In the waning weeks of 2012, the Arkansas Times published a cover piece hailing Arkansas Athletic Director and Vice Chancellor Jeff Long as its Arkansan of the Year. It was during the preceding 11-plus months that Long was caught in the maelstrom of what to do with a morally compromised, wildly successful football coach that he had hired in late 2007 as his first notable act in his position.
That April, Long told Bobby Petrino and his 21-5 record, Sugar Bowl berth, and Cotton Bowl victory of the past two seasons to walk and walk fast. His voice memorably trembled in anger and disappointment as he told a watchful state and region that he wasn’t going to sell his or his athletic department’s soul for a pernicious but indisputably talented employee. It was a divisive decision at the time, exacerbated by the fact that the stopgap understudy, John L. Smith, embarrassed himself and the program to the tune of a 4-8 overall, 2-6 Southeastern Conference campaign despite having a wealth of experienced players returning.
About this time five years ago, Long made the decision that ultimately hanged him last week when he was terminated by the university after a decade of unparalleled revenues, expenditures, achievements and low-water moments. Long’s tenure was, principally, marked by numerous personnel decisions that yielded wildly disparate returns.
In late 2007, it appeared that Long was headed for celebrity status for a while, even if the circumstances were an oddity. Appointed as the successor to the inimitable Frank Broyles, Long was permitted to transition into the role and actually was afforded the opportunity to make his first hire before Broyles’ retirement was official. Houston Nutt had departed abruptly after a decade of
Long, some would argue, lucked into tabbing Nutt’s replacement. Bobby Petrino, late of the Louisville Cardinals and known to be a nomadic sort, was miserable in his first and only season in charge of the Atlanta Falcons, apparently desperate to escape an NFL gig, and ready to return to the college landscape where he had a comparatively short but indisputably successful run. The offensive approach that Petrino brought to the Razorbacks was something fresh and exotic for a program that had traditionally embodied a smashmouth, grinding approach.
Petrino scuffled in his first year, going 5-7, but it was evident that his brand was embraced by fans and recruits alike. With transfer Ryan Mallett becoming eligible in 2009, the Hogs improved to 8-5, winning a bowl game for the first time in six years and validating Long’s unconventional and controversial selection. The same summer, Arkansas baseball was in the College World Series for the second time under Dave Van Horn, so all things considered, things were looking up on the Hill and Long was by no means a public enemy.
Petrino’s 2010 and 2011 teams excelled further, with the former finishing 10-3 and reaching the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series for the first and only time and the latter becoming the first Hog team to hit the 11-win mark in 34 years. After the Hogs knocked off Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, it was evident that the state of affairs in the university’s bell cow sport was at a new apex.
And elsewhere, the successes were numerous. Long had dispatched John Pelphrey after the onetime Kentucky star player had floundered in his final three seasons as head basketball coach, overseeing a losing program that was rife with disciplinary issues. The
So, in summation, the first half of Long’s tenure was rather distinguished. And then Petrino, quite literally, crashed, and conditions changed for the worse.
Petrino’s fateful, terrible life choice had a ripple effect that, now in retrospect, was simply too much for Long to overcome. First, he had to weigh the moral turpitude against the success that his first hire had wrought, and it was evident on that April day that he had wrestled with it to the point of exhaustion. One corner of the sporting world praised Long for valuing integrity and honesty in a profession increasingly bereft of such traits; the other, insufferably louder camp trashed the beleaguered AD for scuttling an outstanding football coach for
Because of the awful timing of Petrino’s motorcycle accident with his mistress onboard, subsequent folly and dismissal, Long was left with a monster of his own making: A coaching vacancy in the thick of spring football is likely the most undesirable circumstance that an athletic director in a power conference could envision. It was obvious that Arkansas was a program in decent shape, but no head coach with a worthy curriculum vitae was going to take that plunge. And Long understandably wanted to retain someone who, in theory, represented a suitable conduit to the Petrino era.
Garrick McGee, Petrino’s offensive coordinator, had just left for a head coaching gig at Alabama-Birmingham, so he ultimately was out of the running. The existing staff boasted Paul Petrino, Bobby’s less abrasive brother, but it was manifestly undesirable to appoint the sibling of the deposed and disgraced former head coach. Long’s crosshairs landed on one genuinely credible option, and it was John L. Smith.
Smith had actually preceded Petrino in Louisville more than a decade
Though he had just taken a head coaching job weeks before Petrino’s accident, Smith found it easy to leave little Weber State to return as a potential
The Hogs opened the 2012 football season with an easy win over a cupcake and cruised into Little Rock for their first of two War Memorial Stadium games in September with eyes on Alabama coming to Fayetteville the next week. All they needed to do was take down Sun Belt Conference foe also-ran Louisiana-Monroe, and it would set the stage for a Top 10 showdown the following week. Long, presumably, couldn’t have felt better.
History will regard that game as disastrous in many ways now. Not only did stalwart senior quarterback Tyler Wilson suffer a head injury that would knock him out of the Bama game, the Razorbacks blew the 28-7 lead they had built, and the Warhawks crept back, converting fourth downs, and getting stops on defense thanks to Paul Petrino’s curious playcalling with then-freshman Brandon Allen taking the snaps. Kolton Browning scampered into the end zone untouched on a quarterback keeper to cement the overtime victory.
The impact of that loss was lasting. The Hogs were roasted by the media, then the Crimson Tide seized the opportunity to destroy a wounded team with a 52-0 whitewashing. Smith’s charges rebounded slightly to win conference games against Auburn and
Rumors, as they always do, circulated for several days following Smith’s dismissal. There was scuttlebutt about everyone from Mike Gundy to Les Miles to Gus Malzahn, but it all ended when Long made the surprise announcement that he had poached Bielema from Wisconsin after he had appreciable, sustained success as Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor there. Many grumbled that Bielema was ill-fitting for the job, a Big Ten transplant who wouldn’t know how to recruit the region, but Long was sold on the coach’s style and Bielema’s gesture in the wake of Petrino’s firing, a letter that the coach penned to Long praising him for displaying uncommon integrity in the face of withering public pressure.
Bielema would adopt that “uncommon” mantra as a hashtagged brand for his program. The affable guy with the younger, model-quality wife wanted to assemble and compensate an excellent crop of assistants, and he worked on that aggressively, getting experienced coordinators and position coaches onboard. He would demonstrate a willingness to relieve an assistant of his duties if the performance wasn’t matching up with his expectations.
The first year was, well, miserable. Bielema’s team won its first three games … and then promptly dropped nine straight thereafter, despite being fairly competitive in several of the games. The positives were that it was a young team, and the likes of Allen, Hunter Henry, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams gave the Hogs a nucleus for 2014. The team bolted out of the gates clearly improved, but agonizing losses to Alabama and Texas A&M were still losses. The SEC losing streak stretched to 17 games, four of which were Smith’s doing, but the next 13 coming under Bielema.
Meanwhile, Long had also made the bizarre decision to replace Tom Collen as women’s basketball coach with former Razorback men’s basketball manager-turned-walk-on Jimmy Dykes. Collen had stubbed his toes in conference play in his final few seasons, but Dykes was a complete and total reach, with no head coaching experience and most of his credentials
Bielema’s resurgence was brief but critical for Long. In late 2014, the Hogs broke through with a shutout of ranked LSU at home, then blanked Ole Miss the next week. Not only was the SEC losing streak gone, the Razorbacks were confident and bowl-bound. Despite a collapse against Missouri in the season finale, Arkansas earned an invite to the Texas
The football Hogs were sitting at 7-4 last Thanksgiving, and headed to Missouri for the manufactured rivalry game. A win would’ve given Bielema an eight-win regular season for the first time and Missouri, being terrible, seemed like the perfect opponent for that to materialize. Trouble is, after building a 24-7 halftime lead, the Hogs folded in an unthinkable fashion, failing to score and losing the game to a three-win foe in a half-capacity Faurot Field.
That collapse was repeated in the disastrous Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, where a couple of Bielema’s hallmarks — discipline and leadership — suddenly went AWOL. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, well regarded for his character, was charged with shoplifting clothes during the team’s courtesy trip to the sponsor’s store, and he was suspended for the game. Then, as the Hogs frittered away a 24-0 halftime lead en route to an ugly 35-24 loss, senior receiver Drew Morgan capped off his career by spitting on an opponent.
The wheels had come off, Bielema’s future went from settled to unsteady, and Long was suddenly going to be the fall guy or the hatchet man. He pledged his support to Bielema, and notably, a $160 million stadium expansion was about to begin. He went all in on a coach who, successes aside, had also developed a nasty habit of losing games in agonizing, seemingly avoidable ways. It was a bet that he ultimately lost.
As the 2017 team has fizzled, and with Bielema’s future certainly in doubt now, Long could no longer skirt the crosshairs. After 10 years in the position, the football program that once looked like his polestar became his albatross. A failing team with an embattled coach, cast against the backdrop of a costly stadium expansion, was too much for the university system’s Board of Trustees to ignore. Long accepted his fate graciously and takes a cushy, four-year, multimillion-dollar severance with him, and there exists a very real possibility that an overhaul of the athletic department will soon transpire.
Even with the athletic program being profitable and commendable on a national scale for its facilities and its performance in the allegedly second-fiddle sports, Long could not survive the scrutiny of his decisions related to football, from personnel to infrastructure and everything in between. Thus, another new era for Hog athletics begins, and it may well signal more personnel changes ahead.