LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (THV11) - If Arkansas were 8-2 or 7-3 with competitive losses to Alabama and LSU and/or Auburn going into this weekend’s game with Mississippi State, we wouldn’t be where we are this week: focused on who the Razorback brass will hire for athletic director, what we’ll do after Coach Bret Bielema is likely fired in a little more than week and, oh yeah, almost forgot – the Hogs have a game with Mississippi State on Saturday at home.
Jeff Long wasn’t fired Wednesday morning because he refused to buckle to any Board of Trustees demands that he fire Bret Bielema or that he refused to give in to demands of the hidden-away Razorback good ol’ boys that he both fire Bielema and hire Gus Malzahn, or even that he boldly embarked on expanding Reynolds Razorback Stadium (and a lot more than just the expensive suites) to the tune of 200 million mostly borrowed dollars.
He was fired because he’d made enemies – as any athletic director at any major college athletic power does, eventually – among the people who, when the time is right, can and will exact their revenge. And it usually revolves around wins and losses for the football team.
With Bielema’s program floundering in Year 5 and, despite his exhortations even after the LSU blowout loss that he sees hope for the future (well, of course he’s going to say that), it was time for certain big boosters and certain Board of Trustee members, which in a few cases are one and the same, to strike. They had allies to deliver the knives: Jeff Long may have trusted the wrong people on campus, who also have egos.
Make no mistake, though: Long very likely would have stood his ground with Bielema and kept him after a 4-8 season, pointing to crippling injuries that derailed any chance of a typical Bielema 6- or 7-win season. I’d point more to recruiting results after Bielema’s first two seasons here as being more crippling to this team, but that’s neither here nor there now. The Hogs are what they are: barely improved from last year’s truly awful on defense, worse on offense with too many too-green receivers and little to no improvement in the offensive line (coupled with those said injuries to quarterback Austin Allen, veteran receiver Jared Cornelius and retired running back Rawleigh Williams). The team is only marginally better in the kicking game after stumbling out of the game in that area.
He’d have backed Bielema because he promised him six year, for whatever stupid reason, and extended his contract after a 7-6 second season (2-6 in the SEC) for some stupid reason, and kept in place a ridiculous buyout provision for some stupid reason. And Long doesn’t seem to want to hire new coaches, nor does his track record indicate he does it very well.
And that preceding paragraph sums up probably all that it took to sway three swing votes on the Board to give UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz and UA Systems President Donald Bobbitt the OK to dismiss Long. But again, if Bielema were a competitive 7-3 now, everybody, fans included, would be fairly content and eagerly eyeing forward to 2018. The major players wouldn’t be looking closely into all of Long’s doings – alleged personal use of the UA plane, for instance – or even spreading ridiculous gossip about his recent performance to justify the actions taken this week.
The job as Arkansas AD can be the best in the state when football is successful. When things hit a snag like they even did at times for the late Frank Broyles, it can be the worse position, far worse than governor could ever be, and it was spelled out clearly this week. At least for a politician in America, you have general elections to keep you in place or send you packing; we don’t endure third-world coups. But for an athletic director – at Arkansas, Auburn, Texas, Southern Cal and so forth – your impossible efforts to please everyone while raising every dollar possible to feed this NCAA monster will hold up until the football team’s fortunes head south. The powerful boosters holding grudges for some perceived past slight while the AD was riding high use the opportunity to overturn the throne.
Can we dispense with the nonsense, after the actions of the past week, that the Board of Trustees can’t fire and hire coaches? They may not call the party in for the execution, but they can get the job done. Jeff Long may have had illusions he was above that, but no more.
I’m not defending Long, nor am I angry or disappointed with the Trustees inserting themselves into athletics via the chancellor. Long was collegial with media members for the most part (though he had a habit of disappearing in times of crisis), but I also never sensed the type of personal magnetism possessed by his predecessor, Broyles. He was more bean-counter than fundraiser. Longtime Hog sportswriter Nate Allen often noted how Long ran the Arkansas athletic department the way Gannett Corp. did the Arkansas Gazette, and that didn’t end pleasantly for Gazette employees and readers. On the plus side, Long apparently won over most every student-athlete that came through the UA in his 10 years. His moves helped athletics raise its graduation rate to 80 percent, though that still ranks last in the SEC.
I won’t feel sorry for a guy who, with former Chancellor David Gearhart, personally rewrote his contract to be paid over $1 million a year and to include other easy-to-achieve performance bonuses, with a rollover clause tacked on, automatically renewing the deal every July 1 for five years. Maybe it’s becoming commonplace in this era of money-grabbing by all who can, but I’ve never heard of that in all of college athletics – typically a head coach received a “rollover” simply to indicate he’s still had a 5-year contract with his school, ostensibly to aid in recruiting.
Long went about dismissing the Broyles-connected old guard in the athletics department from day one, with what looked like systematic glee. How he dispensed with one former Razorback great on 2008 homecoming weekend still irks other former Razorbacks and friends.
If nothing else, it appeared Long was slowing reimaging the program as the University of Northwest Arkansas Razorbacks. Granted, we know provincialism in this state has been growing stronger ever since Walmart and other business powerhouses in the region blew up in the 1980s-90s, but the Razorbacks athletic program never should abandon its reach into even the smallest hamlets in the furthest corners of this tiny, poor state. This doesn’t mean the Hogs have to return to playing three or four games a year in what is now a tiny and outdated stadium in the capital city. We just urge the next athletic director to figure out a way to GET OUT THERE. When you’re not winning football games – and Arkansas is at least two years from winning at a respectable level again – that’s when you need the rest of the state the most.
Win football games like Arkansas did during that brief glory run in 2010-2011 or like the way Houston Nutt won in 1998-99 and again in 2006, or the way Ken Hatfield, Lou Holtz and Frank Broyles regularly won, and you won’t have to wait for fans to rush to Fayetteville to see their Hogs. You’ll really need to expand a stadium then, and add even more luxury box seating to go along with your fancy new, spacious athletic palace. Fans might even embrace the forward-facing Hog and all the silly slogans, too.
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As for the game Saturday vs. Mississippi State: Expect the Bulldogs to be as lethargic as LSU was in the first half last week coming off a fanatical effort against Alabama before losing 31-24. Also expect MSU Coach Dan Mullen to get his team’s full attention at halftime, make the requisite adjustments in blocking angles up front, and turn quarterback Nick Fitzgerald loose to survive Fayetteville, where the Bulldogs have just one other win (51-50 two years ago).
Mississippi State’s offensive line performed surprisingly well against ’Bama and should have its way with Arkansas’s defensive front after figuring out the stunts that UA defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads will need to employ to keep from getting steamrolled. It seems the Hogs lack the manpower to contain Fitzgerald’s dual-threat talent over a full 60 minutes.
However, you may recall in this space a few weeks back when we compared Bielema’s current situation to that of Danny Ford’s in 1997, as Ford’s tenure as UA head coach was winding down. Where any astute Razorback observer realized that good things were indeed ahead for the mostly young and battered Hogs came in the final three-week stretch of the 1997 season, when a three-win Arkansas to that point battled highly ranked Tennessee closely in Little Rock, shocked and whipped a good Mississippi State program in Fayetteville, and led a talented LSU in Baton Rouge 14-0 before wilting in the second half.
It figures that if Bielema’s stated “excitement” from earlier this week over his current juniors and what might bode for next season has any merit, it would show up now. Teams that quit aren’t coming back to contend next season under the same coach. Even a new coach would have a mountain to climb with what returns. However, if Arkansas’s younger players bring the fight Saturday, and even manage to slow MSU’s Fitzgerald and spring an upset, it might give one pause, indeed, that it really isn’t the light of an oncoming train in the tunnel ahead.
Jim Harris is a contributor to THV11’s “Hogzone” and has covered Razorback athletics since 1976 for several newspapers and outlets, including the Arkansas Gazette, ArkansasSports360.com and SportingLifeArkansas.com.