By Jeff Greenberg
Pulling one from the archives – originally published in 2014 – Coach Anderson is now the Head Coach at Arkansas State University
On each fall Saturday, thousands of fans pack the stadium with thousands more watching on their televisions at home. Every game comes down to those crucial plays at critical moments in the game. The score is tied and the play clock ticks down towards zero. The tension in the crowd reaches a breaking point as each second ticks away and the fans try to anticipate what play will be called next. The fans are waiting, the players are waiting and even the other coaches are waiting for the play call that will possibly win or lose the game. That’s a lot of pressure, especially at the BCS level. And it falls on the shoulders of the offensive coordinator(OC). Most fans have wondered at some point why certain plays were called during a game. Have you ever wondered what all of this looks like through the eyes of an OC? Me too. So I sat down with a BCS-level OC, Blake Anderson, from the University of North Carolina, and found out what the man in the booth thinks about his job.
What’s that pressure like when all eyes are on you to make that play call in crunch time? – “Well, it’s not for the faint of heart, but I love it. And not just because of the feelings the pressure gives you, but because you’re excited to call a play for the situation you’ve practiced for all week or multiple weeks. It’s game time and all of the work you’ve done to prepare for the moment is about to play out on the field. It’s why I love what I do.”
This job can be a wild ride. How did it all start out for you? – “I got into this because of the relationships you build in sports. Guys I played for or with meant something to me; and that’s what drew me in. I guess I grew up around it. After elementary school I rode a bus to the high school where my mom was teaching. My dad traveled a lot for work so I’d wait for my mom to end her day. I’d go right over to the high school football coach and bug him to death. This went on until I was in high school and played myself. It turned me into a gym rat. Like many players I thought I would play at the next level. But my college career was riddled with injuries. It became clear that a long playing career was not in the cards. And my coaches, particularly Mike Lucas, the defensive coordinator at Sam Houston State and the rest of the staff, told me they thought I had the personality for coaching and the grasp of the game. And they were right; this is what I was meant to do. I definitely didn’t get into it for the money. We basically went broke during my first ten years of coaching.”
So I take it then that you didn’t always have this penthouse view from your office? – “Wow, that’s funny. Absolutely not. Growing up in Texas, I wanted to be the head coach of the Cowboys, UT, or A&M. But once you’re in it, you really grind and focus on just trying to do well and pay the bills. I’ve had bad jobs where it felt like I was paying THEM to let me coach. You’re trying to get a job, then trying to keep a job. I didn’t come up with a known name or a coaching family pedigree so that makes you have to work that much harder to get a chance in this profession.”
You mentioned coaching pedigree, what are you referring to? – “Well, coaching is a small, tight-knit community. If you don’t come from a coaching family or made a name for yourself as a player, you have to create or build a name for yourself within the coaching community. As my network within coaching grew, opportunities began to grow too. It’s like any business. People hire who they know and trust. Once your network begins to grow more doors are opened to you. Who you know gets you the job and your abilities are what keep you in the job. It can get frustrating because you see jobs you can get, but you’re not in that circle so that door is closed to you. But I’ve been on the good side of that scenario too. If I didn’t know Larry for 15 years he may have had somebody else come with him to Southern Miss and I wouldn’t be here today at UNC. Larry and I had not worked together but our past relationships crossed paths in the profession and we had talked about possible situations over the years. I told my wife that when he took the Southern Miss job there was no doubt in my mind he was going to call me and I knew there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to say yes.”
You mentioned having different jobs within coaching, was there ever a definitive “I’ve made the big time” moment? – “You know, I grew up in such a small-town atmosphere that every college coaching moment has felt big to me. Winning the national championship at the junior college level still holds a special place in my mind. I don’t know how old I was at the time but I was calling plays and that felt big time to me. You know, coaching in the New Mexico/New Mexico State game made you feel like your job was on the line. Coaching against BYU during LaVell Edwards’ last year was big to me. Heck, Gio Bernard’s punt return was the greatest play I’ve been a part of. That was just electric. Southern Miss felt special because we grinded for 4 years to reach that conference championship game in front of a national audience. And to see those kids grow and develop and then watch them celebrate winning that game. Man, that’s it. That’s what matters. My office view is different and the paycheck is different, but the job is the same. Your goal with the kids is the same. You just want to win.”
You mentioned how the “relationships” really got you into coaching. What’s that player/coach dynamic like for you? – “You have to be intentional about that relationship. You have to let them in your emotional circle. That’s how the trust is built. We have them in our homes several times a year and do a lot with them outside of football. You’re with them so much that it can’t always be coach/player. At some point it has to be family. It can’t be all football for 365 days a year, which is what it has turned into. We are here together a lot. That goes for the staff “family” as well. Luckily we all have a great sense of humor; nobody takes themselves too seriously, and has thick skin at the same time. It can get intense because it’s a competitive atmosphere and people have worked hard to be here coaching and playing. We have to keep these guys loose. The pressure gets high to win. So we’ll play some Will Ferrell videos or anything funny to loosen up the mood to start a meeting. On Halloween Coach Bell showed up to practice dressed up like a Ninja Turtle. It really is a family atmosphere with the shared respect and knowledge that we have a job to get done together.”
When players jump from one level of football to the next, like from college to the NFL, they talk about the game “slowing down” for them. When did that happen for you as a play caller? – “It took some time. I’ll admit that I was calling plays a lot earlier in my career than I should have. But it was by necessity. I was poor at it and that’s what drove me to get better. If it had come easy early I might not have worked so hard to get better. Every job helped me. But at Southern Miss, learning how to adjust to the way defenses were evolving to try to stop us really sharpened my skills in my opinion. It really molded me in a way that made things really clear to me now. Of course, great players can make any play caller look better than they are.”
Musicians talk about thinking a certain number of notes ahead of what they’re playing. How many plays ahead are you thinking about in a game? – “To start a game we do script some to get the players in a rhythm and get their confidence going. Of course we want to score. We’ve had a high success rate of scoring early over the years. You’re always looking ahead though. Some plays are called to set up future plays. I’m running play X just to get to this hash in order to get this explosive play. Or like the double pass TD against NC State. That Switzer pass play was set up for two weeks heading into that game. The timing was right. I knew the play would come eventually, but I needed it to be on the proper hash and the right yardage and time in the game. The guys were in position to make the play and they executed a game breaking play. That’s fun.”
It’s got to be fun when you out-think a defense like that – “That’s my favorite part afterwards. Pull up a video or picture with a wide-angle and look for the faces in the crowd or the reactions on the sidelines when they realize you’ve just beat them on a play. Like on Switzer’s TD pass, the minute he pulled up to throw, you know their staff knew instantly, “dang, they got us.” Man, that’s awesome.”
Do you go to bed thinking of plays? – “My mind doesn’t shut down during football season. It drives my wife nuts. I wake up a lot thinking of plays, go to bed thinking of plays. On Monday, as a staff we put up the base game plan for the week. Well, I don’t sleep well Monday night. I get up several times. Get some water, go to the bathroom. I start double-thinking everything we put up on the board. Tuesday morning I go in and the board may change dramatically. The rest of the staff knows this by now and they’ll ask me, so what were you doing in the middle of the night when you took this play off the board? They know nothing is in stone until Tuesday morning when we put it in for the players. But it’s a good thing too because it gives me a chance to ask everybody if anything had changed in their minds after sleeping on it for a night. Of course, that may just be me justifying why I don’t sleep. There’s a bunch of great football plays. X’s and O’s are dime a dozen. There are tons of plays we can call. So it’s important to get a cohesive plan put in place that fits what’s going on with each position group at the time. Tuesday morning sets up the rest of the week. It’s a collaborative staff process. We’ve all been in the system long enough that the normal give and take is important. For instance, a guy might mention that we’ve run a certain set two weeks in a row. Maybe it’s time to run this play off of that set this week. That’s where some of your biggest plays come from. Use your tendencies to trick the other team.”
Do you watch a lot of football and write down some ideas? – “I used to watch a lot of football. But I try not to subject my wife and family to that anymore. After being out of coaching for a brief period, I promised her that I wouldn’t make her live coaching 24/7. So I watch less at home. Now here at the office, I watch every game I can, particularly coaches or systems that are really doing things well. But when I go home I want to be Dad and husband the best I can.
Anybody particular you follow? – “I used to watch Greg Davis at Texas a lot. I like what he did and thought he did a great job. Mike Leach at Texas Tech. We do a lot of things in our passing game that you see with him. I try to watch a lot of games with similar offensive concepts like Baylor, Oregon, Oklahoma State. We all do similar things and crossed paths at different times. So I’ll check specific ways people are trying to execute sets we all run and how they change what they’re doing from week to week. I watch the Eagles a lot now with Chip Kelly. I always thought this concept could work in the NFL, so it’s interesting to see that play out.”
Recruiting is crucial to your job. Does it come natural to you? – “Yes, it does and I think that’s what has helped me get to where I’m at. When you don’t have a coaching pedigree you have to find a way to add value to the job you’re at in order to move up the ranks. People saw I coached hard and my guys played well, but what I did with recruiting is what opened the doors to new opportunities. That’s what got me to New Mexico and then people noticed and said I was getting guys to New Mexico that I shouldn’t be able to get. I could talk to anybody. I’m comfortable in any home from big cities to small farm towns. I love it. I love meeting families from all backgrounds. That’s where you start those relationships I’ve mentioned and it allowed me to flourish in this profession.”
What’s that “living room discussion” like these days? – “That part really hasn’t changed much. Except that now so many prospects make multiple visits to your campus and to games that by the time you sit down in their living room they already have a strong grasp on what your school has to offer. What hasn’t changed is the dynamics of the situation. The players talk about the uniforms, the stadiums, and playing time. The parents are still parents and they want to know how their kid will be treated and watched after over the next 5 years. My job is to be as transparent as I can in showing them how we will do that for them.”
You’re an OC and a former QB coach, so what are you looking for in a QB recruit? – “I’m looking for the “IT” factor in a QB. Does he have the character to lead and have his teammates follow him. Most will have strong arms and can run these days. And I do want that strong arm to be accurate. But do they have “IT”?
Have you ever guaranteed a guy was signing with you and then they didn’t? – “First of all, I would never guarantee anything because the hardest thing in recruiting is figuring out who is making the final decision for each recruit. Is it the parents, grandparents, coaches, youth coaches, the player? I’ve missed on some I thought were coming and I’ve been surprised by some I thought we lost. That’s the game. But it’s hard because you do put your heart and soul into it and bond with these kids so it rips your heart out in a way when they go somewhere else. In fact, I have a relationship with a kid who’s coaching now that I recruited years ago who went somewhere else. Just because he went elsewhere I didn’t stop wanting him to be successful. We still keep in touch. His parents even still keep in touch. Like I said before, the great part about this job is the relationships. But I don’t sleep the week of signing day. I’ve lost guys on signing day and I’ve kept guys down to the last minute where you’re sweating it out. That’s miserable, the waiting.”
How has social media affected your recruiting? – “It makes me feel old. I’m young in a lot of ways but that makes me feel old. I use it every day and feel like I have a grasp on it but I’m not an innovator by any means. But it’s convenient and timely and I like it because it allows you to get a lot of communication done in a short period of time.”
And how has social media affected your relationship or interactions with fans? – “Well, it brings the fans straight to your phone(laughter). So there’s nowhere to hide.”
You seem to be very open though with the fans over twitter – “I think I am. It’s hard not to be especially when people start tweeting you directly or texting you. I signed up for this job with my eyes wide open and I think fans have a right to have their opinions. It’s those opinions that stir up the passion in our fans, so you have to take the praise and the criticism. It means they care about our program and that they’re watching, which is what we want. But I admit, I can’t read everything, and that’s probably a good thing in this profession. Quick story. My dad came to watch the spring game and sat in the booth with me. It stressed him out. He couldn’t even handle the pressure of a scrimmage. That made me laugh and it made me realize this job isn’t for everyone. You have a lot on the line when you have 40 seconds to make the call 80 times a game. The well-being of your family and the staff’s families are on the line. The players are depending on you. There are thousands of fans screaming at you. Come to think of it, maybe my dad was right to be stressed out.”
Speaking of the fans, what’s their biggest misperception of your job? – “Honestly, I think play calling is overrated. You really work so hard during the week as a staff putting a strategy together. You call plays during the week and get a feel for it for where you’re trying to get to before the game. By the time you get to Saturday the plays have been hashed out. I think people think the play calling is going to be perfect or that there is the perfect play. Every play is designed to be successful. It still comes down to execution. There are some mediocre play calls that players take and execute so well that the play looks like a perfect play call. It wasn’t perfect, but the player’s execution of the play was great. On a good day of execution by the players, any play called was going to work. On a day when execution isn’t clicking on all cylinders or you’re playing a great defense, it doesn’t always look so clean from a play-calling perspective. You do have to have a feel for the game and the rhythm of the game. You have to know what worked in practice and when to make the call for an explosive chance. You also have to be in sync with your head coach and what he wants in certain situations. The “you called a crappy game or you called a great game” makes me laugh both ways because if the only thing that mattered in winning is the plays I called, this game would be easy.”
Not seeing practice or “behind the curtain” so to speak can limit what a fan knows about your process – “Absolutely. I mean look. If I thought the play wasn’t going to work I wouldn’t call it. Nobody wants the play to work more than the guy calling the play. Than fans don’t see that we’ve run a certain play hundreds of times in practice and the QB has nailed it every time. You and I have discussed the play in the Miami game where Bryn threw an interception late in the game. He nailed that play every time in practice against every defense we could throw at him. That same play has won games for us before. Then we run it in the Miami game and the ball sailed on him. The funny thing is that even if it were just an incompletion the discussion would have been much different. There were two guys open, but we threw a pick so it’s a bad play call I guess. The pressure is in that small margin of error between a successful play and a turnover.”
So it sounds like there’s no calling plays in the sand? – “Exactly. The package of plays we bring into a game have been practiced against every defense possible. It ends up in the game plan because we’ve vetted it over and over until we feel comfortable with the play. That’s the difference between offense and defense. On defense, if ten guys do the wrong thing, but that 11th guy makes the tackle you’re OK. On offense, one guy’s mistake can mess up the whole play.”
So what’s Blake Anderson doing when he leaves the stadium at night? – “I’m ready to go see my family and do something with them. One thing we’ve done is experience all there is to experience in the places we’ve lived. Go skiing, go to the beach, anything you can do where we live. I love golf too and some of us play anytime we can.”
How do you balance your family life in this job? – “It’s hard. The lord blessed me with a wife I don’t deserve. Words can’t really do justice to what that means. When I came back into coaching I did so with my family in mind and knew I had to do things in a way that was healthy for my family. But it’s hard. Now, ‘date night’ this week is my wife and I going to a high school game and sharing some nachos, but typically I don’t bring work home. I’m the first guy out of the door when we break because I’m ready to see my family.”
Do they still think Dad’s job is cool? – “They do. They still wish I was home more. There are cool parts, but now that my kids are older they also feel the stressful parts that I go through. But family time is family time, period. And your family is there for you. We joke sometimes; my kids will read twitter and say “Dad, somebody figured out you can’t call plays.” We have a good laugh. Or when we lose; I came out of the Miami game and I was gut wrenched about losing that game. I walked into my office and my youngest son was here and just looked at me and said, “Dad, I love you.” I teared up because those are the moments. The moments when you’re reminded what family means to you.”
Is the “coaching carousel” tough on your family? – “Man, that’s tough on us all. This part of the year is stressful for a lot of people. But the kids get stressed because they’re so tech-savvy and they start hearing every rumor there is out there. The worst part is when you hear about your future on the ESPN ticker before you hear it first-hand. I’m blessed to be in a great situation, but I’ve got great friends on other coaching staffs right now that have no idea what next year holds for them. And it really isn’t something they control.”
Speaking of that coaching carousel, do you want to be a head coach? – “Well, I love it here. So the situation would have to be right. But, yes I do want to be a head coach. I think most of us do. But it has to be a good situation to coach in. It has to be an environment where you can win. In fact, last year I turned down two opportunities. They were good jobs but just not the right fit for what I was looking for right now. And there was a third job that I was interested in but I got beat out by a known coaching entity. Timing is everything. I believe there’s a reason for everything and if the Lord pulled me out of selling insurance in Waco, Texas to coach in Louisiana, then I trust he’ll guide me through this career.”
You’ve been in this profession a long time. But I watched you on the field before the Blackout game and you were amped up. Is this still exciting for you? – “Heck yeah. If you’re not excited about it then it’s time to look for another job. You have to be fired up. Larry is always fired up and that feeds down to the staff and then to the players. They’re going to play how you lead. I really believe that.”
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Coach Anderson for setting aside the time for this interview. You can follow him on Twitter @CHbanderson.
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