Blake Anderson came to Utah State looking to restart his life after the death of both his wife and his father in 2019.
The team he takes over is also in need of a reboot.
Anderson, 51, acknowledged as much Monday when he was introduced as the 29th head football coach in the Aggies program’s 128-year history. He promised to turn it all around.
“The standard is very, very clear: It’s to win championships. It’s that simple. The standard is high,” the former Arkansas State coach said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I don’t know exactly what the roster looks like. But I understand that the goal and the standard is to win championships, to win the Mountain West and honestly be the best team in the country in a Group of Five.”
Anderson said those goals start with bringing in a strong — and ethnically and religiously diverse — staff, supercharging the offense, recruiting well and slowly building trust among his players.
“It’s not all broken,” he said. “This place has been good for a long time.”
Anderson knows about picking up the pieces. He’s been trying to do that over the last year and a half. In May 2019, his father died at age 75 after a long battle with emphysema. Three months later, his wife, Wendy, died from recurring breast cancer at age 49.
“Just the perspective for me — a new new city, a new program, new locker room, scenery, memories, friends — just comes at a really, really good time of my life where I want to move forward,” Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’ll always remember my wife and my dad. I’ll never forget them. But I also know that I’ve got a lot of life left to live, and I want to start that fresh, and there’s not a better place on the planet to do it than right here.”
USU has qualified for bowl games in eight of the past 10 seasons. Just two years ago, under coach Matt Wells — a friend of Anderson’s — the program hit a high-water mark. Behind the arm of future first-round NFL draft pick Jordan Love, the Aggies won a share of the MW Mountain title and were ranked as high as No. 14 nationally.
This season bore no resemblance to that greatness.
Anderson takes over a team from which former coach Gary Andersen was abruptly dismissed three games into a 1-5 season. It’s a team that bled out many of its marquee starters to the transfer portal and is ranked near the bottom among NCAA FBS teams in numerous offensive and defensive categories. It’s a team now at the center of a university-wide investigation into religious, cultural and racial discrimination after the players boycotted the season finale to protest what they said were inappropriate remarks made by USU President Noelle Cockett about interim coach Frank Maile.
Perhaps worst of all, it’s a team that wanted someone else — namely Maile, a longtime defensive coordinator and two-time interim head coach — at its helm.
Anderson met with the players Saturday morning and told them he doesn’t take offense to not being their first pick.
“I don’t expect those guys to trust me any time soon. I know that’s going to take a while and I’m perfectly fine,” he said Monday, noting he’d faced a similar challenge his first season with the Red Wolves. “I was the fifth head coach in five years [at Arkansas State]. Those guys didn’t trust me until they knew I wasn’t going to leave right after the very last game of the season. So I understand this process can take a while and we’re OK.
“... But I like the first step. I like the way the body language and the energy was in the room. And I like the response that I’ve got from them, so I think we’re on as good of a first step as we could be considering the circumstances.”
Anderson has sought to hire a diverse staff and he said USU may be the first team in the NCAA to have minority leadership at the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and strength coach positions.
Anthony Tucker, a co-offensive coordinator at University of Central Florida, will be named the OC, according to multiple reports. Though he is still building his staff, Anderson announced the addition of former USU standout quarterback Chuckie Keeton at an unnamed position. From Arkansas State, he is bringing in Kyle Cefalo as passing game coordinator, Dave Roberson as the recruiting and development coordinator, Nick Paremski as special teams coordinator and recently graduated wide receiver Ethan Morris, also at an unnamed position.
Anderson said he hoped to meet with interim coach Maile but that has not happened. He did not expect Maile to return for a sixth year as defensive coordinator.
He said the recent controversy is not driving his decision to hire a diverse staff.
“It was not based on what’s happened here the last few days,” he said. “It just so happens that it does resonate really strongly right now with this particular group because those were some of their concerns.”
One of USU athletic director John Hartwell’s greatest concerns when he began the search — before many of the Aggies’ issues reared their heads — was turbo-charging the offense. Out of 127 FBS teams, this season the Aggies ranked 124th in scoring offense and 123 in total offense.
Anderson seems up for the challenge.
With him at the helm, the Red Wolves set 12 school records, all on offense. They included season marks for passing yards (4,106), touchdown passes (38), points scored (520), total touchdowns (69), total plays (1,024) and total yards of offense per game (494.8 average) and in a season (6,174). Arkansas State also consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams in terms of total offense.
“Don’t go get something to drink in the middle of a series or you can miss the whole thing,” he warned. “You better go during media timeout because we’re going to play faster than anybody else in the country on offense.
“So it is going to be an enjoyable, fun Saturday afternoon in a packed house.”