Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball program is in search of a head coach again.
After three years with the program, head coach Mike Erickson submitted a letter of resignation this morning to athletics director Byron Ophus.
"My wife and I found an opportunity where we both had positions and it would allow me to spend more time at home with my family," Erickson said today.
Erickson has accepted an offer to teach physical education and coach the boys basketball team at Hardin High School. His wife, Janet, who recently graduated with a degree in nursing from Northern, is looking at two openings in Hardin.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Erickson said. "My life has taken a different direction. To keep this up, I would have had to take away time from either my family or the program, and I wasn't willing to do that."
The Skylights finished with a 23-10 record under Erickson this past season, losing to Rocky Mountain College in the opening round of the Frontier Conference tournament.
During his tenure at Northern, Erickson accumulated a 66-41 record, with his teams losing just 10 games at home in that time.
"I feel good about the program and what we have accomplished," Erickson said. "We had three winning seasons and consistently received votes in the NAIA national poll. I really feel like this coming year would have been the best yet. I really think that whoever steps in is going to have good year."
The Skylights program came under some scrutiny as the season ended with two key players - Michele VanDyke and Kristie Pullin - leaving the team for personal reasons, while redshirt Laura Keaster transferred to the University of Great Falls. Erickson also declined to renew the scholarships of three other players, including leading scorer Jessi Reome.
"You hate to see players leave," he said. "But it's a decision that people have to make. A lot of times it comes down to where they are at in their lives. But it happens every year that players decide to leave or are asked to leave. They sign a one-year contract and they know it's a possibility."
Still, Ophus said the recent player turnover was of little concern.
"I had some members of the community voice their concerns about the players leaving," he said. "But in my position you hear that stuff often. I was confident that things would be fine this (coming) season."
Ophus said he will contact the returning players to tell them of Erickson's decision and also get in touch with the players who were planning to leave to see if they will reassess their decision. The only exception will be Reome, who has already signed to play at Central Washington.
Erickson saw firsthand what a major controversy was like in his first year at Northern. He came to the school in 2001-02 as an assistant to then head men's basketball coach Brian Harrell. During that season, women's coach Kevin Emerick was suspended from his job for having a relationship with a student on campus.
In February of that season, eight players signed a petition asking for the removal of Emerick, alleging physical and verbal abuse. They later staged an eight-day boycott of practice when the demand was not met.
Erickson came to the rescue, taking over on an interim basis and coaching the team in its final six games of the season, finishing 3-3.
He was hired over 100 applicants in the spring to be the full-time head coach.
"Nobody can question his integrity and commitment to this program," Ophus said. "From the way he handled his players, to his budget, to where the program is headed, he brought some stability to this program and got it back to where it used to be."
Now Ophus, who himself resigned last week, will begin the process of finding Erickson's replacement. It moves to the top of his remaining duties as athletics director.
"We got to get going on this as soon as possible," Ophus said. "I'm sure there will be no shortage of applicants. We have a good core of players coming back. I think it's a pretty good position."
Ophus will chair a search committee along with faculty athletics representative Carol Reifschneider, at least two members of the community, another Northern coach and a player representative.
"I hope to have someone in place in the next few weeks," Ophus said.
Erickson couldn't help but feel a little nostalgic about the position today.
"This experience has been unbelievable," he said. "The people I have met and worked with have been great. The big thing that my family will miss is this community. Coaching in college is something that I always wanted to do. But my life is going in a different direction. I still get to coach basketball and work with kids every day, but I also get to spend time with family every night."