Long, as you no doubt already know, was fired as University of Arkansas Athletic Director Wednesday. Thanks to his contract, he’ll be paid up to $4.625 million by the Razorback Foundation. The football coach, Bret Bielema, would be owed almost $5.9 million – or maybe more – if he were fired, which might happen by the time you read this.
They must print money up there.
High-water mark for Jeff Long: the Petrino firing
For Long, the high-water mark occurred April 10, 2012, when he announced he was firing Coach Bobby Petrino after that infamous motorcycle accident. Long emotionally presented the case against Petrino in starkly moral terms, making him a national celebrity. He was so trusted that he was named to chair the committee that selects college football’s playoff teams.
But since then there have been a series of events that chipped away at his support – the hiring of Bielema, who hasn’t worked out; women’s basketball players kneeling during the national anthem; the never-ending controversy over Little Rock games; and a $160 million expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which some questioned because so much of the cost is for a few thousand premium seats.
None of that would have gotten him fired – not when he was raising so much money and keeping the program one of only 25 in the nation that’s financially self-sustaining. Long lost his job because the football team is bad. It was Long who hired Bielema (and Petrino) and gave the coach that huge buyout.
For whatever Long did right or wrong – and he did a lot right – his biggest failing was that he could not live up to Razorback fans’ outsized expectations. The problem for the next athletic director is, who could?
Stuck in 1964
Razorback fans are stuck in a time warp from 1964, when the team won a share of the national championship. All we need to get back there is the right coach, the thinking goes.
But that was 53 years ago. There since have been periods of success, but mostly the UA has been a middle-of-the-road program, and that’s probably where it will stay. Arkansas is a small state. Its high schools produce few blue chip prospects. The Razorbacks lack the tradition of Alabama or even Georgia or Tennessee. While Arkansans know Fayetteville is a great place to live, high school recruits elsewhere don’t. And hanging over everything is the big elephant in the Southeastern Conference – Alabama.
Given all that, what Arkansas fans should expect is what actually happens. The Razorbacks should win seven or eight games most years, and then sometimes they’ll be really good, which happened in 2011, Petrino’s last year. And then sometimes they’ll be really bad, like this year.
Arkansas has not won an SEC football championship since joining the conference in 1991. Maybe it’s time to not be surprised year after year. The ratio of wins and losses in any college football season is always 1:1. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, and we can’t all be Alabama. Across this country are small states that never produce a national championship football team, and yet somehow the people of Vermont and South Dakota survive and take pride in their states.
College football has become an arms race. With a salary of more than $4 million, Bielema is by far the highest paid University of Arkansas employee – in fact, by far the highest paid state employee. During the debate about the stadium expansion, former Sen. David Pryor, a member of the UA Board of Trustees, argued that it would require the largest bond issue ever undertaken for higher education in Arkansas. And for what? Football seats for rich people and other improvements to a stadium.
Those huge salaries and stadium expansions – and all this drama – supposedly are necessary to compete in the SEC. It may be that competing is the best the university can do. It may be time to accept it, cheer for the team, and invest more of our resources, and self-identity, in something else. Something that doesn’t involve a ball.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.