LAFAYETTE — When Louisiana-Lafayette and Arkansas State line up Tuesday evening, it’ll be proof there’s not just one way to build a successful college football program — though it has to be easier to do it the way the Ragin’ Cajuns have.
On one hand, take the Cajuns. They’ve had essentially the exact same coaching staff in place for the past four seasons.
Four seasons, almost zero change in message or the voice that delivers that message. That has helped the Cajuns develop a consistent winning formula that their players know how to execute.
“Part of the reason we’ve been successful is that we have stability in our program,” coach Mark Hudspeth said.
On the other hand, consider the Red Wolves. Arkansas State probably would love to have claimed that it is simply on its fifth different coordinator in five years. No, the Red Wolves are on their fifth head coach in five years.
The current coach, Blake Anderson, is following in the still-fresh footsteps of Bryan Harsin (Boise State), Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Steve Roberts (resigned after nine seasons), all of whom coached the Red Wolves for one season from 2010 to this year.
Yet Arkansas State has gone 36-21 since the beginning of the 2010 season, leaving Hudspeth at a loss to explain how the Red Wolves are always there to challenge for the conference title.
The Red Wolves have won at least a share of the Sun Belt Conference in each of the past three seasons and have won back-to-back bowl games. The Cajuns have won three straight New Orleans Bowls while also splitting the conference title with Arkansas State last year.
One has thrived through order, the other through chaos.
Perhaps the best way to explain the Red Wolves’ success is through old football sayings. If defense wins championships, then Arkansas State surely has been going about it the right way.
That has been the constant with the Red Wolves, who have finished at or near the top of the Sun Belt in scoring defense every year since the coaching carousel began in 2010.
The defensive prowess has allowed the Red Wolves to switch up their offensive system from year to year — new coaches, new terminology, new everything — and still manage to put together a team that competes for conference titles.
If the Cajuns have risen to the top through stability, the Red Wolves have done it through adaptability and resiliency.
This year, the Red Wolves are running an up-tempo offense that looks similar to the type of tempo Malzahn used in the year before he took Auburn to the BCS title game.
While Anderson gets to use some players Malzahn and Freeze recruited a couple of years ago to run the up-tempo attack, he’s also had to get the players to switch back to the fast-paced rhythm after Arkansas State used Harsin’s pro-style attack last season.
Adaptability and resiliency.
“They are extremely fast,” Hudspeth said. “They’re faster than Malzahn.”
The part Hudspeth hasn’t been able to figure out is how the Red Wolves have managed to continue this string of success despite the obvious recruiting shortcomings presented by the revolving door at the head of the program.
“The recruiting part, to me, is the amazing part,” Hudspeth said. “You’re talking about five straight years where they’ve only got to recruit the month of January. That’s got to be tough.”
Yet they’ve managed to do it. According to Rivals, Arkansas State has had the Sun Belt’s top recruiting class in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and has not been ranked in the bottom half of the rankings in any season during this five-season stretch of instability.
Perhaps success begets success, no matter who is making the calls. Life is cyclical within the Red Wolves program.
“The new staff comes in and is at least able to recruit off the success of the previous staff,” Hudspeth said. “They won the conference and had a good season, so they can recruit off that momentum, win again and recruit off that momentum.”