Tara Erickson, Oregon soccer’s all-time winningest coach, did not have her contract renewed by the University after what ended up being a disappointing season.
In 2006, after the Ducks got off to a 6-1-2 record, Erickson was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year. However, in that season, just as in her seven other seasons as head coach, the Ducks failed to make the NCAA Tournament. She struggled to compete in the conference against the likes of Stanford, UCLA and other top programs. Overall, with Erickson at the helm of the program, the Ducks are 20-46-10 against conference opponents.
During her tenure, Erickson didn’t seem daunted by how her teams fared against tougher competition. She worked hard to put the program in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 by expanding recruiting throughout the western side of the country and instilling a strong defensive mindset in her young players.
“We lost to (Stanford and UCLA) by one goal,” Erickson said midseason. “It’s not like we are miles off from either one of those teams. I think right now they have some better overall and deeper personnel than we have, but we aren’t getting blown out by those teams. I think we can compete with the upper half of the Pac-12.”
Oregon is obviously much more known for football, track and basketball, but as certain programs rise in national relevance, others are expected to follow. Last year, the baseball team made a run at the College World Series, while the acrobatics and tumbling team won the 2012 National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association’s national championship. This year, Duck volleyball has been ranked as high as second in the nation, while the track and field team is an annual juggernaut.
It is tough to keep a head coaching job in a major conference with a consistent lack of postseason play, but finding a new head coach can also be a rough task. It is clear there is no replacement already, and it is uncertain when they will find one — especially one better than Erickson. She did fail to meet expectations of the athletic department, but that doesn’t mean the next coach will fix all the problems.
A couple of weeks before her departure, she spoke about the expectations laid out when she was hired.
“I think when I came here, the expectations were to just make the program better,” she said. “The program had not been all that successful. I think that the media expectation was to make the program better, which we did. I think we have had some seasons where the team has performed better than expected, and somewhere we haven’t performed as well as we would have liked to. Overall, I think we are in a much better place.”
She also touched on the notion of soccer being a game where the difference in winning and losing can be minuscule. That was surely a trend throughout the season with six losses coming by only one goal. Maybe Erickson sees that as being competitive, but the difference between teams that win one-goal games and the teams that lose them is massive — staying competitive is never enough when the end result is a loss.
One of Erickson’s former players, who asked to remain anonymous, felt like the coach’s defense-first coaching style resulted in lost games, particularly games lost by one goal.
“We knew she was on a one-year contract,” the player said. “We didn’t expect it, but we knew it could happen because of the season. We usually worked on defense more than offense. Later in the season, we worked on offense more because we had such a hard time scoring. She was just more defensive-minded.”
It has always been said that defense wins championships. Erickson’s defensive prowess definitely transferred on the field in the play of her girls. Her excitement when Nicole Bakke or Lauren Thompson would perfectly execute a slide tackle was undeniable, and the same goes for when freshman Mariah Powers would tally a steal.
As much fun as it is to watch this gritty, bully-like style of play, it’s hard to ignore the losses. At least one of the players agreed with Mullens’ decision, and although she does like Erickson as a coach and person, she agrees with the administration’s decision to make a change.
“I am excited to see who we are going to get,” she said. “I feel bad that (Erickson) lost her job, but I think it will be good for the program to get someone with a different perspective on the game and with a different idea of how the game should be played. To win games, you need to score, and we couldn’t score. Moving forward, I think it was the right decision.”
The firing might have been poorly timed due to Erickson’s knack for recruiting: This last class boasted budding stars, such as scoring leader Kristen Parr, defender Powers, and midfielders Maryn Beutler and Kira Wagoner. The class was so strong Erickson played between four and six freshman at a time. With the departure of seniors Scout Libke and Mo Fitzgerald, back-to-back strong recruiting classes could be crucial to the future no matter who is leading the club.
Erickson’s departure didn’t come as a surprise. No matter who’s on the sidelines, missing postseason play eight years in a row is going to stir up rumors. Erickson was proud of her girls for staying competitive with some of the top teams in the country, but the team repeatedly failed to take the next step and win close games. The season — and Erickson’s entire tenure — was far from embarrassing, but as the relevance of the Oregon brand grows, so do the expectations for teams donning the “O.”