By Jeff Greenberg
Spring camp was rolling along in February. Players were working hard; and they were competing for spots on the depth chart. The progress being made was raising the expectations around the program and spirits were high. Arkansas State Head Coach, Blake Anderson, was loving what he was seeing on the field in all three phases and felt like his team was making the strides needed to give his program a chance to reach their high goals for the 2020 season. Off the field, Anderson was excited to see the university commit to a new contract extension for him and solidify the administration’s commitment to the vision that he and Athletics Director, Terry Mohajir, have for the Red Wolves’ program. All was good in the world in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Then everything came to a screeching halt. Covid-19 hit, and it hit hard. In a matter of 24 hours after spring practice #11, all football operations on campus in Jonesboro were shut down.
Since that time, the whole country has experienced something never seen before. Lives have been turned upside down as normal daily activities were also shut down with people adjusting to a quarantine life. So how does a college football coach like Coach Anderson run his program in the midst of a quarantine? How do you keep everybody safe? How do you approach the future? UnderTheHeadset.com sat down, virtually, with the Red Wolves’ head coach to take a look behind the scenes at how a college football program is operating during these unique times.
> When did you first get the announcement to halt all activities?
“The decision came down about 30 minutes before we were walking into a team meeting to get ready for spring practice #12. We had just had a scrimmage in practice #11 and we were heading into our last week of spring camp. Now, you could tell just by following the news how the landscape was beginning to change with the virus across the country. I started to expect changes coming our way. At that point, things were changing, not by the day, but by the hour, in terms of updates I was getting from our administration. About 30 minutes before that team meeting I sat down with Terry(Mohajir) and Kelly Damphousse(Chancellor) and they let me know that the decision had been made to shut down operations. We had about 30 minutes as a staff to put a plan together to explain to the players what it meant, and what things looked like moving forward. Our main goal at that moment was to give them as much information as we could and ease their minds around the whole situation. I knew we couldn’t map out the next 10 weeks for them at that moment, but we could establish what the lines of communication would look like at that moment. We could establish what those first steps were going to look like. And we could make sure they knew our number one goal was protecting their health and their well-being throughout this entire ordeal.”
> You mentioned that you started to suspect change was coming as the events surrounding the virus started to rapidly progress around the country. Was it still hard to hear it though that you needed shut down your football operations?
“I wasn’t surprised at all. I felt like it was the right thing to do for all involved. Safety first was our approach from our leadership, and I was in lockstep with that approach. I think the shock hit me more the week before when everything started to unfold and we were really learning what was happening around the country and around the world.”
> Are you grateful for how far along you did get into Spring ball?
“On the surface of it, yes, it was good for us. I’m glad we got the 11 sessions in before shutting it all down. We did get to learn a lot about the new guys and that will help us moving forward. Some of the younger guys finally had their chance for more reps and they were able to show us a lot about their progress and their development. But I’ll be honest, as great as it was to get that practice time in, a lot of that quickly took a backseat to what we needed to focus on in terms of reacting to this virus and the shutdowns it caused for all of us. I think when we start to get back to some level of normalcy, we will look back and use that time to our advantage and use that film to teach back to the players. But right now, what’s most important is keeping our guys safe and healthy, both mentally and physically, in our current environment as we sit here today. That’s what I’m focused on. That’s what my staff is focused on. And to be honest, that’s what Terry and Kelly are focused on, and I couldn’t say enough about their leadership during all of this.”
> What was the hardest thing you guys faced in that first week or two after everything was halted?
“The hardest part for all involved was how fast everything was changing right in front of you. Events on the ground were changing by the hour. So, you’d make a plan, and then within an hour or two, new plans had to be created or adjustments had to be made to plans created just that morning. This program involves a ton of people. So, with every change you had to quickly communicate those changes out to 100-plus people. And you had to do it in a way where you couldn’t see their faces or their body language in terms of how they were reacting or processing the information. We’re so used to being in the same room for meetings. I like to see guy’s faces so I know how information or plans are landing with them. That made it a challenge because that human contact was foundational to the structure our guys were used to here. That extends to all aspects of their lives in Jonesboro from academics, to the weight room, to nutrition, to medical rehab, you name it. Everything was turned upside down over night. Mastering the ability to communicate effectively to 100-plus people from minute to minute was the hardest part in trying to keep everybody informed in a timely fashion and on the same page in what our strategy was at any given moment.”
> How did the players react to it all then?
“You could see the disappointment in their eyes and body language. Guys were competing hard and thought they’d have another week to compete. We’ve got people fighting for positions and this is when most of that competition usually takes place. The other part is they were excited with how spring camp had gone leading up to that point and they were excited to see what this team could be and where we’re headed. So again, their immediate reaction was disappointment. At the same time, they weren’t closed off from what was starting to happen around the country with the virus at that point. By the time we told them this news, there was a certain degree of worry on everybody’s mind. So after being disappointed at first, I think that was followed quickly by a sense of relief that we had a plan in place and that plan valued their safety and well-being over football.”
> How did the staff react to the news?
“The staff reacted similarly to the players. Frustrated but supportive. Disappointed but also relieved like the players in some respects because they all have families to think about and protect. I think they appreciated the magnitude of the moment beyond football. They know the safety of everybody involved in our program is priority number one. They’ve been really good through this whole process to be honest. The moment it happened, every single one of them responded with, “How can we help? What can we do?” Obviously, they’ve helped me in supporting the players and supporting each other through all of this right now.”
> How hard was it to coordinate a plan for the team to use during this time on how to handle everything?
“We were in the same boat as everybody else. We were quickly needing to use different platforms to communicate like Zoom, FaceTime and Microsoft Meetings. There was nothing more important in that first week than ensuring a consistent, secure line of communications with my staff and our players that everybody could depend on. That was the only way to take care of everybody. Utilizing the tools we have was how we ensured our ability to be safe and be productive at the same time. Remember, we had to find ways to support our players academically and with football in order for them to be productive in both areas. Again, our administration has done a tremendous job of formulating plans and protocols for us and have communicated with us on a daily basis. Kelly, from day 1, was prompt and quick to organize us and make decisions. But he was also very measured and calculating in the decisions he was making, which prevented us from having to start-over in any one area from day to day or week to week. His leadership has been crucial during this time. So, we’ve been able to follow that lead in how we filter that down to our plans with the program. Now, we’ve had to make adjustments like everybody else as the severity of the virus shifted or as changes were made with stay-at-home orders, but the way our administration has handled it all has really prevented us from being caught off-guard or unprepared. I’ve been happy and proud with the way our staff and our players have adapted to their new world as it is right now and been able to stay positive and productive through it all.”
> True confession time. Did you actually know how to run your own Zoom sessions, or do you have somebody that does that for you?
“I run my own Zoom sessions, thank you very much. I’ve used it for every meeting possible. I don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, but I do prefer to see everybody’s faces in our meetings so Zoom has been great in that respect. I don’t throw a bunch of slides up in every meeting because it’s not always needed. But yes, if I need to I’m smart enough to push that button and make it work.”
> What does a typical day look like right now for you, the staff, and the players?
“Right now, all but about 15-20 players are back home in some form or fashion. The guys that stayed here are here because this was their safest living situation in terms of physical and mental health, but also in terms of having the resources they needed to continue their school-work online or in a virtual setting. In terms of their schedule, the offensive and defensive coaches meet with their players several days a week through Zoom. It’s a mixed bag in terms on the content of those meetings. They’re doing some football, but really we’re staying focused on seeing their faces and providing them with human interaction outside of their homes to make sure they’re staying safe and staying healthy. It’s also given us a chance to build and strengthen our personal relationships with them as well because we have so much focused time together right now that’s not all football related. Staff-wise we have at least one or more meetings per week that focus on recruiting and where we’re at in the process of evaluating prospects and communicating with those players. The offensive and defensive staffs are getting together to game plan, review film and review spring film to continue to prepare for fall camp and the season. We also have other organizational staff meetings but we’ve knocked out almost all of our planning and scenario planning from now until Game 1 and beyond. What I preferred right now is that my guys spend every minute they can involved in communications that focus on recruiting. That’s where we’re spending the bulk of our time. Since we can’t get out on the road for recruiting we’re having to make sure we designate a lot of our time to recruiting in every way made available to us by the NCAA. That includes virtual tours, which is aided well by our unbelievable facilities. It also includes a TV series we’re working on that will help us connect directly during this time to the lifeblood of this program, our fans. In some respects, we’re busier now than during normal times.”
> How has it been keeping the players engaged in terms of their body health and nutrition?
“This has been the biggest challenge for us, and in talking to some of my peers, I think it’s the biggest challenge for all of us. When you have your players on campus you can control the variables around their body health because everybody has the same access to the facilities and our nutrition options. Now, with everybody home, everybody is in a different situation in terms of what they have access to at home. Some guys have a full-scale gym or workout facility available to them. Some guys have a minimal gym in their garage like me. Some guys have access to nothing. I think Jake and the strength staff have done a great job in sending out daily solutions that are tailored to each player’s situation in terms of recommended workouts. That extends to nutritional advice too. They’re coaching them on how they can best eat healthy where they currently live. How to eat, what to eat and when to eat to help maintain their physical health as best as possible right now. Our staff has worked overtime in helping our guys stay healthy.”
> How have you and the staff kept the players’ spirits up?
“We’re doing a combination of things. The players are so tech-focused and always monitoring their phones, so I like to find motivational videos or any funny videos to send out to them and get them laughing or inspired as they engage with one another. We’re focusing a lot on just calls that focus on them personally. Whether that’s a phone call, a text or a Zoom interaction. It can’t be about football all the time. And it can’t just be about the team all the time. A lot of it has to be about that particular person, that particular player. Just calling them up and asking, “Hey, how are YOU doing? What’s on YOUR mind about you and what’s going on?” We’re trying everything we can to lift our guys up, lift their families up, keep them healthy, keep them safe and keep them sane. You have to remember, these guys are used to constant human contact with their teammates and their coaches, all day, every day. That’s been taken away from them. That loss of connection can bring you down in more ways than one. So our goal is to maintain those connections and even expand them in certain ways now because we have the time and flexibility to do so.”
> How have you as the head coach kept the staff’s spirits up?
“My approach with my staff has been to make sure they’re not burning themselves out. Make sure it’s not all X’s and O’s when I talk to them. Try to keep some of our interactions relationship-focused like we’re doing with the players. This is all different for them too as they’re working from home and some guys having kids doing virtual schooling right now. So, it’s an adjustment for everybody in many ways and I just want to make sure my staff isn’t ignoring there own mental and physical health and the health of their families at home.”
> How have you kept your own spirits up? How’s your family dealing with it?
“Well, one thing I’m doing is working out in my garage every day and staying in shape. I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in years. That’s helped me mentally as well. My three kids are home with me so we’ve been able to open the pool up and spend a lot of time together outside and in the pool together which has been really great. I’m enjoying that a bunch. I’ve even managed to get out, here and there, and hit a bucket of balls. The other thing keeping my spirits up though is connecting with our guys. The more I see their faces and talk with them, the better my spirits are through all of this. Those guys are family to me so seeing them and talking with them does me a lot of good every day. That goes for recruits too. I love connecting with them and getting to know them even better now than maybe we would have been able to before at this point in their recruitment. All of that keeps my spirits up. Then making sure I go back to my foundation. My morning bible study helps me stay grounded in my faith and keeps me focused on the blessings at hand, even in the midst of this chaos. We are very blessed in so many ways and we have to keep our eyes on that fact, even in light of everything that’s been turned upside down by this virus.”
> Have there been any moments of fear for you?
“Honestly, until I get all my guys back here in Jonesboro and we’re together and life is somewhat “back to normal,” I think I’ll have those fears or concerns every single day. As I’ve said before, you can’t be a father or a head coach, or both, and not have those type of concerns because these kids are family to me. My relationships with my players are priority number one. So, I’m worried all the time. Thankfully, we haven’t had a direct impact at this point from the virus in terms of a player or their parents getting infected. Some of their extended families have dealt with it in some ways so you pray for healthy recoveries for them. But I think we’ve been fortunate in that respect, but I’ll be worried until I see every one of their faces back on campus in our building again. That’s when I’ll exhale a bit.”
> How have you and the staff approached recruiting?
“We’ve actually been really happy with recruiting during this time. I think both my staff and the recruits themselves have adapted beautifully to our current environment. The NCAA has helped in making some allowances around how we can communicate during this time and we’ve been able to maximize those new opportunities. There is a lot we can do virtually in terms of communicating with coaches and recruits. It’s another reason we feel so blessed with the building we’re sitting in today that Terry made happen with our supporters. It’s a great show-piece in a virtual world. I’m excited about what’s going on in recruiting for us and the types of kids that are interested in being Red Wolves right now.”
> Have there been any silver-linings in all of this for your program?
“I think you find out a lot about yourself when adversity hits. Guys have had to step up and be more independent and more accountable to their own health and well-being. When the players are here, we do a lot for them and give them a ton of direction. Now they’re in a position where they are the ones in control of managing their routine. Managing their schedule and staying on top of everything. We still provide a ton of direction, but when they’re at home, they can’t receive that direction without initiating contact on their end. I think when we look back we’ll see that these guys have really grown up faster than what is typical at their age and stage of development. I feel like they’ll learn some life lessons that will only help them and the program moving forward. Being able to be flexible and adapt to new challenges will help them in every aspect of college life and football. For the staff, we’ve been able to spend time with our families more than ever. This is usually a busy time away from home for the staff. That’s time you never get back. Just ask a guy like Keith Heckendorf(Offensive Coordinator) who has young twin boys at home. They’re making memories right now that he wouldn’t have been able to make under normal circumstances. For me, I’ve been able to spend time with my father, who is not doing well health-wise. I know the Lord is going to take him home very soon. We’ve been able to sit down and have conversations that I wouldn’t have been able to have under normal circumstances. Those are conversations I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Like I said before, even in the midst of this chaos, there are blessings for us everywhere and in your words, silver linings waiting to be discovered if we just take a moment to notice them.”
> Are you trying to stay involved in deciding what happens this fall or are you leaving that to the other decision-makers? In the prediction business?
“I’m on the Board of Trustees with the AFCA, and we’ve obviously had a ton of conversations around everything. Terry, Kelly and Chuck Welch(University System President) ask for my opinions, and I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible in terms of looking at this as a parent and a coach. We’ve been in a ton of meetings that have included tons of ideas, tons of proposals and a lot of playing out what certain scenarios could look like. I give my input when asked, but there are a lot of decision makers in the government and in our administration that will make the best decisions on how we move forward that are based on our safety and well-being. I trust their guidance. We will be ready to adapt and formulate a plan to fit whatever we’re going to face in the future. The different plans are actually ready today. The trick is waiting to see what our world will really look like and then implementing the plan that fits that reality.”
> How many different plans and scenarios have you seen or heard for how the fall season may or may not look?
“I couldn’t even begin to count how many plans or scenarios I have seen presented to us. There are so many variables involved in running a university, running an athletics’ program and running a football season. Right now, we don’t really have complete control over a lot of those variables just due to the nature of this disruption being caused by this virus. It’s a difficult thing because of how much the facts and reality around the virus change from week to week. A plan that looks great today could be rendered useless or not comprehensive enough tomorrow. Our leaders are consulting doctors, government officials, epidemiologists, you name it, they’re consulting with them. But nobody can control the virus itself and how it will manifest itself in the coming months as everybody starts to open up. I’ve seen announcements from schools on how they’re approaching on-campus learning in the fall, but all of those plans have contingency plans attached to them. It really is still a big question mark. What I will tell you is that there isn’t a single tiny detail that Chuck, Kelly and Terry haven’t thought of in this planning process and what our future may look like. Again, I’m blessed to work for leaders who are approaching this dilemma in the way those guys have been doing from day 1, or really even before day 1.”
> How much do you watch various updates on the virus?
“I try and listen to the daily updates from the White House, Governor Hutchinson and various news’ outlets. I’m trying to stay informed as much as I can so that I can answer questions I get from players, parents and coaches. I don’t get into counting case numbers as much as I’m trying to absorb what’s coming next, what the next steps are that are being taken to open up our town and our state. I want to know what the plans are to move forward and see how those plans can apply to our program.”
> This has been a roller coaster few years for you personally. How are you doing?
“I’m doing ok. It’s been tough, no doubt. What’s hard right now is that what I’m witnessing right now with my father’s health is tough. It brings back a lot of feelings and emotions that I went through with Wendy so emotionally, it is not easy some days at all. The images in my head and day-to-day thoughts about my father are gut-wrenching. My father is strong is in his faith. He told me the other day, “I’m ready to be in God’s presence in Heaven. And I’m ready to go find Wendy and hug her.” Man. I mean. I’m sorry. That hits you right between the eyes. I’m as human as the next guy and that shook me to my soul. But I know his faith in that is also a blessing for us and one I thank God for every day. Beyond that, I’m grateful my kids are with me and they’re healthy. I love having them at home. Even with the reality of losing Wendy never leaving our minds, I think we’re blessed to be together and we’re stronger together. I’m trying really hard to keep my perspective looking forward in a positive way. I have really really good days and some really really bad days. But I have such a strong support system right now and those are the people keeping my spirits up. It’s a hard journey but I see more light than darkness and the bad days are getting fewer and fewer. It’s not all sad either when I think of the memories we’ve made. More of the good times are rising above the bad and the cherished memories are starting to be a comfort again. Emotions are raw but that’s just life and it’s part of what makes life a beautiful thing.”
> What has this whole ordeal over the last 8-10 weeks taught you about the type of program you’ve built at Arkansas State?
“I’m really proud of the culture that we have built here with the players and the staff. I do think it’s the culture that gets you through times of adversity like what we’re going through right now. Now is why I’ve built the type of culture we have here in Jonesboro. It’s easy when times are normal and you’re raising trophies. But your culture should be built, not for easy times, but for when the tough times hit. Faith, Family and Fun is our culture and it’s what has formed the relationships we have as a program. Without those relationships, we could not function as productively as we have during this time. The trust and faith built by our culture is what keeps us connected right now. I’m a different person than the guy that took this job 6 years ago. You can’t go through what I’ve been through and not change. After the last few years, I’ve walked away from those experiences with a focus on 3 things moving forward. I want to honor God in my job and walk in a way that does that. I want to build family-like relationships between my players and my staff. And I want my guys to enjoy being here and playing for Arkansas State. We’re going to outwork everybody and be in great shape and continue to hold high expectations and a standard for us all. But we will be low-ego guys in the process that do this work for the guy next to them. And in that we’re going to be able to smile and laugh and enjoy the ride while it’s happening. That’s my focus in everything we do and it’s what has held us together over the last two-plus years. I’m not satisfied one bit with where we stand today in terms of wins and losses. A year without a championship is a year I’m not happy. Now, I won’t discount the effort, the maturity and the fortitude our players showed this past season to really accomplish great things under terrible circumstances. I’ll never forget the 2019 team and what they meant to me and will mean to me for the rest of my life. But we want more. I want more, the staff wants more, the players want more and our fans want more. When that day comes that we’re told we can go back out on that field again, we will be ready to take more. How we’ve built this program is why we’ll get through to the other side of this crisis and be ready to tackle what’s in front of us.”