When the 2014-15 bowl season ended, it was celebration time at Arkansas State. Not because it had won a Sun Belt Conference title (it finished tied for fourth out of 11 teams) or because it had won a bowl game (it lost the GoDaddy Bowl to Toledo in a wild shootout). No, Red Wolves fans were just thrilled they still had a coach.
That may seem like a pretty mundane excuse for a party, and at one time, Terry Mohajir might have thought so too. But that would’ve been before Mohajir became ASU’s athletic director in 2012. In the 22 months preceding Mohajir’s return to his alma mater,1 the Red Wolves had undergone two head-coaching searches, and in Mohajir’s first 15 months on the job, he’d have to lead two more. Three head coaches in a row — Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin — left the Red Wolves after a single season to snag higher-profile jobs elsewhere in the Football Bowl Subdivision. On the Wikipedia page for Arkansas State football, there’s now a subheading titled “The One and Done era (2011-2013).”
Mohajir played strong safety in the late ’80s and early ’90s for what was then the Arkansas State Indians. And even then he had to deal with the fickle hearts of college coaches: The coach who recruited him, Larry Lacewell, left in 1990 to become the Tennessee Volunteers’ defensive coordinator; Mohajir then played under Al Kincaid, who was fired after two years. The future AD also served as a student assistant under Ray Perkins — who left after a single season to return to the NFL.
Mohajir, though, won’t utter one unkind word about any of the short-timers. Nor does he hold any illusions about his alma mater’s place in the college football firmament, or the challenges that situation presents. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to just throw up his hands and accept mediocrity — and so far, he hasn’t needed to.
“Right now, where we are in our program, we’re going to go out and find the best coaches we can possibly find. And other schools have bigger budgets than us; there’s nothing I can do about it,” he says. “I’m not frustrated, there’s no frustration here. We’ve had success. People recognize success, and quite frankly, so far the coaches that have left our program have had success. So that means we’re hiring the right people.”
As the Coaching Carousel Turns; or, a Brief History of the One-and-Done Era
Jonesboro, Arkansas, is way up in the northeast corner of the state, about an hour’s drive from Memphis. It’s also situated smack in the middle of where SEC country starts bleeding over into Big 12 territory.2 And it has to compete for oxygen with the Arkansas Razorbacks, which, despite the Hogs’ recent struggles, remains a Sisyphean task. “This is still a Razorback state,” says Mark Edwards, a former sports anchor for CBS’s Little Rock affiliate now working for an ABC station in Louisiana. “It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a professional team, and that coach, in this state, runs everything.”
Although who the hell knows exactly where that is, now that West Virginia is a Big 12 member.
So under those circumstances, it wasn’t a monumental surprise when, in December 2011, Freeze left the Red Wolves after a single 10-2 season3 to take the Ole Miss job. Fans were bummed, sure, but they’d all read (or seen) The Blind Side; they knew Freeze had been Michael Oher’s high school coach, and that he’d followed his celebrated recruit to Ole Miss as an assistant in 2005 mere weeks after Oher signed his letter of intent. “With Hugh Freeze, everybody knew from the ‘Blind Side’ movie that if Ole Miss ever opened up, he was going to go there,” says Jay Bir, sports anchor for KARK-4 in Little Rock and an Arkansas State alumnus.
The Red Wolves played in the GoDaddy Bowl under an interim coach and lost 38-20 to Northern Illinois. It was still the program’s best season since moving up to the FBS level in 1992, and only the second season ever in which it’d notched double-digit wins.
And any lingering disappointment vanished when the Red Wolves snagged Malzahn as their new coach just eight days after Freeze’s departure. Malzahn was already bordering on folk-hero status in Arkansas after a dominant five-year run at Springdale High School and a year as the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator. He’d also been the brains behind Auburn’s national-title run in 2010 and had been rumored for the Vanderbilt job a year earlier, which meant the Red Wolves had scored a bit of a coup.
Yet even before Mohajir became ASU’s 11th athletic director a few weeks into the 2012 season, he says he sensed Malzahn’s tenure would be brief. “I’ve been in this business for a long time,” he says. “I said, ‘He won’t be here long’ in my interview. … I don’t blame [Malzahn]; he’s a good coach, good person, good recruiter. And I said, ‘We just need to be prepared.’”
Sure enough, Malzahn was plucked away by the Auburn Tigers after only 357 days on the job at ASU. That, Edwards and Bir say, was when the grumbling from the fan base really started. After all, Edwards points out, Malzahn had relatively deep roots in Arkansas. And he’d given every indication that those roots would keep him in Jonesboro for a while.
“People were really bent about Malzahn because he kind of wrote checks that he didn’t cash,” Bir says. “He even said, ‘If you think I’m a one-and-done kind of guy, you don’t know me very well,’ and then boom, he’s gone after one year. People understand it was unusual for that opportunity to come open, but a lot of people were scarred by that one comment.”
Next up for the Red Wolves: Harsin, who’d helped mastermind Chris Petersen’s ruthlessly efficient point-scoring machine at Boise State before spending two years as the co–offensive coordinator at Texas, one of the biggest brand names in the land. For his first big hire as Arkansas State’s AD, Mohajir installed a contingency plan of sorts, including a $1.75 million buyout clause in Harsin’s contract — two and a half times Malzahn’s. And yet, when the time came, someone still ponied up.
“You know what, Boise bought him out.” Mohajir says. “They got a buyout for Chris Petersen [who was hired away by Washington] and they used that money to buy out Bryan. I think if it’d been any other job in America it would’ve been tough. I think that was the one job — that job hadn’t been open for years, and all the sudden that’s the one job he thought he’d be attracted to.”
Thus, with a Groundhog Day feeling admittedly beginning to creep in, Mohajir called up his search consultants and went back to work. And when they decided upon Blake Anderson, then the offensive coordinator for the North Carolina Tar Heels, Mohajir upped the buyout to a cool $3 million.4 Even then, though, Mohajir says he had no illusions. “We put a pretty big buyout in his contract, but look, if he finds a lot of success, someone’s going to find a way to get him,” he says. “For a coach to come in and say to me, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stay here for a long time’ — I don’t need to hear that. I want to hear ‘I’m gonna do the best I can.’”
Big Wins and the Bigger Picture
That $3 million figure applies to the first two years of the deal, after which the buyout shrinks to $2 million for the third and fourth seasons and $1 million for the final year.
That may be the craziest thing in all of this: Despite the turmoil of the “One and Done Era,” the Red Wolves have continued to win. A lot.
After Freeze’s Sun Belt championship campaign in 2011, Malzahn led the Red Wolves to nine wins, another conference title, and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, where, after Malzahn had left for Auburn, they registered their 10th win of the year. Harsin’s 2013 team “only” went 8-5, but that included a share of the league title and yet another bowl win. By any measure, that was ASU’s best three-year stretch since winning the equivalent of the Division II national title5 nearly a half-century ago.
Before NCAA football was split into Divisions I, II, and III in 1973, programs competed in either the “University Division” (major colleges) or the “College Division” (small schools). ASU was in the latter.
And the good times may not be over just yet. Though Anderson’s 2014 Red Wolves weren’t quite as dominant as they’d been in previous years — they went 7-5 in the regular season and lost their bowl game — they did stretch the program’s streaks of winning Sun Belt records, winning overall records, and bowl invites to four years. They also beat a Utah State team that finished the season with 10 wins and hung in for longer than expected in road losses to Tennessee and Miami.
This year’s team stands a good chance of improving on those accomplishments. First and foremost, of course, the team will enjoy the stability of a carryover coaching staff for the first time this decade. Then there are the nine starters returning from last year’s offense, whose 36.7 points per game put them in the top 20 nationally; with mobile quarterback Fredi Knighten, who rolled up more than 4,000 total yards in his first season as the starter, back at the controls, Anderson’s up-tempo spread attack should operate like a well-oiled machine. The Red Wolves defense was thin6 and injury-ridden last season, but the coaches are banking on an influx of transfers to provide some immediate relief.
Depending on whom you talk to, the lack of depth on defense might have been the first symptom of the head-coaching turmoil taking its toll on recruiting. Or maybe it was just bad luck.
Either way, despite all the coaching drama, the Red Wolves continue to defy being written off as a punch line — no small feat in a state where they continue to battle a “little brother” perception. How has the program managed to maintain such a tight ship even on stormy seas?
For one thing, it hasn’t let the constant threat of coach-poaching make it gun-shy about approaching hot candidates. Malzahn and Harsin, of course, were both established offensive gurus by the time ASU hired them. Anderson fits that description as well, serving as Southern Miss’s offensive coordinator during the Golden Eagles’ 12-win 2011 season, then directing an offense that smashed 35 school records when he followed head coach Larry Fedora to UNC. Averaging 36.7 points per game, his first Arkansas State offense broke program records, too.
Anderson was born in Jonesboro, so he felt a bit of an emotional pull to the school, but he says the more important attraction was the proof that he could win early at ASU. “You get maybe one chance to do this, maybe you get two along the way, and you don’t want to be a guy that takes a job at a place you know you can’t be successful,” Anderson says. “Showing an ability to win in the league they’re in was one of the first things.”
Just as big a key to the Red Wolves’ recent success, though, has been the resilience of the players. Mohajir has addressed the team quite a lot in recent years — out of necessity, he admits with a chuckle — and every time he has to walk them through another coaching change, his message is, “It doesn’t matter — players win championships. Coaches help you prepare, but you win championships.
“They’re starting to get it: ‘You are going through something that nobody else on this campus can teach you, that there’s not a professor or book on this campus can teach you, and that is how to go through change. The hardest thing for people to go through is change. And you’re going to be able to adapt to different bosses, different environments, because of what you’re going through right now. … You guys will be the most successful class in the history of Arkansas State.’”
If nothing else, Bir says, it’s helped the players grow up quick. “We talk to them year after year after year because of the revolving door it’s been for a lot of them,” he says. “It’s kind of a rude awakening, and a lot of them understand now that it’s a business. And there’s really been no hard feelings … it sucks, sure, but they understand. With Hugh Freeze, he went home, basically. Same thing with Harsin, he went home. Malzahn, he went to an SEC power. They get that, and I think that’s the big thing — they understand the big picture and they understand the dynamics of college football a lot better than most people would.”
Anderson, meanwhile, has made no public promises about longevity, partly because Mohajir hasn’t demanded any. “They didn’t ask a lot of specific questions or for me to guarantee anything — they just wanted to find out did somebody really want to be here,” he says. “I feel like, from all the conversations that we had, it became clear that I genuinely did want to be here — I wanted this job. I was honest about wanting to do more than come here, win a game, and leave. It was never a lot of very specific conversations about ‘How long will you stay?’ I don’t think anyone can prepare that way. It’s just too volatile a profession to do that.”
If you think that sounds slightly on the noncommittal side, you’re not alone.7 But Mohajir says he’s got a bigger picture in mind than one season or one coach.
Before the 2014 season began, Edwards predicted correctly that Anderson would break ASU’s one-and-done pattern — only to add matter-of-factly, “I think it’ll be his second year, something comes open and he goes for it.”
“In the last three years, our licensing revenues have gone up probably about 105 percent,” he says. “I think our ticket sales have gone up, our revenues have gone up, excitement, everything.
“And it’s not just the athletic department. Athletics is just the front porch of the university. … We’re looking to build a convention and visitors’ center on campus. We’re going to start another campus in Mexico — we’re going to be the first [public] American campus in the country of Mexico. This has created a lot of opportunities. We’re probably going to be starting a medical school here. Because of the notoriety and the branding we’ve invested here, we’ve created an opportunity for the entire university.”
With bigger goals like these on the line, Mohajir says, the athletic department can’t waste time trying to be something it’s not. “The one thing that Arkansas State’s doing is trying to build a national brand in football. You have to do it two ways: You have to win your conference and you have to beat teams you’re not supposed to beat. We have set our goals to play in a BCS bowl game. And the only variable is time.”
Doug Gillett (@CaptainAnnoying) is a writer based in Atlanta.