Longform

Into the Fire

Two former Arizona State University football players have died from bullet wounds to the head.

One is known worldwide for giving up National Football League riches to go to war. Killed by friendly fire in April 2004, Pat Tillman is hailed as a hero, his name enshrined at Sun Devil Stadium.

The other toiled in obscurity off the field, hoping to earn his college degree. Killed by ASU football star Loren Wade in March 2005, Brandon Falkner is the gunshot victim ASU would rather forget.

ASU has gone to great lengths to ensure that the legacy of ex-Sun Devil and Arizona Cardinal Tillman, 27 when he died, won't be forgotten.

ASU has done nothing to commemorate the tragedy that left Falkner, 25, dead and Wade, 23, sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"It would be nice to see some respect for Brandon," says his older brother, Jelani Falkner.

One way to have paid homage to Falkner, an ex-member of the ASU football team when he was shot to death, would've been for the school to overhaul its football program to make sure blue-chip athletes, such as Wade, aren't given special treatment when they get in trouble.



Another way would've been to replace fired coach Dirk Koetter with a coach whose integrity couldn't be assailed, whose past couldn't be questioned.

Instead, ASU President Michael Crow and Athletic Director Lisa Love hired Dennis Erickson last December to replace the beleaguered Koetter.

Erickson, 60, brings immediate cachet to Tempe thanks to two national championships at the University of Miami in 1989 and 1991. But he also brings a disturbing history, especially considering that his predecessor, Koetter, came under fire for coddling thugs like Wade.

Erickson's Miami teams were constantly in trouble with police. No fewer than a dozen scholarship players were arrested in 1994, his final season there. His hiring at ASU sends a clear signal that winning and cash flow are far more important to ASU than rehabilitating the moral fiber of a football program muddied by murder.



The selection stunned Don Crampton, a Phoenix attorney who represented the Falkner family in a wrongful-death suit filed against ASU and Koetter that was dismissed in November 2006. The court ruled that the university and Koetter had no special duty to control Wade's off-campus conduct and can't be held liable for negligence in connection with Falkner's death.

The ruling cleared the way for ASU to hire Erickson, who has a history of recruiting players he can't control, without fear of legal consequences if another off-campus tragedy occurs.

"Nobody cares," Crampton said, referring to Erickson's hiring at a program that ignored the dangerous behavior of a star player who wound up killing a former player in the parking lot of a Scottsdale nightclub. "They just want to win at all costs."

Crow and Love are betting Erickson will field a winning team that will fill the 73,379-seat Sun Devil Stadium and pump money into the athletic department saddled with an onerous $30 million debt.

"I could sell tickets to his practice," Love said upon Erickson's hiring.

Love's assumption that Erickson will attract huge crowds isn't panning out.

Season-ticket sales for the 2007 season that began Saturday, September 1, with a 45-3 win over San Jose State have slipped to 36,000, down from 42,000 last year, despite lower ticket prices.

Stagnant ticket sales will be the least of ASU's problems if off-the-field issues that plagued Erickson's six seasons in Miami occur in Tempe. Gunplay, sexual escapades, police raids, arrests, drug abuse, boozing, a federal grand jury probe, and cash bonuses to players who made the best hits in games served as the notorious backdrop to Miami's success on the field.

All this was accompanied by rapper Luther Campbell, of 2 Live Crew, strutting the Hurricane sidelines during games and doling out booze and money to players at his nightclubs.

Under Erickson's tenure, Miami's football program committed debauchery to the point that Sports Illustrated published a famous June 12, 1995, feature with the incendiary headline "Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football" on the magazine's cover instead of a photograph.

SI had run another cover story blasting Erickson — who'd left Miami in January 1995 to become head coach of the Seattle Seahawks — for lack of leadership in the wake of his arrest in Washington State for extreme DUI. Erickson recorded a .23 on blood-alcohol tests, more than twice the legal limit, and entered a deferred-prosecution program that required him to receive treatment for alcoholism.

Eleven months into Erickson's tenure at Seattle, the NCAA levied severe sanctions against Miami's football program, stripping 34 scholarships, placing the university on probation for three years, and banning the team from appearing in a bowl game.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty