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Published September 19, 2015
Before Blake Anderson walked into the Middle Tennessee State football office to resign in the summer of 2005, he looked across the room at his wife a day earlier.
The overworked and borderline obsessed assistant coach knew his marriage was crumbling, that Wendy was "about to leave." This was a last-ditch effort to save his family.
"If I walk in and resign tomorrow and we step away and go work on our marriage, and we go back home, will you try this?" Anderson asked.
"Yes," she said.
That day is a moment the first-year Arkansas State coach has carried with him to this day.
His impromptu decision to walk away from the game, to wind up spending two seasons selling insurance and reconnecting with his wife and three children, has led to a family-first approach not just for the Andersons, but for the Red Wolves staff and players.
Anderson was hired last year as Arkansas State's fifth coach in the last five seasons. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator had the expected coaching progression on his resume, from humble beginnings in the junior college ranks to his eventual time with the Tar Heels. However, there was one notable exception — a two-season gap without football of any kind from 2005-06.
In a world full where coaching trees and daily networking are fixtures for ensuring employment, Anderson's time away from the game was an aberration.
It was a necessary absence, though, for Anderson — who spent his year and a half in the "real" world selling insurance for his father's business in Texas while his dad recovered from a heart attack.
More important, he spent time in the backyard with Wendy, his daughter Callie and two sons, Coleton and Cason. He played Wiffle Ball, coached youth basketball and rediscovered a life that had been lost amid the flurry of recruiting, play-calling and overwhelming hours spent as a college coach.
"That's a time where really I got back to what was important, and my faith and family are those things," Anderson said.
When Anderson returned to the coaching ranks prior to the 2007 season at Louisiana-Lafayette, he did so with the blessing of his wife. Only, however, after his promise: "I'm not ever going to be that person again. There's going to be balance, there's going to be family."
At Arkansas State, with more control of his schedule than at any time previously in his career — as well as the schedules of his players and assistant coaches — Anderson has carried forward that promise.
Staff meetings don't begin until 8:15 a.m., so that coaches can take their children to school. Assistant coaches aren't allowed to work weekends during the spring, and they leave the office immediately after practice on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season.
Practices are fast-paced but "shorter than ever," and players are regularly invited to Anderson's house for pool parties and other social events outside of football. His assistants even received 5 ½ weeks of vacation during the summer, and they are told to stay away from the office until no earlier than 1:30 p.m. on Sundays after a game the day before.
"He's as real as they come," Arkansas State assistant coach Trooper Taylor said of Anderson, his former teammate at Baylor. "To be able to walk into a room and smile and enjoy what you're doing, not everybody has that."
The Red Wolves (6-5, 4-3 Sun Belt Conference) have fallen on difficult times in recent weeks, losing two straight games to end hopes of earning a share of the conference title for a fourth straight season.
Don't expect Anderson, however, to waver in his approach. He wants to win, desperately so in every competitive outlet imaginable — even checkers — but not at the expense of his relationships or those he works with.
"If it means we don't get it done, and they fire me, then you know what, then my way didn't work this time," Anderson said. "It doesn't mean it won't work somewhere else. To me, it's worth the risk."
Cornerback Andrew Tryon, one of the 10 seniors, called Anderson and his staff "a major influence" on his life — particularly with his own wife and 17-month-old daughter.
"It was more than just football for all of them," Tryon said. "They care about you being a better student, a better person, and they put time into that. It wasn't about coming up here and just talking about football."
Words like that mean everything these days to Anderson, just as finding the sense of balance his family craved in his darkest moment.
"That moment in my life, at my worst, has really allowed me to grow and become better to the people around me," Anderson said. "I care more about taking care of them than I do taking care of me. They don't work for me; we work together."