Coaching turnover hasn’t slowed Arkansas State
JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) — One after another, coaches have come to Arkansas State. And one by one, they have left soon thereafter for some dream job or another.
Steve Roberts, Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. Whether by force or by choice, each left the Red Wolves after the last four seasons.
Some left more of an imprint than others — from Freeze’s sense of family to Malzahn’s scientific approach to the game.
Their shared legacy, however, is best judged by a group of 10 players who are now on their fifth head coach in as many seasons. As the coaches have come and gone, the Arkansas State seniors have played on.
And, they’ve won.
“Through all the coaches, the guys who are still here who have been through all these changes, there’s nothing that’s going to break our bond,” linebacker Qushaun Lee said. “We’ve been through it all.”
More than any one coach, they’re the ones responsible for turning a once-despondent program into a consistent winner. And with their college careers rapidly approaching an end, the group of 10 players wants nothing more than to earn at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference title for a fourth straight year.
“It’s of the utmost importance,” Red Wolves center Tyler Greve said. “I don’t want to be that class that screws it up. I just want to win another ring. No one ever gives us a chance, but we always do it.”
Greve has more of a sense than most about just how remarkable the turnaround has been at Arkansas State. The Jonesboro native started attending Red Wolves games as a fifth-grader, back when they were still called the Indians before a 2008 name change.
Unlike many of his northeast Arkansas classmates whose allegiances gravitated toward the state’s flagship program, the Razorbacks, Greve’s loyalty remained close to home. That was no small achievement, considering the near-complete lack of winning at Arkansas State during his lifetime.
After transitioning to the Bowl Subdivision in 1992, the Red Wolves managed only one winning season prior to 2011. That was a 6-5 record under coach John Bobo in 1995, while the school was a member of the Big West Conference.
One of the few constants during Arkansas State’s first 10 seasons at college football’s highest level was change, with the program going through three head coaches as it struggled. Stability, however, finally found its way to Jonesboro in the form of Roberts, who took over the program following the 2001 season and remained at the helm for nine years.
While Roberts didn’t win as much as some would have liked before he was fired following the 2010 season, he did lead Arkansas State to some of its brightest moments — a New Orleans Bowl appearance in 2005 and a shocking win at Texas A&M in 2008.
Roberts’ was 45-63 during his tenure with the Red Wolves, but the lack of wins has done nothing to diminish the influx of talent — both playing and coaching — he left behind.
Not only did he recruit the 10 Arkansas State players who are now fifth-year seniors, but Roberts also hired the then little-known Freeze as his offensive coordinator for the 2010 season. The Red Wolves were 4-8 that season, leading to Roberts’ dismissal afterward, but it was the energetic and well-liked Freeze who took over.
With a renewed purpose and belief under Freeze, Arkansas State finished a perfect 8-0 in the Sun Belt in 2011 — winning 10 games for the first time since the school was a member of the I-AA Southland Conference in 1986.
Even now, many Arkansas State players credit Freeze for “building a family” and changing the culture into a winning one, though Freeze points back to the groundwork that was laid by Roberts.
“It started with coach Freeze, and now it’s just a habit,” Arkansas State cornerback Andrew Tryon said. “We bought in, and every class after that just kept buying in.”
As stunning as the 2011 run was for Arkansas State, its players were equally stunned after the regular season when an emotional Freeze — with his family at his side — broke down while telling them he was leaving to become the head coach at Mississippi.
His departure was the first of three one-and-done coaches for the Red Wolves, with Malzahn leaving for Auburn the following year and Harsin for Boise State after that. Despite the turnover, the winning has continued — with Arkansas State compiling a 32-14 record over the last three and a half seasons.
“Those guys — it speaks volumes of their character,” Freeze said. “For them to have five coaches in five years and to still compete at a high level, and they have with each coach, that’s not easy on kids. It speaks to the character of the people.”
Blake Anderson was hired following Harsin’s departure after last season, and the former North Carolina offensive coordinator knew right away it would take time to earn the trust of a team that could be forgiven if it had become jaded toward its seemingly never-ending cycle of coaches.
“I’ve had some guys over the years say, ‘Man, I really don’t like this coach or that coach,’” tight end Kenneth Rains said. “I told them, ‘Just stick around. You never know who’s going to come up next.’”
To help build that trust, Anderson went out of his way to explain the reasons behind any changes to the Red Wolves’ practice schedule or other preparation. He knew his players already knew how to win, but he wanted to show them what he could add — “because obviously what they had been doing wasn’t wrong.”
Like Freeze before him, Anderson — with a $3 million buyout in his first two years to help provide a much-needed sense of stability — stressed family and input from the Red Wolves. To that end, he invited players and their families to his house during the summer for pool parties while also creating a 15-player leadership council to help with food, scheduling and uniform decisions.
“What I didn’t want to do was just come in and change everything overnight,” Anderson said. “They’ve been through it enough to know, ‘We can get through this; we can hold this together.’”
Anderson’s most difficult test of his newfound trust came less than a month into his new job at Arkansas State when defensive lineman Markel Owens was killed in a shooting in Jackson, Tennessee. Owens was a part of this season’s group of fifth-year seniors.
“It was definitely hard,” said safety Sterling Young, one of Owens’ roommates. “I still struggle with it every day, but the things we’ve been through have helped all of us become able to deal with anything, with each other.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi, contributed to this report.