JONESBORO — Blake Anderson resigned as Arkansas State’s head football coach Thursday afternoon, making a decision his boss described as being personal rather than professional in nature.
Arkansas State announced Anderson’s departure to take a head coaching position at another FBS school.
A person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press that Anderson was being hired by Utah State. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because Utah State was finalizing an agreement with Anderson and there was no official announcement.
Utah State fired coach Gary Andersen after an 0-3 start to this season. Andersen was in his second year of his second stint at the Mountain West school based in Logan, Utah.
Anderson compiled a 51-36 record in seven seasons at ASU, leading the team to six bowl games. The Red Wolves won an outright Sun Belt Conference championship in 2015, shared the league title in 2016 and played for another title share in the 2017 regular-season finale.
Last year Anderson was the winner of the Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. He led the Red Wolves to an 8-5 record in 2019 after his wife, Wendy, died after a two-year fight against breast cancer. Anderson’s father died earlier this year.
Arkansas State Athletic director Terry Mohajir said Anderson became emotional when he met with the players Thursday. In recounting the meeting on a Zoom call with media, Mohajir also became emotional, pausing to look away from the camera to compose himself.
“He poured out his heart to the players and truly told them exactly how he felt,” Mohajir said. “He loves them, this is not a professional decision at all. This is a personal decision that he felt like he needed to do. When he goes to church and thinks about the funeral and sees his wife’s good friends, and driving down the street and seeing the hospice house and all that kind of stuff, it was just tough on him.
“I get emotional because I work for those young people in the room and I care very deeply about them. I know they care for him and seeing a father figure or a person who has cared for them so many years leave was hard to look at. But by the same token, after he got through sharing his heart, I was very emotional and shared my heart as well. I said the one thing I can tell you, the only thing I can tell you is change is inevitable. The one thing that is constant in your life is change. In order to deal with change, in order to live through change, you have to go through it.”
Mohajir said he has known for weeks that ASU was facing the possibility of a coaching transition.
“Having worked with Coach Anderson for the last three years and some of his extraordinary circumstances that he’s been through and some of the many conversations we’ve had over the past years, he was at times struggling when he would go home at night,” Mohajir said. “He felt really good when he was coaching the team and felt really at home. There was always a lot of energy, even with our struggling season this year.”
At 4-7 this fall, ASU finished under .500 for the first time since 2010. The Red Wolves postponed two games because of COVID-19 issues in September. They have struggled defensively this year, with Anderson firing defensive coordinator David Duggan five games into the season.
Last Saturday’s 48-15 victory over Louisiana-Monroe, a win that stopped a five-game losing streak, moved Anderson into a tie with Bill Davidson for the third-most coaching victories in school history. His teams won two of their six bowl appearances, beating Central Florida in the 2016 Cure Bowl and Florida International in the 2019 Camellia Bowl.
Anderson signed a contract extension in May that would have taken him through the 2023 season at ASU. Under its terms, his buyout for accepting another head coaching position after the 2020 season was $800,000.
Mohajir said ASU reduced Anderson’s buyout to $150,000 to aid his transition, adding that Chancellor Kelly Damphousse and System President Chuck Welch were in agreement with a move to help give Anderson a fresh start.
“We believe that was the right thing to do. He is a person first, he is a human,” Mohajir said. “I think you will see we will have a lot of good candidates for this job because of the way we treat our coaches, the culture that we have about how we treat our staff. In this particular case, we just felt as a leadership team, Dr. Damphousse, myself, Dr. Welch, that it was the right thing to do to help him with his transition, and he will be a fantastic coach at his next stop.”
Damphousse also released a statement Thursday, saying he could tell how much Anderson cares about his student-athletes’ development beyond the field.
“Beth (Damphousse) grew to be very fond of Blake, Wendy and their children over the years,” Damphousse said. “We are sad to see Blake go, but we are excited about his future. He is leaving our football program better than he found it.”
Mohajir will lead ASU’s search for its 31st head coach along with Damphousse and Welch.
Assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf has been named interim head coach and will be interviewed for the position, Mohajir said.
“Coach Heckendorf had an opportunity to leave last year and we really wanted him to stay,” Mohajir said. “I thought he did a really good job last year with our quarterbacks, especially with the injuries, and we told him that if Blake ever leaves, we would want him to interview as a candidate and we’ll do that, looking forward to it. I know he’ll do a great job in the interview process.”
Mohajir said he has a candidate profile that he will not share during the hiring process. Each of his first two football head coaching hires came to ASU after working as a Power Five offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin from Texas after the 2012 season and Anderson from North Carolina after the 2013 season.
The early signing period begins Wednesday, along with the signing period for midyear junior college transfers.
“I wish I could give you a timeline. We’d like to have something done by next week if at all possible, but we’ll see if it can happen and it just depends on who’s in the mix,” Mohajir said. “Believe it or not, sometimes there are people who come up when you’re in the process. I spend a lot of time the first three days just vetting people, people that we’ve been thinking about and talking to my search team.
“We discuss those and then we start interviewing, and it goes really fast, but this is a little different because of the type of year and some of my obligations with the College Football Playoff committee. It will probably be just a little different.”