republic in early August. “I’ve been on the hot seat a lot. I don’t pay any attention to that. If I’m a fan and I’ve seen two seasons of what we’ve had, I wouldn’t be very happy with me, either.”
• • • •
How might the history of the Badger football program been rewritten, if at all, if a linebacker from Burgettstown (Pa.) High School had accepted a scholarship offer from legendary Frank Kush and Arizona State instead of legendary Bob Devaney and Nebraska?
“You never know,” ventured Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. “I remember on my recruiting trip to Arizona State getting off the plane and seeing all those mountains. I had never seen anything so pretty in all of my life.”
Alvarez also remembered when Kush showed up in his home.
“My dad was working, so my Uncle John sat in with my mother,” he said. “And it didn’t take long for Uncle John to offend Kush.
“Are you an N-C-Double-A school?” he asked innocently. “That really ticked off Kush, who made a point of telling my uncle that the Sun Devils were ranked No. 10 in the country and had a hell of a team.
“On my trip to Arizona State, I just couldn’t believe their practices. Frank killed those guys. He had them running laps and sprinting every time he blew that damn whistle. I didn’t mind the hitting. I wasn’t crazy about all that running.
“You talk about a tough old coal miner from western Pennsylvania (Windber, Pa., to be precise). That was Frank Kush.”
Years later, Alvarez, then a Notre Dame assistant, crossed paths with Kush leading up to the Irish playing for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I’m walking through a buffet line,” Alvarez said, “and Frank comes up from behind — I didn’t see him coming — and he gives me a kidney punch. He says, ‘This is the SOB who didn’t come to Arizona State when I recruited him.’
“Can you imagine that? Frank is still wiry and still strapped up (for someone who was 5-7 and 150 pounds when he played collegiately at Michigan State) and he’s still giving me hell for not going there.”
If Alvarez had gone to Arizona State, who knows where he might have started out as a young coach? Maybe if he had gotten his early training in the Southwest or on the West Coast, he would have become a disciple of the spread offense.
Four wides? Empty backfield? Air Alvarez? This is where the hot tub time machine springs a leak. Water over the dam, so speak.
In 1995, the coach that the Badgers turned down (Erickson) and the coach that turned around the Badgers (Alvarez) were on the same staff for the East-West Shrine game.
“Very good coach. I’ve always respected him and we’ve become pretty good friends,” Alvarez said. “We’re of the same vintage.” In a very small world.