Arkansas State at No. 1 Alabama
When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Records: Alabama 1-0, Arkansas State 1-0
Radio: 95.3 FM. 102.9 FM
Blake Anderson wasn’t going anywhere. He had no intention of leaving and Arkansas State took assurances that it wouldn’t happen.
Anderson was hired as the school’s head football coach before the 2014 season as the Red Wolves’ fifth coach in as many years. Steve Roberts ended his nine-year tenure in 2010 and Arkansas State had a succession of one-and-done coaches: Hugh Freeze in 2011 before being hired by Ole Miss, Gus Malzahn in 2012 before going to Auburn and Bryan Harsin, who departed after the 2013 season for Boise State.
Anderson, who had been an offensive coordinator at North Carolina (and Southern Miss previous to that) accepted a contract that included a reported $3 million buyout clause, which has reduced over time to $1 million.
He enters Saturday’s game against Alabama with four straight winning seasons and four straight bowl appearances. Anderson has brought stability.
“Going into year five it seems like it’s gone by in a blur,” he said. “It was necessary to stay, obviously. Nobody had been through the circumstances that this program had been through with us being the fifth group in five years.
“It obviously took its toll. We’ve been open about our roster and how we’re still trying to build it back up and still way below the scholarship number (allowed), all of that due to the transition of coach after coach after coach. We’re fortunate to still be able to be a competitive football team and still be able to win under those circumstances.”
Arkansas State has done more to keep Anderson than just putting a hefty buyout clause in his contract. Terry Mohajir, the school’s athletics director since the fall of 2012, has been the driving force behind a program to upgrade facilities and build new ones to the tune of nearly $80 million. There’s an indoor practice facility, stadium improvements that include suites and club areas and a new football operations building that will be built after the season.
Mohajir is grateful he hasn’t had to undergo another coaching search since Anderson was hired – “That’s been nice,” he said – but his vision goes beyond any particular coach.
“At the end of the day you have to build a program and not build seasons,” he said. “That’s why building facilities, creating services for your students to have an opportunity to be successful, those are all about building programs.
“Change is inevitable no matter where you go. Look at how many changes in the SEC there were last year. If you build a good program, obviously who the coach is matters but who the coach may be when you enter into the program may not necessarily be your coach when you leave.”
Arkansas State has been a winner in the Sun Belt conference and is among the more respected Group of Five conference programs – the ones below the level of the Power Five leagues like the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 – but aspires to more.
“The goal has not changed here,” Mohajir said. “We want to play in New Year’s Six bowl. We know that we have to take advantage of opportunities when they’re presented to us in order to do that.”
The Alabama game is one such opportunity. Arkansas State visits Georgia next year and Michigan in 2020.
“We’ve been in these games before with extremely talented teams and played at a high level and maybe caught them on a day when they weren’t clicking on all cylinders and you’re in the game,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to take that approach and know that it’s been done before – this would not be the first time that a great team was upset by a team coming into their place.
We’ve just got to take the approach that it’s going to be us this Saturday.”
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.