By Kim Staudinger
Interim Skylights basketball coach Mike Erickson greeted members of the community Thursday night as one of the final events on his schedule for the day.
Erickson, one of four finalists for the head women's basketball coaching position at Montana State University-Northern, answered questions ranging from his thoughts on recruiting to his plans for fund raising and everything in between for nearly an hour.
Erickson said being a head coach has been a lifelong goal.
"It's been a dream of mine," Erickson said throughout the evening.
A dream that could soon become a reality.
Erickson is the first finalist to go through the interview process for the job. The other three will be in Havre next week. A search committee spent more than a month selecting the four from more than 100 people who applied, said Kevin Carlson, a Northern professor who chairs the committee.
"When over 100 people apply for a job in north-central Montana, it means that's a pretty good job," Carlson said.
The committee interviewed 10 people by phone before narrowing the field down further, Carlson said.
"It was hard and it was a hard process," he said. "There were nine things we were looking for and we rated on those nine things. Then we started eliminating from there." Carlson wouldn't comment on the nine items.
Several people talked about the circumstances that created a vacancy in the position. Coach Kevin Emerick was suspended from the job before the end of the season because of a personal relationship with a student. He fought the suspension in court and eventually lost, but not before Skylights players refused to play for him and forfeited a game.
While Carlson said he does not know the processes used by other search committees at Northern, he promised that "we've been extremely, extremely thorough."
Erickson didn't have an edge over other candidates because he's the interim coach and made the cut based on his merits, Carlson said. Erickson was an assistant coach in the Northern men's basketball program before becoming the interim women's coach. Earlier, he was the head coach at Wolf Point High School for three seasons where he compiled a 54-12 record. Erickson led the Wolves to two district championships, a divisional championship and two state tournament appearances. He graduated from MSU-Billings in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in physical education.
"He's in here because we feel he's very qualified," Carlson said. "If he wasn't one of the best people, he wouldn't be here."
Erickson said just being one of the four finalists "is an honor" and that he is very fortunate to have an opportunity to do something he loves.
"I've known since eighth grade that I wanted to be a coach someday," he said.
If hired, Erickson acknowledged that he'll be subject to extra scrutiny because of the team's past problems.
"I enjoy being in a spot where you can only make things better," he said. "Being under pressure makes you better. When you start where we start now, the only way is to go up."
Being born and raised in Montana, Erickson has numerous coaching connections across the state. These connections, he said, will enable him to build the Northern program.
"This program needs to be built on Montana girls," Erickson said. "Northern used to have a dominant presence in the Frontier Conference. We need to be there again and we will be there again."
In an effort to improve the program, Erickson has already recruited many area girls. Katie Zilkoski, a Wolf Point graduate and a transfer from Miles Community College, Kristie Pullin from Box Elder, Francine Kill Eagle, a Dodson graduate and a transfer from Dawson Community College, and Kelly Acra from Chinook have already committed to Northern, Erickson said. Erickson said he also has possibly two more recruits coming from the Hi-Line and a couple of transfers.
David Greenwood, a professor at Northern from 1969 to 1992 and a former wrestling coach, said Erickson had the necessary excitement about the program needed to be a head coach.
"I think he's a fine young man and he certainly exhibited a level of enthusiasm for coaching," Greenwood said. "(Coaching's) his goal in life and I think this is an exciting chance for him."
Greenwood told Erickson that it's very time-consuming to build a successful program.
"Every kid has got to be talked to regardless," Greenwood said. "I really believe in the fact even if you know those kids are going to a Division I school, you talk to them and let them know you're interested. You let them know they have a place to go if things don't work out."
Erickson said he knows how much time he'll have to put in for road trips and recruiting, and that his wife knows it too.
"I told her this is what I wanted to do before we said I do,' " Erickson said.