Spring Ball: Arkansas State’s fight to become more than BCS feeder
Four years or so ago, during the summer months at Southern Mississippi, Blake Anderson began the recon work that would lead him here — Jonesboro, Ark., Division I head coach, 13 letters of potential on an assembly line of team leaders.
He thought of the things he’d like in a place: A program at which he could win; a home preferably in the South, where the culture fits his Texas roots, his wife and children would be comfortable and the recruiting territories are familiar from previous stops across the Sun Belt; a university whose leadership and vision aligned with his.
It was the product of a process Larry Fedora, who brought Anderson from Southern Miss to North Carolina when Fedora was hired there two years ago, suggested he undertake in the offseason. Sit down, list every Division I school, research them and divide the list in two – places you would accept a job and places you wouldn’t. It’ll ease the burden when calls come during hiring season and there are bowl games to prepare for and emotions to settle.
“That’s when Arkansas State became a possibility,” Anderson said over the phone. “So it came down to if they were interested in me and if it was still a good job. It looks like a good job on the surface, but is it really? I found out very quickly it was.”
Anderson was hired in December after two seasons as North Carolina’s offensive coordinator when previous Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin left to replace Chris Petersen at Boise State, and he instantly became, to the exterior A-State world anyway, a bit more than just a football coach.
There’s been a recent flood of coaches flowing through Jonesboro – five in the last five seasons – and Anderson became a fix. He became an acre of solid ground for a community in which instability is a new normal.
And in the most macro of senses, if the best wishes of this partnership come true, what Anderson will be, what he is now, is the hauler trying to pull Arkansas State out of what it is and into what it hopes to become.
There’s a duality to the job Terry Mohajir’s had to do since taking his seat as Arkansas State’s athletic director almost 18 months ago that he gets.
He arrived in September 2012 as Gus Malzahn was beginning his first season as head coach. The year prior, a 10-3 season earned Hugh Freeze an offer from Ole Miss after one season at Arkansas State. The year prior to that, a 4-8 season would be the last of Steve Roberts’ nine in Jonesboro.
By December, not three full months on the job, Mohajir was parting ways with Malzahn after his own 10-3 season and trip to the GoDaddy.com Bowl got him a head coach gig at Auburn. So Mohajir picked Harsin, Texas’ offensive coordinator in 2012, to lead Arkansas State, and an 8-5 season in 2013 got him a chance to return home to coach Boise State.
In came Anderson, and Mohajir had, in less than two years, acquired two head coaches. “It’s not something you want to do, but it shows you’re hiring the right people,” Mohajir told me.
Mohajir understands, as a new spring brings another round of change to Arkansas State, this is life outside the formerly known BCS for a modest Division I program that’s won three straight Sun Belt titles. There’s a current you struggle against. Coaches come, have success and leave for more money, for more exposure, for more prestige in a more acclaimed conference.
“We want to keep good coaches, obviously, but we also want coaches that other people want,” Mohajir said. “That means we’re successful.”
It’s a frustrating, albeit validating, churn, yes, but Mohajir laughs at the notion it’s all negative, because the alternative is unattractive and obvious to him. Before he was an Arkansas State athletic director, he was a Red Wolves football player. This was the early ‘90s. He played safety. They did not win many games.
Arkansas State went a combined 8-34 from ’90-93 under Al Kincaid, Ray Perkins and John Bobo.
“We were transitioning to Division I-A,” Mohajir said. “When you’re transitioning to a different schedule, there are some growing pains with the opponents you play. Instead of playing Louisiana Lafayette and North Texas, you’re playing LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, those types of teams. And you’re just trying to grow by improving facilities and increasing budgets.”
In the 20-plus years since, Arkansas State has traveled a relatively flat course through the Big West, independence and the Big West again before entering the Sun Belt in 2001. They were lean years, mostly.
Only five times in two decades did you need a second hand to tally Arkansas State’s wins – and two of those, the 6-6 seasons of ‘05 and ’06, were knocked back to 2-6 and 0-6, respectively, after the NCAA retroactively vacated wins for using ineligible players. The program never eclipsed six victories in that span until Freeze delivered a double-digit year in 2011 and began the run of league titles and head coach one-and-dones.
Other than an 11-0 season in ’75, the charming part of Arkansas State’s 32-year football history at the FBS level (the school has a deeper and richer football history at lower levels) is contained to the drastic performance spike of the last three seasons. That has transformed Arkansas State in tangible, important ways, perhaps most noticeably being a shift in exterior perception from relatively unknown state school to an organization with immediate credibility. As each former coach succeeds at his next stop, that credibility thickens and the industry notices.
Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle, the man who lifted Harsin out of Jonesboro this offseason, wouldn’t go so far as to say the success Freeze and Malzahn have had at their post-Arkansas State gigs heavily influenced his interest in Harsin but acknowledged he’s paying attention to the trend. “Anybody doing your homework, if you see someone doing it well, you want to study it and see what you can [take] for your operation,” Coyle told me.
Jay Jacobs, Auburn’s AD who brought Malzahn back to the Plains from A-State, put it more strongly.
“Absolutely it matters,” he said, referring to the program’s growing resume of quality coaches. “And the opposite matters even more. If coaches came out of there and didn’t have success at other places, that would play stronger. Why do you think the next guy could be successful at [the BCS] level? That doesn’t mean you dismiss him, but it matters a lot.”
It’s clear the progress the program has made since Mohajir played. It’s drastically different. Arkansas State is now “sort of a feeding ground,” as Mohajir put it. In so many instances, though, maybe even the most important, it’s the same.
Arkansas State is again transitioning. It’s again improving facilities and increasing budgets and just trying to grow. Trying to grow into something more than a feeding ground for college football’s better-nourished programs.
Pinpointing the precise moment Arkansas State shed its skin of mediocrity and broke through to a level of respectable prominence outside its Sun Belt confines is a purely subjective exercise, but anchoring it to Gus Malzahn seems appropriate.
That Arkansas State landed Malzahn at all was mostly lucky. He was a coveted, seven-figure offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2011, a national champion the year prior, who had bypassed previous head coaching jobs, good jobs, and now had his name come up again. North Carolina and Kansas were interested, among others, but they chose different candidates.
Meanwhile, an unfortunate incident for Malzahn contributed to a lack of offers that winter. “There were some things that happened in social media with the video about his wife coming out, and he wasn’t able to get some interviews because of it,” Jacobs told Fox Sports.
Other programs were turned off by comments Malzahn’s wife, Kristi, made in October while speaking at a Cross Church luncheon in Springdale, Ark. Her words were hardly controversial – she called former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton “cute,” said suspended running back Michael Dyer “has a little bit of an attitude” and “carries himself with a little confidence we have to kick around every now and then,” and mentioned college-aged kids most of the time are not “the most intelligent people,” among other things – but they were probably more flippant than a hiring administrator would prefer from the spouse of his most high-profile employee.
An unfortunately edited Internet video, created to amplify the comments and strip all context, circulated and further escalated something that should have been nothing. “That was a big factor,” Jacobs said, referring to situation’s effect on Malzahn’s job prospects.
When the Arkansas State opportunity rose unexpectedly, Malzahn turned to Jacobs, who understood Malzahn’s ultimate goal of being head coach at a BCS-level school.
“Gus and I had a lot of conversations about the Arkansas State job,” Jacobs said. “I told him he could stay at Auburn and be the offensive coordinator, and if we had the kind of success we had prior, he’d likely have chances to get a job like the Vanderbilt opportunity he had [in 2010]. Or he could go to Arkansas State and then jump to a BCS school. You just have to decide what puts you in the best position.”
Malzahn was certain of one thing: His first head coaching gig had to be someplace he was sure he could win, and in the state of Arkansas he had the force of nearly legendary status among high school coaches behind him after a prominent 14-year prep run through Hughes, Shiloh Christian and Springdale. How well he could recruit in Lawrence, Kan., or Nashville or somewhere else was less certain, but in Jonesboro, there was no question if Malzahn would have the players necessary to win his league.
“Arkansas State was a perfect balance, because it was his home state and all of the high school coaches knew and respected him,” Jacobs said. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach. He felt the best way for him to get back on solid ground and reestablish himself as a head coach was at Arkansas State. And look what happened: Two years later, he’s the head coach at Auburn.”
It seems now, after an SEC championship in 2013 and a berth in the BCS national championship game, Malzahn couldn’t be further removed from Jonesboro. That only one season separates him from the Sun Belt is hard to fathom, because Malzahn is so clearly among the nation’s best coaches. He feels born into Auburn, delivered by deity to Jordan Hare.
But there’s no denying he’s partly product of the Red Wolves. As he coached his Tigers in Pasadena nearly two months ago, a national championship lurking 60 minutes out, part of Jonesboro must have identified with him. Some must have thought, He’s one of us. He’s an example of what we can do.
The bridge to that future rests on a simple question: Instead of existing as a processor of one-year coaches, how does Arkansas State become a place where a Gus Malzahn would want to stay awhile?
Some things exist beyond the fingertips of Arkansas State’s control. It cannot, for instance, say it’s in the SEC or Pac-12 or Big Ten. It cannot sell a coastal locale or the energy and luxury of a bustling city.
It can, albeit with year-to-year limitations, alter its budget and increase coaching salaries, which is a principal priority for Mohajir and likely where Arkansas State’s long-term viability begins.
“We’re trying to take advantage of the momentum built over the last three years and explain to people that, regardless of who the coach is, the program is strong,” Mohajir said. “But we also know where we are with our budget climate. So we need support, we need more donations, more ticket sales in order to increase budgets.”
The program has already made substantial growth in a few short years to remain competitive in the market for emerging coaches. Freeze made $202,000 as the head coach in 2011, and that reportedly jumped to $850,000 for Malzahn a year later. Harsin matched Malzahn’s salary, and Anderson will reportedly make $700,000 per year, not including incentives.
The more interesting figures in those deals, though, are on the back end – the buyouts. For a program like Arkansas State, one with relatively modest resources, what’s the value in a coach leaving?
I posed that question to Mohajir, suggesting that while there’s nothing he can do about an SEC school offering to triple the salary of his head coach, those departing Jonesboro can, in effect, help Arkansas State build more than hurt it. “I think there’s definitely merit to that,” he said.
That’s about as much as Mohajir could offer, lest he be an athletic director on record essentially endorsing the departure of a successful coach, but the theory is simple: The money generated from a coach taking another job can, theoretically, have a reciprocating effect, making the Arkansas State job more plum and sustainable for the subsequent hire.
Freeze’s buyout was $225,000, while A-State received $700,000 for losing Malzahn. When Harsin left for Boise State, Arkansas State was entitled to $1.75 million, and the buyout for Anderson after his first year is $3 million (and $2 million for the two seasons after that).
Now consider that Arkansas State’s football departmental budget request for fiscal year 2013-14 was less than $3.5 million (note: this isn’t its total football budget). Buyout money doesn’t all go directly back into the football program, Mohajir said – it goes into a foundation where he makes suggestions on how to spend it; part of the most recent sum helped increase the pool Anderson had for hiring his assistants – but you can see the potential significance of buyouts on the books. In Tuscaloosa or Austin, a couple million is a rounding error. In Jonesboro, that cash carries a different weight.
Of course, increasing salaries is only one part of the building process. General fundraising is crucial, which is why Mohajir will go wild on the state capitol’s steps in Little Rock. Maintaining superior facilities is vital for recruiting and developing talent, which is why the Student Activity Center, an indoor training building adjacent to the football stadium (see photo at right), is currently under construction. Upgrading stadium amenities matters, which is why a $5 million gift was put to renovating the press box.
All of this is aimed at forming stability in a program that’s been devoid of it, something Anderson understood and accepted as part of the job he agreed to.
“Stability was big – it had to be,” Anderson told me. “The fan base, administration, university and more importantly the players deserve some stability. I really truly am not a guy who’s going to come in here for a year or two and then be gone. My personality is to think about the job at hand and build it as well as I possibly can.
“People won’t believe it until they look up and I’ve been here a year or two and they think, ‘Hey, he’s still here.’ But we’re gonna buy a house, put down roots and do the best to make [Arkansas State] proud. If it’s the only head coaching job I ever get, then I’ll feel really blessed because I lived my dream of being a Division I head coach.”
Some day, the front door to Jonesboro will stop revolving. A coach won’t leave home for another league or go home to Boise. He’ll be home, here.
Is that guy Anderson? Hard to say. He played at Baylor and Sam Houston State, and coached at Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Lafayette, among many other places. That road stopped in Jonesboro a few different times. He remembers being up in the box and hearing through his headset the students giving his quarterbacks grief. That’s a great Saturday afternoon, he thought. That’s what college football should be.
So when he speaks fondly of the fan base and the familial appeal sprouting from a union of university and community, you believe him. When he acknowledges his appreciation for the chance to win – “To go in every year and think you can win your league, that’s rare. There are people who go out every year knowing they’re playing for fifth place.” – his sincerity feels real.
What’s also real is the realization that current Arkansas State fights might never die down. Mohajir’s goal for the Red Wolves is to be the best non-BCS team in the country. Will the next Gus Malzahn find A-State so appealing he bypasses a high-level BCS gig? That’s difficult to imagine. Maybe, if the dollars and personalities and personal lives mesh.
The good thing is Arkansas State has put itself in position to get another Gus, because it’s become a place coaches want to go. It’s become something of a good career move with a chance to be more.
“The thing about it is they do a heck of a job picking coaches,” Jacobs said. “It’s a very attractive place to go. If you’re the offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach at Texas and Arkansas State offers the job, why not take it? Everybody is going there and having success, and our appetite for success has gotten unquenchable. If you go to a place and start slow, it’s hard to build as quickly as people would like.
“But I guess it depends on the individual. Everybody’s appetite is different.”
Mohajir hopes he’s already found his next Malzahn. He hopes that’s Anderson. But after two years and two hires, he’s not oblivious to or afraid of the vulnerabilities of his gig. He doesn’t anticipate hiring a third coach this December, but even if he did, it wouldn’t really change things.
He tells players and recruits the same thing: The hardest thing to deal with in your professional life is change. He knows. He had three coaches at Arkansas State. He’s had many bosses. It’s all helped him adjust and grow.
If Anderson has a lot of success and Arkansas State has to do this all again in a year or two, then it’ll do it all again and keep on. All it will mean is the Red Wolves are again quite good and another step closer to finding the guy who sticks around awhile to wreak hell on the BCS.
“We have set our course, our plans,” Mohajir said. “The only variable is time.”
Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at email@example.com.