The 2011 season was much like Dennis Erickson's tenure at Arizona State: fast start, then mediocrity and disappointment.
Erickson went 10-3 in his first season, but even that was a mirage of sorts, a product of a forgiving schedule. Some forget that the Sun Devils lost three of their final five games by an average of 16.7 points.
The Sun Devils started this season 6-2, posting quality wins over Missouri and USC. They were nationally ranked and 10 wins seemed likely with a forgiving schedule ahead. They seemed certain to win the Pac-12 South Division title.
But then the wheels came off. They lost their last four games, and now Erickson is out of a job.
Erickson's final record at Arizona State, which is 31-30 at present, will be determined after the Sun Devils' bowl game. Erickson, 64, opted to bow out gracefully, coaching the team he put together one last time.
"I will always cherish my memories here," he said in statement.
There was some conjecture that this would become a retirement instead of a termination for Erickson. Reached by phone Monday, Erickson said he has no plans to retire.
"Yeah, I'd like to coach again," he said. "I'm not done coaching. You know that. I'd certainly like to. It's just a matter of opportunity, of course."
Erickson also said there were no hard feelings between him and Arizona State administrators. He said he had "great respect" for athletic director Lisa Love and school president Michael Crow.
"We talked about it and they made the decision," Erickson said. "That's kind of how it is. The last part of the season didn't help us."
Of course, he doesn't walk away empty-handed. Under contract for another year, he will receive half of his $1.5 million annual salary.
What went wrong this year? The easy answer is defense. During the four-game losing streak, the Sun Devils yielded 37 points per game. During the 6-2 start, they gave up 21.5 ppg.
But it has to be more than that. Arizona State started the season riddled with injuries, but it won despite them. The team that started losing was healthier than the team that started fast. Of the final four losses, only California comes close to having the athletic talent the Sun Devils have. Something went wrong in the team's collective head. Something yielded. The chemistry and unity that were cited as hallmarks of the Sun Devils' senior-heavy locker room during the successful early going somehow cracked.
Defensive tackle Bo Moos told the Arizona Republic's Doug Haller this after the Arizona loss. "We have a group of 30 seniors. You should expect it to be there, but something within the chemistry hasn't been right for the past month and I really cannot put my finger on what it is."
While Arizona State will play in its first bowl game since 2007, the Sun Devils need to win to eclipse .500 for the first time since that season. That's not what folks expected when Erickson was hired. Say what you want about his nomadic ways, he was a guy with a proven track record of winning at the college level. While Erickson's NFL coaching career was a wash, he was successful at every college stop. This is the first time he's been fired from a college job.
Erickson won a national title with Miami in 1989, a Fiesta Bowl at Oregon State in 2000 and was 148-65-1 (.695) in 18 seasons before arriving in Tempe. He posted nine-win seasons at five different schools. He is one of only three people (USC's Pete Carroll and Washington's Don James) to win Pac-10 coach of the year three times.
Erickson's legacy is on solid ground no matter what he does next. While he has a roguish reputation with some folks, he's been an open, accessible guy who almost always went for optimism and rarely dumped on his players, even when they probably deserved it.
As for what's next for Arizona State, it's definitely going to be a competitive market to find a new coach, with firings across the country dotting the blotter. It's unlikely the Sun Devils will secure a sexy prospect for what Erickson was making, and the school is notorious for paying assistant coaches poorly. Further, Sun Devils fans will at least want to match the positive buzz generated by hated rival Arizona, which hired Rich Rodriguez to replace Mike Stoops.
The first name everyone is saying: Houston's Kevin Sumlin. Two problems with that: 1. get in line; 2. the Cougars are likely going to a BCS bowl game, which means Sumlin won't be available until after Jan. 1. That could put a strong recruiting haul assembled by Erickson at risk.
The Pac-12 blog will throw out a name that's also been buzzing a lot of places: former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. His pass-happy, spread offense is nearly identical to what the Sun Devils have been running the past two years under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
Leach comes with baggage, but Arizona State is a big-city program that must compete with pro sports for attention. So Leach's attention-grabbing ways probably would be more of a positive than a headache.
Whoever gets the job will inherit a solid core of talent, including a promising quarterback in Brock Osweiler. The next coach also might give serious consideration to retaining Mazzone, who's done a fantastic job transforming an anemic offense in two years.
It's been a schizophrenic season in Tempe. Erickson started the year on the hot seat, but with a team that looked like the South Division favorites. Through eight games, they played like it.
Then things went splat.
Talk to 10 people and you'll get 10 different explanations on why things never worked out under Erickson, this season or the three after the promising debut in 2007.
But as far as divorces go, this certainly isn't the worst. Erickson doesn't walk away significantly diminished. And the next Sun Devils coach has a chance to win immediately.
Of course, Arizona State has been called a sleeping giant for years. Will the next guy finally wake Sparky up?