Two years since sacking Erickson, the 49ers are in the playoff hunt. After spending last fall in semi-retirement in San Jose, Erickson resurfaced at the University of Idaho, the school that gave him his first head coaching job in 1982. And like San Jose State's Dick Tomey, Erickson has quickly breathed life into a once-proud program and given the fan base hope.
"There is just something special about Dennis," said Barbara Bull, a Vandals booster for nearly 40 years. "So many people remember him from the first time and how he turned our program around. We're not Ohio State, and we know it, but we'd like to think we might be someday."
San Jose State's visit to the Kibbie Dome on Saturday will conclude Idaho's season. There won't be a bowl appearance for the Vandals (4-7, 3-4 Western Athletic Conference) or even a winning record. But Erickson's return to Moscow, a northwestern Idaho community of about 22,000, has been a success.
He inherited a program that had totaled 11 victories the previous five seasons and was 2-9 in 2005. The last time Idaho won more than three games was in 2000. Big-time recruits are taking Idaho seriously. Fans also are coming back. Season-ticket sales were up 35 percent to nearly 4,000.
"I think he's absolutely the right guy for that job," said Tomey, who was an assistant on Erickson's staff with the 49ers in 2003. "He's brought a sense of optimism to their program and belief they can win and will win."
Best of all for the school is that the 49ers are paying most of Erickson's salary. Idaho pays him $200,000, one of the lowest salaries for a Division I-A head football coach, which is deducted from the $2.5 million he'll be paid this season and next for not working for the 49ers.
"I enjoy being back," said Erickson, who works out of the same Kibbie Dome office he occupied more than 20 years earlier. "If you make progress, it's enjoyable, and we made quite a bit from a year ago, but we have a lot more to make.
"Sometimes when you're in a program that hasn't won it takes a little while to get out of that rut. I see us getting out of it."
Erickson, 59, has always been successful at the college level. He has a 149-63-1 record in 18 seasons. He won two national championships at Miami, led three teams (Miami, Oregon State and Washington State) to 10 bowls and guided Idaho to the Division I-AA playoffs twice in four seasons.
He also has a history of turning programs around.
In 1982, after three seasons as SJSU offensive coordinator under Jack Elway, Erickson took over a I-AA Idaho program that had produced four winning seasons in 42 years. The Vandals went 9-4 and advanced to the playoffs, the first of four successive winning seasons and a 32-15 record under Erickson.
Erickson's biggest revival came at Oregon State, where in 1999 he took over a program that had just completed an NCAA-record 28th consecutive losing season. His first team went 7-5 and went to a bowl, and a year later the Beavers went 11-1 and routed Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I don't think he's going to go anywhere and not be successful," said Texas-El Paso coach Mike Price, who has known Erickson since they were teammates in high school. "He's just got that gift. He's a guy that's always a winner."
It is that drive to succeed that led Erickson to make what he calls the worst decision of his life in 2003 when he left Oregon State for the 49ers. Erickson didn't like the way his first stint in the NFL ended he was let go by Seattle after a 31-33 record in 1995-98 but it went even worse with the salary-cap strapped 49ers.
After a 7-9 finish in 2003, the 49ers went a league-worst 2-14, and Erickson was fired with three years and $7.5 million remaining on his contract.
Erickson and his wife, Marilyn, lived in San Jose last year, and Erickson said he mostly played a lot of golf. The fall was the worst. He caught some SJSU games at Spartan Stadium and spent many Saturdays watching games on TV, but that was a poor substitute for coaching.
Idaho wasn't looking for a coach until Nick Holt left to become USC's defensive coordinator last January. Two days later, it was announced that Erickson was coming back. That day, 500 season tickets were sold.
Erickson expects a quick turnaround. He points to Tomey's success at SJSU. After a 3-9 finish last season, SJSU (6-4, 3-3 WAC) is on the verge of a bowl game and could finish with eight regular-season victories.
"We'd like to get to that point, the sooner the better for me," Erickson said. "Hopefully we'll accomplish what they did this year next year."