- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Change is inevitable.
It strikes without prejudice. It is rarely embraced.
Since 2010 in Jonesboro, Ark., the administrators who run the Arkansas State football program and its players have faced this choice: Accept change or fail.
They could leave, of course, but that wasn't much of an option -- just more unwanted change.
"Five for five is what we call ourselves," tight end Kenny Rains said. "It's our little elite club. But, you know, it teaches you about life. The only thing for certain is that everything changes."
Rains and 10 teammates are set to play next fall for a fifth head in five years, unprecedented in major-college football history.
Blake Anderson, the former North Carolina offensive coordinator, took over on Dec. 19 for Bryan Harsin, who left for Boise State one year after he replaced Gus Malzahn. Malzahn is now at Auburn, fresh off the BCS title game. Before Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, now at Ole Miss, led the Red Wolves in 2011, starting the chain of change when he succeeded nine-year coach Steve Roberts after a 4-8 season in 2010.
Got all that?
It's enough to make heads spin inside the program at Arkansas State.
"This school deserves stability," said Anderson, the new coach who accepted a $3 million buyout clause for the first two years of his five-season deal.
As for recruiting, it ought to be a mess. Industry experts agree that a coaching change, even if accompanied by a smooth transition well in advance of signing day, robs a football program of key momentum in recruiting.
Imagine four consecutive years of change.
Then consider that Arkansas State is 20-3 in Sun Belt play over the past three seasons, winning at least a share of a conference title each year. Something curious is at work in Jonesboro. Something different and bold and refreshing in an age when the importance -- not to mention the salaries -- of top coaches continues to escalate.
Arkansas State is thriving in spite of the change. The school leaders hatched a plan. They stuck to the blueprint. And now, the more things change, the more people understand.
The Red Wolves' message is clear: It's not about the head coach; it's about the players and the people and the community around that coach. And all of that remains as stable as ever.
Recruits get it, too.
Athletic director Terry Mohajir said he meets with every prospect who visits Jonesboro.
"I meet with their parents, and I tell them, 'Look, you come here. This is a strong program,'" Mohajir said. "The players we're recruiting all subject to going to a place where the coach may not stay. You've got that risk almost everywhere, so wouldn't you want to go to a place where they continue to win championships?
"We've proven that."
Perhaps most odd about Arkansas State is that this era of change has helped refocus the school's plan. It has helped revitalize the program. The Red Wolves, after their 1992 jump to the highest level of college football, played in just one bowl game until 2010.
Anderson, in seeking the job last month, said he was struck by the administration's vision. No doubt, he said, it resonates with players and recruits.
Arkansas State has set a goal to become the top program nationally from a non-AQ conference.
"We're not trying to be in the SEC or to be like the Big 12," Anderson said. "We want to be the best at what we do. This is the plan, and we've got it in motion. We're on that track. It's not stuff they're talking about. They're doing it. And they sold me on wanting to be a part of it."
Arkansas State plans to break ground this week on an indoor practice facility. When it's done, a new football complex and stadium renovations are scheduled to follow.
If they could continue to sell it to coaching prospects, then why not recruits? Anderson's staff counts 17 commitments, including 12 from Arkansas and bordering states.
Top pledge Joshua Liddell (Pine Bluff, Ark./Dollarway), a running back, decommitted this week to consider offers from Arkansas and Harsin's new staff at Boise State. Such is recruiting.
Arkansas State commit Draequon Murphy of Montgomery (Ala.) Carter counted offers from Sun Belt rivals Troy, South Alabama and Western Kentucky; fellow defensive back Blaise Taylor of Auburn, Ala., a new addition to the class, was recruited by the likes of Tennessee and Nebraska, plus Arkansas State rival Memphis.
Ryan Aplin started at quarterback under Roberts, Freeze and Malzahn from 2010 to 2012. He now works as an intern for Freeze at Ole Miss but continues to feel close to Jonesboro and Arkansas State, though none of the coaches he played for remain.
"I still call it home," said the Tampa native.
He said the players initially struggled with the change.
"We play poorly and our coach got fired," Aplin said. "We did good things and our coach got taken away again. We were kind of like, 'What do we do?' But we knew there was one constant -- us as players. We were together. From the moment we understood that, it didn't matter who they brought in; we were going to be successful."
Said senior receiver Sterling Young, part of the five-for-five group: "Coaches may leave. They may not leave. But at the end of the day, we're all working toward the same goals."
Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen, with Freeze at Arkansas State in 2011, needed less than his one year in Jonesboro to recognize the unique nature of the elements at play.
The Red Wolves found a spark early in that first year of change. They won with a late defensive stand and touchdown drive at Western Kentucky. From there, confidence rose. Freeze's team won eight straight in the Sun Belt.
An attitude was born, Allen said. It persists today.
"Winning helps recruiting," the coach said. "And now, the belief is there. It was just getting them to believe. It's contagious."
Freeze, Malzahn, Harsin and Anderson offered the same profile of a young coach with a specialty in up-tempo offense. For the AD Mohajir, a former Arkansas State safety who returned to his alma mater in 2012 to preside over the past two hirings, it's not primarily about finding stability in a head coach.
"I think about finding guys who can make us successful," Mohajir said. "If another school wants our coach, I can't do anything about it. That's a testament to our program. I want a coach that other people want."
Rains, the veteran tight end, said he believes the Arkansas State players have formed bonds not present in other programs.
"I think we're closer than any team in the country," he said. "Adversity reveals who you are. It's what you do in those moments that defines you."
The Red Wolves learned, in those defining moments, to embrace change.
The result? A changed football program.