There's something to be said for an administration that cares about football.
If you're a head coach, you want administrative support so you can pay for the best assistants (and keep them), get the best facilities possible, and, if you're the sentimental type, be able to leave a program in good hands after you've parlayed Sun Belt success to a different job at a "bigger" school.
If there's anyone in the Sun Belt Conference that has perfected the art of building and maintaining an elite program in almost record time, it's the Arkansas State Red Wolves. On paper, there wasn't much that was all that special about ASU football when Steve Roberts started laying the groundwork for future success in 2006. It was an average to below average program in a below average conference in a college town where two of the four top attractions named by TripAdvisor are a mall and a bowling center.
What a difference five years makes. Buoyed by newfound administrative support and, to a lesser extent, a dilution of the Sun Belt's gene pool with the departures of WKU, UNT, and MTSU to Conference USA, Arkansas State has had a remarkable run of success. Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin all came through, won a conference title, then departed for Ole Miss, Auburn, and Boise State, respectively.
After a very brief conference title drought (which still included two bowl appearances), Blake Anderson pulled off a perfect 8-0 defenestration of the Sun Belt Conference in 2015 to add another trophy to the case in Jonesboro. Now he's pulled in some extremely high profile SEC and Big 12 transfers to offset graduation losses, which means the Red Wolves may end up reloading instead of rebuilding once again.
That success and fantastic administrative leadership by personable athletic director Terry Mohajir means Arkansas State is now among the Sun Belt's elite in the facilities arms race. A shiny new football operations facility with an indoor practice field signaled ASU's intent to get on top of the conference. Now they've turned a dinky little press box into a gleaming facility that would be perfectly at home in the AAC. Or maybe even the ACC.
One thing's for certain: Even with the rise of the heavyweights to the east, the reality is that Arkansas State are Sun Belt favorites to be reckoned with every year.
- A highly likable athletic director and an extremely competent athletic department that are the class of the Sun Belt. Few schools could lose this many coaches and sustain the run of success the Red Wolves have had.
- Facilities that are among the conference's best. Gorgeous new football ops building? Check. Indoor practice facility? Check. Brand new shiny press box? Check.
- An active, rabid fanbase with an attitude that is the very embodiment of #SunBeltHeat.
- A recent history that's seen Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin and now Blake Anderson win four conference titles in five years.
- Recruiting to northeast Arkansas can require a little bit of creativity, such as going after high profile SEC transfers and loading up on satellite camps in Texas.
- Until the "One and Done" years, ASU's FBS history was not kind to them in the least.
- Jonesboro's somewhat small market status (124K metro area population) perhaps holds them back in conference expansion talks.
Making the case for why Arkansas State is ranked just fine where it is, thank you: Jeremy Harper, Senior Editor and Arkansas State Beat Writer
Arkansas State is a great case study for what happens when a university and a fan base become totally committed to elevating its program. Fundraising has increased dramatically, and so has spending. In 2011, Arkansas State paid Hugh Freeze $151,660. Five years later, Blake Anderson is pulling down $700.000 annually plus incentives.
As a result, the product on the field has vastly improved in just five years.
But this statement can be made of many teams currently in the Sun Belt. Programs are spending more money, fans are demanding better products, and Sun Belt complacency is rapidly vanishing into the ether. A-State is number one on this list now. But it faces tremendous competition in the seasons ahead.
If you were playing NCAA football in an online dynasty...
You don't have the patience for a true rebuilding job. Therefore you want a pop-out-of-the-box Sun Belt program that can go toe-to-toe with the big boys and has the speed (if not the depth) to make virtual Bret Bielema very, very uncomfortable.
If you choose this job in real life:
You're a good coach who wants to work with an athletic department that's put together a program that's an almost instant pipeline to the SEC or a top-end G5 job. Maybe you're ok with the idea with spending a few years building your resume with a program and a fanbase that cares. Nobody else in the Sun Belt's as well equipped to support your career climbing efforts, so why not?
Picking last year's conference champion might seem like recency bias to some. But Arkansas State's success transcends one good season.
Losing a coach and making the transition smoothly is a difficult task at any level. Losing three coaches in five seasons and somehow managing four conference titles, three 9+ win seasons, and 5 bowl appearances is downright extraordinary. If there's anywhere that's easy to build a winning team in the Sun Belt, it's the little program that could in Jonesboro.
ASU deserves all the credit in the world for their achievements. Even if the conference's leadership can't be bothered to give them any.
Best jobs in the Sun Belt countdown:
1. Arkansas State