Followers of Arizona State football don't like Dennis Erickson very much any more. No surprise there. He has lost 21 of his last 35 games, and Sun Devil Stadium has averaged more than 21,000 empty seats the last two years.

He's lost his touch and can't get it back, his detractors insist.

Erickson bashers insist his teams are about as disciplined as a college keg party. Give him some buyout money, they cry, and hire another guy.

In college football, this is as predictable as sun-rises-in-the-east.

ASU isn't going to fire 63-year-old Dennis Erickson, not now, and one of the reasons is that the Sun Devils don't have enough bank to pay him off and throw millions of dollars at someone like … like … who?

With the exception of Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly, where could ASU go, within reason, to hire a better football coach than Dennis Erickson?

Here's where: Nowhere.

When the Sun Devils arrive at Arizona Stadium on Thursday, Erickson is expected to start one senior. Yes, one. That means 21 of the Sun Devils in the starting lineup are likely to be on a Payback Tour at Sun Devil Stadium in 2011 when Arizona State is apt to be the New Hot Thing in Pac-12 football.

Every reliable indicator suggests that ASU is on the brink of a grand turnabout. The young Sun Devils lost by one at Wisconsin and at USC, fell by three to Oregon State and four to Stanford. With any luck at all, the Sun Devils would be 7-4 and bowl-eligible, if not fearsome.

This can't be good news for Arizona, which has been occupied with more weighty matters than the Territorial Cup. While Mike Stoops inched his program past Washington and UCLA, and onto level turf with Oregon State and Cal, the Sun Devils had to deal with the personnel shortfall left to them by fired coach Dirk Koetter.

It wasn't much different than what Stoops and Arizona had to overcome when he replaced John Mackovic. In time, the good coaches get it done no matter how much debris they inherit. Erickson, who is bound for the College Football Hall of Fame, is in the process of one of his top coaching performances.

So make no mistake: The Sun Devils aren't bad now - if they beat Arizona on Thursday it shouldn't be classified as an upset - and by next November they figure to be a Rose Bowl contender.

Sun Devil Stadium might be full again.

Somewhere along the line, while Erickson was maneuvering the tricky Idaho-Wyoming-Wazzu-Miami-Seahawks-Oregon State-49ers-Idaho-ASU job circuit, his reputation as a good coach got lost. He became Captain Mayflower.

Rarely has such a likable guy been so disliked.

When Erickson ditched Idaho for a second time, in 2007, a Seattle newspaper roared: Desert Perfect Place For This Snake. (Not bad, huh?)

The tone hadn't changed much since 1989 when, after deserting Wazzu to coach the fabulous Miami Hurricanes - who wouldn't have made that move? - Sports Illustrated wrote that the atmosphere among Miami players "was charged with suspicion, hostility and betrayal - feelings people usually don't have about Erickson until they've known him for a while."

It's a rep that Erickson can't ditch.

"He's been in the business for a long time, and I don't think this fazes him," said Stoops. "He's learned to enjoy his life and coach the best he can. I respect him as a person and as a coach."

At ASU, Erickson won immediately, taking a senior-laden, Koetter-created team to a 10-3 season before getting stuck in an inevitable down cycle that makes it almost impossible for anyone but USC (and now Oregon) to win consistently in the Pac-10.

Since Frank Kush was asked to leave ASU 30 years ago, it's my contention that Arizona holds a 17-9-1 advantage (Mackovic years not included) over the Sun Devils because they've had better coaching.

Larry Smith was able to get inferior forces to perform better than anything Darryl Rogers and John Cooper could put together. And the resourceful Dick Tomey, who was 8-5-1 against ASU, had a notable coaching edge over Larry Marmie and Bruce Snyder.

Stoops beat ASU in his first try, 2004, getting the best of Koetter's more experienced squad - a tough 3-8 team beating a soft 9-3 club - and it wasn't long before the Sun Devils fired Koetter, ate his contract, and went shopping for a coach who knew how to be more physical and win a Big Game.

Captain Mayflower's ship may be about to hit land.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or