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Brian Murphy: Erickson's return has Vandals thinking big

MOSCOW — Dennis Erickson didn't walk across water to get to the Kibbie Dome for Wednesday's press conference announcing him as the new football coach at Idaho.

But it wouldn't have surprised any Vandal fan if he did.

Erickson once resurrected the Idaho football program from the Division I-AA abyss. Now the 58-year-old is being called on to lead the Vandals to the I-A promise land.

Oh, and a WAC championship would be nice. Visions of bowl games are dancing in their heads in newly energized Vandal Nation. Never mind that the Vandals haven't had a winning season this decade and haven't won more than three games since 2000.

"Expectations are probably for five or six wins, and I don't think that's unrealistic. With a little luck and people staying healthy, six or seven or eight wins are possible," said Ken Hobart, an All-America quarterback at Idaho under Erickson in the early 1980s.

Against a schedule that includes non-conference road games with Michigan State, Washington State and Oregon State, eight wins would qualify Erickson for immediate enshrinement into the College Football Hall of Fame.

"The expectations will be high and hopefully they can come true, but that's asking an awful lot," Vandals fan and former baseball coach Gary Johnson said. "If anyone can do it, it's Dennis."

That about sums up the feeling here in Vandal land: If Erickson can't do it, well, then it simply can't be done.

And, you know what, Erickson loved every minute of Wednesday's euphoric press conference — part pep rally, part stump speech. Beneath a full head of shaggy gray hair, Erickson never stopped smiling.

He ribbed reporters, some of whom covered him 20 years ago. He said he needed a tutor to help him pass the open-book NCAA recruiting test. He joked about his time in the NFL, where he coached San Francisco and Seattle.

"My two years in San Francisco were interesting. I got to coach T.O.," said Erickson, who went 9-23 with the 49ers, whose roster included troubled wide receiver Terrell Owens. "The National Football League was not the greatest area for me."

College is. Erickson wore his 1991 Miami national championship ring for the occasion.

Though he didn't show it to his new players — just about every one of them attended the press conference and sung the Idaho fight song afterward — the Vandals know what Erickson has accomplished.

"This guy is a legend in our minds," quarterback Steve Wichman said. "He's been around the game since before all of us were born. He's been at this level for so long. It's just an amazing feeling for all of us."

Erickson feels it, too, and that's why he's back. Back in college football. Back in Moscow. Back to doing what he loves — coaching.

Last season, for the first time since 1981, Erickson was not a head coach. It pained him. So he jumped at the chance to return to Idaho — he's building a summer home in Coeur d'Alene — and rebuild a program where he went 32-15 and won a Big Sky Conference championship in four seasons from 1982 to 1985.

The fans expect a repeat performance. And Erickson's track record of rebuilding programs quickly gives them hope. He has had just two losing seasons in 17 years as a college head coach. Idaho fans aren't expecting No. 3.

"We're not at the penthouse and it's going to take a lot of work to get there, but the elevator is going up instead of down," Idaho fan Joe Walker said. "With his presence and resume, he has elevated the football program, the athletic program and the university."

That's all they want from their new coach. Lift an entire university. Turn around a downtrodden athletic department. Rescue a football program from the bottom of its conference.

Next, they'll ask him to move mountains.

And on this day, at least, you'd give him a pretty fair chance.