When Arizona State fired Dennis Erickson after the 2011 season, he had been a head coach in college football and the NFL for 30 years. He was 64 years old, and for most of his adult life, Erickson had lived in fishbowls of varying sizes. He had answered questions from reporters. He had answered the phone in the middle of the night and heard which player had gotten in trouble. He had sold his program, sold his vision, chased recruits, chased free agents, moved to another fishbowl, and started over.
And now he was done. Erickson sat out a year. He had the time and the money to chase a golf ball, or crack open a beer and stare at his beloved Lake Coeur d'Alene. Instead, he thought about what he would run on offense if he got another chance. Erickson didn't need to coach for money. He didn't need to coach for the attention. He just needed to coach.
"I wanted to do what I do," Erickson said. "I just had that deal inside of me -- I just wanted to be around coaches and players. That's what it's all about. That's why you coach, period. I missed that aspect of it."
When the head of General Motors steps aside, he doesn't shrug out of his golden parachute and take a job selling Buicks. But there Erickson is, an assistant coach at Utah, where he is co-offensive coordinator with Brian Johnson.
I'm not on any ego trip. I've been there and done that on that one.
--Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson
"I'm not on any ego trip," Erickson said. "I've been there and done that on that one."
The only guy who may be happier than Erickson is Tom O'Brien. After spending the last 16 years as head coach at Boston College and North Carolina State, O'Brien, 65, is coaching tight ends at Virginia.
"Four," O'Brien said. "I coach four guys."
That's 101 fewer than what he is used to coaching, which explains why O'Brien cackled with glee when he answered the question.
"It's fun to coach again," O'Brien said. "You know, as a head coach, some guys do coach but you still don't get to go sit in the meeting room with the kids, do all the interaction you're doing on the field and actually coach them. You're still managing all the time. It's fun to get back to the basics."
The freedom that comes with age and experience has released both coaches from the climb up the coaching ladder. They already got to the top, where they won more than they lost. Erickson won two national championships at Miami (1989, 1991), finished No. 4 at Oregon State in 2000 and won 179 games in 23 seasons. O'Brien won 115 games and went 8-2 in bowl games in 16 seasons.
The night that NC State fired O'Brien in December, Virginia head coach Mike London called him. London had coached for O'Brien at Boston College. O'Brien, as an assistant at Virginia, had signed London's brother Paul to play for the Cavaliers.
"I was loyal to him. I knew he'd be the same way. It's all about getting us better to win," London said. "It was almost eerie that there was a connection not only with me but with Virginia. There were so many common denominators, for this time, it was the right thing to do."
O'Brien didn't warm up to the idea immediately. He didn't want his focus to waver from getting jobs for his assistants. He also liked the idea of having nothing to do, at least in the short term. His wife, however, didn't share his enthusiasm.
You can be around Tom and Jenny O'Brien for about five minutes and figure out that their marriage withstood the strains and demands of coaching college football. They tease each other with the comfort and knowledge that comes from loving your best friend for more than 30 years.
When he cleaned out his office in Raleigh, Jenny said, Tom brought his files and mementos "out of his office into our house, which was a condo, not a large one. He parked himself on my table and his crap was everywhere."
He was there every day. And then, with a "Can you believe it?" tone in her voice, Jenny said, "He started growing a beard."
"He kept asking me what I was going to do that day," Jenny said.
"You're not coming," she would say.
"One of his classmates from the Naval Academy was driving through town," Jenny said, "and so they were sitting on the sofa. And I said, 'I'm going to go run some errands.' I stayed away a long time. I tried to. I came back. And they were still sitting in the same spots. I think they had taken a nap together.
"I said, 'Tom, maybe you're just not ready to totally give it up.' You go from the middle of the football season to sitting around the house."
Jenny also said one other thing. She said it the day that London called O'Brien.
"I don't want to get my hopes up but I would really love to go back to Charlottesville," she said.
O'Brien hemmed and hawed about taking the job. But he has seen guys sit out voluntarily for a year, then sit out involuntarily for a lot longer. And he didn't forget what Jenny said.
"After 38 years," O'Brien said. "I figured, for a couple of years she can have something out of this whole thing, because I can do anything for a couple of years."
They belong to the same parish they belonged to when they lived in Charlottesville in the 1990s. "Everybody is sitting in the same places," Jenny said. Her personal trainer played soccer with one of the O'Brien's three daughters.
After Virginia went 8-5 in 2011, London's second season, the Cavaliers took a step back in 2012. He decided to make changes on his staff. He wanted O'Brien to be his offensive coordinator, same as O'Brien had been for George Welsh in his previous stint at Virginia.
"I said no," O'Brien said. "I don't have to be the offensive coordinator. I'm not working to get a [head-coaching] job. Somebody else can do that. Give somebody who wants to be a head coach a chance."
London gave O'Brien the title of associate head coach and put him in charge of academics. He is there as another set of eyes and a sympathetic ear for London. O'Brien may go watch the defense practice. He may give London advice, such as dedicating three of the 85 scholarships to special teams. O'Brien may even do the postgame radio show, which he did after London lost his voice early this season.
O'Brien is coaching in the press box for only the fifth season in his 39 years of coaching. Erickson hasn't been upstairs since he coached for Jack Elway (John's dad) at San Jose State in 1981.
"The biggest change is, as a head coach, you play every play," O'Brien said. "It doesn't matter whether it's offense, defense or special teams. For however long you're standing there, you're involved in everything. Now, I'm a third of the game ... . And then suddenly, you're not on call 24/7. You don't get the call from the police that this guy did this, or the dean of students, and all those issues. Today, there are guys lined up outside Mike's office, prepared to go in, I'm thinking, this is pretty good. Not me."
Erickson is co-offensive coordinator with Brian Johnson, 26, a former Ute quarterback. Erickson has helped Johnson better understand how much information his players can handle, how to call a game. Erickson helped Johnson design the game plan to attack No. 5 Stanford on the perimeter, a big factor in the Utes' 27-21 upset on Oct. 12.
"He's been great to have around," Johnson said. "Guys like him are born football coaches. He's been doing it for so long."
Exactly. And Erickson, like O'Brien, still wants to do what he does.