By Jeff Greenberg
In the last week, two FBS head coaches have lost their jobs. Both coaches hadn’t even finished their second season with their respective schools. That’s today’s college football world. No patience. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Once again, the media attention has been on who these programs will hire next. The head coaches that just lost their jobs will get sizeable contract buyouts, so nobody is bothering to talk about them much because with those buyouts, “They should be fine.” In both situations there are anywhere from fifty to sixty other people that have also just had their lives turned upside down as they are now looking for their next coaching position. Nobody ever talks about them. Except for undertheheadset.com. In fact, our season series, “Coaching Life Series: A Coaching Change,” focuses on exactly that. This series tells the stories of football coaches and their families, and what they go through during a coaching change.
Next up in our series is Arkansas State University Offensive Coordinator, Keith Heckendorf. Heckendorf started his coaching career 14 years ago at the University of Nebraska. Following his tenure in Lincoln, Heckendorf was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach at Western Carolina University. In 2011 he joined the staff at the University of North Carolina, where most recently he was the quarterbacks’ coach. Following the 2018 season, Heckendorf was hired by Arkansas State University head coach, Blake Anderson, to take over as offensive coordinator and coach the Red Wolves’ quarterbacks.
Heckendorf is considered one of the promising young coaches in college football. Larry Fedora described him as, “One of the top young offensive coaches in our sport. He has earned a great reputation for developing quarterback talent and is also a talented play-caller who will be an asset for any program many years to come.”
Two of the quarterbacks Heckendorf developed at North Carolina were Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky. Williams led the Tar Heels to the ACC Championship game in 2015 and broke numerous UNC offensive records during his time with Heckendorf. Trubisky was the #2 overall pick of the Chicago Bears in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“Coach Heck is one of the best I’ve been around,” said Trubisky. “He is extremely detailed and a great teacher. His passion for the game and his players makes him an awesome coach to play for. He pushed me to be a better player and helped prepare me for the next level. I’m thankful for my time with coach Heck and the relationship we built.”
Heckendorf and his wife, Mia, like many other coaching couples, have moved before during their life in coaching. Their recent tenure in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina was their longest stay at one school so far. When the decision was made to make a coaching change at North Carolina, it was time for them to enter the coaching carousel process. This time would be different than their last move because this change would involve moving a family now. Here’s our conversation about what the process was like for Heckendorf professionally, and personally for his family.
When the coaching change happened at North Carolina, what was racing through your mind when you drove home that day? – “That’s a great question. I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but for me it was my family. You’re thinking about how you will take care of them moving forward. Fortunately for us, our boys were young enough to where they wouldn’t be affected by the change like older kids would be who have to deal with other kids at school. They don’t know whether we win or lose, they’re just happy to see dad when the game is over. I think the uncertainty of what would happen next for our family was on my mind. We spent 8 years in Chapel Hill and that area became our home. Our boys were born there so it will always be a special home to us. You think about the relationships, not only with your players and colleagues, but also with the friends we had made in our community. Having been through it before, I think the big thing for me this time around is that my mind was more at peace with it all. My wife and I have faith in the Lord that he has control of our path in life. We know He’s going to open the doors He wants us to walk through and He closes the doors He doesn’t want us to walk through. We had plenty of opportunities over our 8 years in Chapel Hill to leave, but He kept bringing us back. He kept creating opportunities for us at North Carolina. So, when the change happened, we just felt like we needed to remain faithful to the Lord that the next opportunity would present itself.”
After processing everything you just mentioned, how fast in your profession do the next steps of the search process happen? – “That process looks different for everybody. You start to explore what’s going on at other places and what opportunities may be out there for you to pursue. You make contact with the people you know and trust in the profession and you activate that network to help you find that next position. You start the search, but you’re not necessarily in control of that search. The process is never as fast as you’d like sometimes as a coach. We’re used to living in world that is structured down to the minute in terms of your schedule, so you’re not used to having extended periods of time with nothing on your schedule. You’re used to going from one thing to the next. Then all the sudden you wake up one morning and you’re like, “What do I do today?” You want to push the fast-forward button and start doing everything you know is coming like selling the house, finding a new house, finding a school for the boys, start recruiting and everything else you know is coming at you soon. But then you realize, you have to wait. The waiting can be the hardest part, but my wife was awesome in all of this. She helped us turn it into a positive time for our family. We didn’t know for sure where we were going until after the coaches’ convention. So, we had a lot of time over the holidays. We were able to spend a ton of time together as a family.”
A ton of uninterrupted time with your family can be a rarity in coaching. How great was it to have that time with your family? – “When it’s happening it’s hard to appreciate it fully until you’re back into the grind we’re in now. Looking back now, it was such a blessing. You’ll never get time like that back. We can’t ever get these years with the boys back again. So, to be able to just be with them and my wife was special. I got to just be a dad and my wife, Mia, made it a wonderful time for us. We got to do things like take the boys to see Santa Claus and do all the things around the holidays that normal families get to do. Mia made sure we didn’t wallow in any self-pity that can come from an uncertain future; and made sure our focus was on the boys and the blessings in our lives. So, thinking about that time today, I’ll cherish it always. It ended up being a wonderful time for our family.”
When the direction of the phone calls around the search changes, and those calls start coming into you, how does it feel then knowing you’re in demand? – “It’s interesting because you’re sitting there in a position of unknown, and like I said earlier, you want to push the fast-forward button and know where you’re going to be next. But then the calls start coming in, and they’re coming in fast. All the sudden you want to push the pause button because when those calls come in, people want you to make decisions quickly. You don’t get a month to ponder your offers, but you’d like to get that time. It’s just not realistic. That can be stressful, especially when you don’t have a job. It’s hard not to take a job the minute it’s offered to you. So, you go from a period of waiting to a period of warp-speed decision making. Bottom line, you always feel better when your phone is ringing, but it’s a different kind of stress at that point.”
Through that warp-speed decision period, you did have different options on the table and different scenarios that were unfolding at any moment that involved you. What was it like for you and your wife to go through that roller coaster of events? – “To be honest, roller coaster is a great word for it. You get excited when an opportunity is sitting in front of you and think it’s about to happen. Then the next day comes and it doesn’t unfold like you’d hoped, so naturally there’s a little bit of a letdown. For us, we stuck through the same mindset we did when the coaching change happened. We put our trust in the Lord and the path He would open for us. When an opportunity appeared and then didn’t materialize, we knew the one that was meant for us hadn’t presented itself to us yet. Our trust in Him putting us where He needed us is what kept our minds at peace through it all. The right opportunity would come, and we would know it would be the one meant for our family.”
How did the Arkansas State job enter the picture? – “Everything with this opportunity came back to relationships we had built with Blake Anderson. I worked closely with him at North Carolina, and I even came with him to Jonesboro when he first got the head coaching job before I chose an opportunity back at North Carolina. I think I handled all of that the right way in his eyes and always preserved the trust and our relationship by being open and forthright with him. That relationship helped open this door for us. We have a great deal of respect for each other already, but then I got to learn and hear about how Blake was running his program. The culture he had built around the players, the coaches and making everything about family. He created an environment where guys can come in and coach; but have the time to be great dads and husbands. That was very appealing to us and made the decision an easy one to be honest. In the end, it couldn’t have worked out better for our family. Jonesboro has been a great fit for us and the boys. I love my job, the players I coach everyday and the coaches I’m working with in that building. But I also love being a dad, and this environment is allowing me to do both.”
You walk into the coaches’ convention without a job, and you walk out of it with a great opportunity. How important is a coach’s network in navigating a career in this profession? – “I don’t think you can navigate a career in coaching without having a network. It’s vital to sustaining you in this profession. I’ve never been one to pick up the phone and make a ton of calls during the season. I always put my head down and go to work, with the mindset being that if you do a great job at it, people will notice you and want you for that. I’ve never gotten a job that I went and sought out myself. It’s never worked out that way. Every job I’ve gotten has come through relationships and a reputation built on the work I’ve done. As a graduate assistant I was told that you’re interviewing for a job every day. The best way to interview for a job is for them to see how you work, to see how you operate and see how you handle yourself on a daily basis in a stressful job. I’ve always kept that advice and applied it to how I work every day. How they see you work will always carry more weight than anything you can write down on a resume.”
Thinking back to when you said you’re wondering what’s next when a change occurs. You go from that uncertainty to ending up with a promotion to offensive coordinator. What was going through your mind knowing you were you going to be able to run an offense in your next job? – “I was excited with the opportunity and grateful for the trust that Blake had in me in taking on this role and the responsibilities that go with it. It’s exciting to take everything you’ve learned from the different people you’ve worked for and with; and then put your own stamp on it. I’ve been around a lot of great coaches that I’ve picked up different things from, whether it’s schemes, how to communicate, how to run meetings and how to organize an offense. You find things you would do, and you find things you wouldn’t do, but at the end of the day, this is your opportunity to create it in your own vision. It helps that Blake and I have similar philosophies about offense, and that obviously helps in deciding how we were going to move forward. I was excited to get the chance to run an offense and do it at a school where football is important, and where they’ve had success in football. This has been an awesome experience so far because of the players and the staff I get to go to work with every day. We’ve had a lot of fun together and we’ve worked hard every day to put our guys in a position to be successful on game day. Working with good people can make or break the job. Everything can look great on paper, but if you’re not doing it with good people, it can make the job miserable for you. I’ve been blessed by this opportunity and so far, I’m loving every minute of it.”
When you arrived in Jonesboro, you had two tasks to accomplish immediately, getting to know your players and getting to know the coaches you’d be working with every day. How did you approach that process? – “Well, with the coaches, there were multiple openings on the staff, so we were all new together. The only coach returning in our room was Kyle Cefalo. Everybody had a clean slate. I wanted everybody to be able to give input in what we created in order for everybody to have a sense of ownership in what we were going to do. I wanted to show them what we wanted to be on offense and then provide a blueprint on how we were going to get there. Then I wanted them to give their input. Blake ran things similar to how we did things at North Carolina, but he made changes and tweaks over the last five years and I wanted to process those changes and know the reasons why so that we could decide how our new offense looked moving forward. Regarding the staff, the process in transition was about as smooth as any I’ve been a part of and it’s because of the coaches in that building. I’ve loved working with all of them.”
With regards to the players, are you one to watch film to form opinions or give them a chance to show you in person through workouts and practice what kind of player they are? – “Coming in, we acknowledged with the players that this program has been successful on offense. Our goal wasn’t to start from scratch. Our goal was to take what they did well and make it even better. Maximize what they did well and take another step forward with the offense. All of that started with just getting to know the guys first. All of us were living on campus through the transition so I wanted each coach to get to know their position groups outside of the football building and get to know them as people. I tried to meet with every single player on offense and just get to know who they are, where they’re from, how they got here and what their goals are playing here at Arkansas State. I wanted all of them to know my door is open to them and my goal is to help them reach their goals. In terms of forming opinions, I let them know they all started out with a clean slate with me. I wanted to see what they were made of during winter workouts and spring ball. I wanted to give them that opportunity to have a fresh start with everything we were going to do. Now, there’s a natural depth chart that existed when I got here, but this was an opportunity for guys to change their reality. I asked them, “Who do you want to be moving forward?” If you want to be the guy on the field, earn it. Show us why we need to put you on that field on game day.”
What has the process been like for you and your wife in getting to know the rest of the staff and their spouses and getting adjusted to the move to Jonesboro? – “I think that process is different in every program, and it’s different for every coach and his family. For us, we had the staff and their spouses over to our house in the spring for a Kentucky Derby party. We wanted to give everybody an opportunity to come over and get away from football. Give us all a chance to just hang out as friends and get to know each other. It was great. Everybody’s situation in adjusting to the move is different. Some folks have kids in school and so they wait until school ends before moving everybody to the new town. For us, our kids were young enough to have the flexibility to do what it was we wanted to do as a family. After the recruiting period was over, we made the decision that we didn’t want to be apart. So, I went back to North Carolina and we packed up a little U-Haul truck with whatever we needed to survive until the house sold, and we headed out to Jonesboro as a family. It was simple living for awhile and I loved it. I had missed them all and was anxious to get them here in Jonesboro. It gave us a chance to get involved in our community and the football family that Blake has created here. There is so much support here in getting you set up with everything your family needs and that has been a great experience beyond the football aspect of the move. It just lets us know we are exactly where we need to be.”
Adversity has come your way, both on the field with injuries, and off the field with Blake losing his wife. How have you dealt with everything that’s come your way this season? – “Well, with the fight that Wendy and Blake were going through we were living through that on a daily basis just by watching what his family was going through, but also watching the grace with which they handled every situation. It was heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. What it did was make us feel even more convicted in the knowledge that the Lord had put us here for a reason. He opened this door for this reason. I wanted to make sure I did my job to the best of my ability every single day so that Blake could put his energy where it needed to be and that was with Wendy. Outside of football we wanted to lend a hand in any way possible. What we witnessed was that this community is unbelievable. The people of Jonesboro showed a love and support that makes you proud to be here. It makes me emotional to think about the relationship Blake and Wendy have built with this community and the impact they have had on the people here in Jonesboro. In terms of the adversity on the field, as a coach it comes every year. I saw that firsthand, in terms of dealing with injuries, at UNC the last two seasons. The reality is nobody outside of the building cares about your problems. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. So, you have to get the next guy ready and go compete. Our mindset is “So what, now what?” It’s not about what happened, it’s about what will happen next. Coach Anderson was a prime example of that. The football season was not going to wait for him. It was coming no matter what adversity he was dealing with and he came to work everyday with the same mindset and intensity as any of us. He showed everybody what it means to make every moment count in that building. If you didn’t know Wendy, you wouldn’t have known what he was going through because he walked through those doors every day with a smile on his face and the energy and enthusiasm needed to motivate all of us to do better. He showed us how to continue to do our job when everything else is against you. He showed us how to push through that adversity.”
Compared to the drive home we discussed at the beginning of this interview, what is your drive home like these days? – “I try to get home as fast as possible because when I walk through that door at home, I’m a husband and a father. And I love every moment of that. I try to soak up as much time as I can with the boys before it’s time for them to go to bed. And then I enjoy the time with Mia. It’s amazing what can happen in a year. So, when I’m in the car on the way home to see my family, I’m just reminded that we are exactly where we’re meant to be.”