Is “Faith, Family and Fun” a Top 25 mantra?

Faith and family are the guiding elements of Coach Blake Anderson’s life – and coaching football nearly took both. In fact, it took a separation from catching (made necessary by his father’s illness) that made Anderson realize that nothing is more important than faith in God and allegiance to family.

When he returned to coaching in 2007, Faith, Family and Fun became Coach Anderson’s mantra – or something close to it. We might remember that his original troika when he arrived to Jonesboro in 2014 was Fast, Physical, and Fun.

At some point in time, Coach Anderson dropped Fast and Physical for Faith and Family, and the program’s coaches and A-State Marketing took the three-word mantra and ran with it, using it to court new staff and entice recruits. Why not? It plays well with fans, who tend to lean wholesome. And its a line that likely comforts the parents of recruits, who want their sons led by honest, just men.

But does Faith, Family and Fun win championships?

Unfair! Blake Anderson and Family have won a pair of Sun Belt titles in three years, going 24-15 and sending the team and fans to bowl games all three years. What more can we ask?

Red Wolves fans are patiently waiting for a magic season.

Well, we have been promised  – either implied or expressed – a number of milestones. Among them: “best program in the Group of Five,” and place in the Top 25 (AP or Playoff Committee), and a signature win over a P5 opponent. This has yet to happen during the Anderson Era, though we’ve had opportunity. (Let us solemnly pour a Mountain Dew over the home loss to Missouri.)

Go ahead and summon the whaaaambulance, but Sun Belt titles just aren’t good enough anymore. It’s a little been-there-done-that, and yeah we’ve conveniently forgotten those miserable Joe Hollis years. As former head coach Gus Malzahn famously put it, it’s time for Next Level.

Which brings us back to Faith, Family and Fun. Hey, I like a crackerjack tagline as much as the next guy. But I sometimes wonder if Coach Anderson misses the mark. College is where kids learn to become adults, whether through the engineering program, the philosophy department, or the athletic program. If you want fun, join an intramural team. Looking for faith? Arkansas State features plenty of religious-based student unions. You want family? Check in on Facebook.

It’s just football. Sure. We all take it too seriously. But we do take it seriously. Let is re-review the most famous play in Coach Anderson’s tenure: The Fainting Goat. Executed during a road game with Miami, the amusing trick play was unleashed when the Red Wolves were down less than two touchdowns. This was how Coach Anderson justified its use during an interview with Sports Illustrated (bold mine):

Had the play worked it would’ve been a lot more fun obviously. But that particular technique had nothing to do with whether the play worked or not. It was strictly just for fun. We’re willing to laugh at ourselves and have a good time. We do a lot of crazy stuff. We’re just trying to keep the kids’ energy up and smiling and laughing. It was a great way to have fun all week.

Can you imagine Nick Saban wasting a play strictly for fun?

For the record, I love the Fainting Goat. I didn’t love the justification. We were playing Miami! Against a freshman QB (who, sadly, happened to be Brad Kaaya). Winning required focus, not fun. There we go! Why not Faith, Family and Focus?

There was certainly a lack of focus later that season against conference rival ULL, when the Red Wolves elected to attempt a fake punt at its own 7 yard line, which failed miserably and resulted in a Cajuns’ touchdown. On national TV, no less! The Red Wolves ended up losing in a shoot-out, 55-40.

After the failed punt, Anderson appeared to have had enough with Trick Play U. The offensive chicanery lessened. In fact, trick plays seemed to evaporate entirely in 2015, when A-State went 8-0 in conference and won a Sun Belt title. True, Anderson went 1-3 out of conference, following up a 2-2 effort in 2014. But a title is a title, even if it’s just another one from the Sun Belt.

And then 2016 happened.

Hype is fun

Is it arrogant to complain about a season that delivered a Sun Belt title, a win over a Top 25 team (Troy) and a bowl victory over UCF? Yes. The season was a brilliant success. Buuuuuut….

To say there was some build up surrounded the 2016 season is understating the fact. The program had enjoyed a number of celebrity recruiting coups (Dee Liner, Cameron Echols-Luper, Justice Hansen, Chad Voytik, Kendall Sanders) that had fans forgetting about all the departing talent (Fredi Knighten, Michael Gordon, Darion Griswold, J.D. McKissic, Rocky Hayes). In addition to the drain on talent, the Red Wolves also lost offensive coordinator Walt Bell to Maryland and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee to Missouri. Yet, fans came to believe that the team was somehow better than ever. Perhaps even legendary.

Everyone, from coaches to media to fans, began to believe the hype. And hype is fun. One popular piece of hype was the near-mythic punting ability of Cameron Echols-Luper, a speedy wide receiver transfer from TCU. Word got out that Echols-Luper was possibly the best punter on the team! Imagine his speed (plus his experience as a high school quarterback) put at the kicker position? What a weapon! There would be no defense to prepare for that!

Week One, the Red Wolves opened at home against the beefy Rockets of the MAC, who had already thumped the Red Wolves once at the GoDaddy Bowl and a second time at Toledo. Everyone was itching for revenge! Hell, everybody expected revenge, with Arkansas State predicted to win as a 2.5 point favorite. On the season’s first possession, the Red Wolves ran 6 plays for 12 yards, resulting in a punt. The punt was something special. Echols-Luper jogged into the backfield and immediately uncorked a 68-yard bomb. All unease about the dull opening possession melted away!

Except, Echols-Luper’s next punt, which came after two Rocket touchdowns, was an 8-yard shank. The crowd at Centennial Bank Stadium gasped and then fell silent. Suddenly, the wisdom of entrusting the kicking game to a wide receiver was put into question. Six plays and 33 yards later, Toledo was back in the end zone, and the surprisingly overmatched Red Wolves would go on to lose 31-10.

Can you blame Faith, Family and Fun for the loss to Toledo, or the following losses to Auburn (acceptable), Utah State (regrettable) and UCA (unfathomable)? Probably not. More likely, the 0-4 start to the season was more a product of new talent and new staff learning how to mesh.

Still, observing from the bleachers, there seemed a lethal level of chumminess permeating from the team. Everybody was having a swell time. Fun was the theme of the off-season, starting with players catching punts behind their backs at the Spring Game and moving forward to Fall with ice cream trucks and homemade waterslides. Football seemed pushed to the background.

Off season fun did not carryover into the season. In Week 2, after trading touchdowns with Auburn in the first quarter, the Red Wolves had zero answers for Gus Malzahn and fell 51-14. Against Utah State, a serial lack of first-half discipline (which included an unsportsmanlike penalty) put the Red Wolves in too deep a hole, resulting in a 34-20 loss and a permanent QB change from Chad Voytik to the Oklahoma transfer, Justice Hansen.

All three losses could be attributed to any number of factors: two games were on the road, the QBs were still finding their footing, the new offensive coaches (Buster Faulkner and Allen Rudolph) needed more time, the team was missing its departed leadership. But everything was supposed to come together in Week 4.

It didn’t.

Rock, meet Bottom

Red Wolves hosted the Bears of UCA for the first time since 2011, when Hugh Freeze’s squad rolled to a 53-24 romp. Because UCA was an FCS program, Arkansas State was expected to manhandle the Bears’ smaller offensive line and exhaust the Bears limited depth. If Coach Anderson had anything to fear from UCA, it was the height of their receivers. (The Red Wolves had trouble with tall receivers.) But with Hansen coming off a solid game against Utah State, albeit in a losing effort, and given that the team’s talent was obviously so much better on paper, the UCA game was expected to be a “get well” game.

The Bears didn’t really give a shit, though. After the Red Wolves chipped in a field goal, UCA took a 47 yard punt into the house. Hansen would respond the next possession with a 40 yard pass to tight end Blake Mack, which would led to a go-ahead TD. A few possessions later, Hansen followed it up with a 48-yard TD strike to RB Warren Wand. Up 16-7 in the first quarter (A-State missed the XP), it appeared that the Red Wolves were about to dominate at last.

But the Bears remained unruffled. UCA forced punt after punt from the Red Wolves in the second quarter, holding Arkansas State scoreless and chipping in a pair of field goals to close the half within three. As the band marched onto the field, one could not feel a single volt of energy inside Centennial Bank Stadium – unless you drifted to the small swatch of purple that had camped defiantly at the northern goal line. Those guys were stoked! Everyone wearing scarlet and black listlessly stared into space, wondering what the hell was happening.

The Bears tied the score on its first possession of the second half, and the chagrin deepened. But then something resembling magic happened. Justice Hansen completed a terrific bomb to the speedy Cameron Echols-Luper for 58 yards and a score. The crowd erupted, almost in relief. YES! The Hansen-CEL Connection had finally come to fruition! This was what fans were promised! This!

The defense followed the touchdown by forcing a punt from UCA, whose players were finally breathing heavy. Sorry, Bears! FCS depth is no match for FBS power! Maybe it took a little longer than planned, but the Red Wolves were, at last, asserting their will against an opponent. Centennial Bank was once again a jovial venue.

Cameron Echols-Luper, flashy wide receiver by way of TCU, would deliver a yeoman’s block in Week 5 that would save the Red Wolves’ season.

But it didn’t last. UCA bullied a fumble from the normally sure-handed Warren Wand, and they then relentlessly marched 50 yards for the score. What followed seemed to encapsulate all that seemed off about the team. With only a five point lead, the Bears decided to go for the two point conversion. The pass was intercepted in the corner of the end zone, resulting in two Red Wolves defenders celebrating with massive chest bumps inside the silent stadium.

At least they were having fun.

Winning is fun

Rumor has it that the loss to in-state FCS rival UCA was a serious tipping point. Senior corner back Cody Brown called a team-only meeting to clear the air. Reportedly, AD Terry Mohajir sat in on a post-game film review with the staff. What was said is not on the record, but a reasonable guess could be made that Mohajir was not pleased.

Who could blame him? After four weeks, the defending Sun Belt champion Red Wolves were 0-4 and ranked 102nd in Total Offense. The Red Wolves were particularly woeful on third down, ranking next to last on 3rd down conversions. The defense was supposed to be Arkansas State’s strength, but it ranked 118th, and was a miserable 115th against the rush. If there was ever time for a come-to-Jesus meeting, it was now.

Talent didn’t seem to be the Red Wolves’ problem. What was missing was a blue collar, yeoman’s leadership. There were too many ugly penalties, many of which are of the “personal foul variety.” After four games, only the Akron Zips received more yellow flags than the Red Wolves.

It wasn’t just lack of discipline or a “me-first” attitude. There was simply too much showmanship  that seemed designed to win the crowd. For example, against UCA, the Red Wolves delivered exciting pass plays of 40, 44, 48 and 58 yards. But while Arkansas State made all the big plays that evening, it made none of the small plays that ultimately win games. Executing a solid route or making a pedestrian tackle didn’t seem to interest these Red Wolves.

But something damn near mystical happened the next week, when the Red Wolves opened conference play against Georgia Southern. The Eagles had a fourth quarter 26-20 lead, but the Red Wolves had the ball with time rapidly expiring. Facing fourth and 16, with 1:53 left on the clock, Justice Hansen broke wide and lumbered into the backfield, his lanky 6’4″ frame trundling to the first down marker. He wasn’t going to make it. But then appeared Cameron Echols-Luper, who had earlier made a costly fumble. The crafty wide receiver lost his defender and sacrificed his body for a critical block that bought Hansen the necessary yards to get the first down. Perhaps it was at that moment when the team bought into the faith and family aspects of Anderson’s mantra. When the clock hit triple zero, the Red Wolves were on top 27-26.

And it was fun.

Faith, Family and…Fun?

Did we answer the question? Is Faith, Family and Fun a Top 25 mantra? In 2017, Coach Anderson and his staff have taken a noticeably more measured approach to expectations. Still, the mantra remains ingrained in Coach Anderson’s recruiting and teaching philosophy.

It’s how we live, it’s how we do things and it’s why we’re different. You can’t imagine Nick Saban living that way, but then again does the world need another Nick Saban? Coach Anderson understands that football is fleeting and that life endures long after the crowd goes home. Faith is accepting what cannot be perceived. Family is to remain loyal to those in good times and in bad. Fun is another “F” word, but with a nebulas meaning.

We get to define it for ourselves.