As a player, Ribbeck had a career spanning most of the 1950s into the early 1960s with SSV 1904 Wuppertal, which has since merged with TSG Vohwinkel to form Wuppertaler SV. The highest level Ribbeck played was the Oberliga, part of the first tier of Germany which was then split into five regional divisions.
His very first coaching position he held at the age of 30 in 1967/68, when he took Rot-Weiss Essen to the second place in the western division of Germany's Level 2 league and thus to the promotion tournament, where the club ended up losing out against Hertha Berlin.
The next ten years he shared evenly with engagements with Eintracht Frankfurt and 1. FC Kaiserslautern. In the Bundesliga these clubs remained on mediocre levels during his tenure. With Kaiserlautern he reached the German Cup final of 1976, losing 0–2 to Hamburger SV.
Erich Ribbeck was originally considered as a candidate for the national team manager role after the resignation of Helmut Schön in 1978. Instead, Jupp Derwall was selected and it was not until 20 years later on 9 September 1998 that Ribbeck emerged from retirement in the Canary Islands to take over the German national team when other candidates had declined. At 61, he was the oldest appointee to the job. His two-year tenure marked the worst period in the modern history of Germany's national side. Ribbeck resigned after a string of results culminating in a group-stage exit from Euro 2000. Ribbeck resigned on 21 June 2000.
His results as Germany's coach were 10 wins, six draws, and eight losses, the worst managerial performance of all time for a coach of the German national team.