Tusk to Tail: Why Long came up short

Though some had been clamoring for his departure well before this football season went south, Jeff Long’s termination was swift and unexpected. It was the first time the University of Arkansas ever fired its athletic director.

The old model for athletic directoring was pretty simple, particularly here in the South. Just take the school’s most successful coach once he hangs up his whistle and teach him the art of glad-handing the big money boosters. Let low-paid geeks take care of minutiae such as scheduling and academic compliance. A successful AD’s tenure was similar to that of the pope. He would be expected to serve in some capacity nearly until his death, unless first taken down by scandal.

The paradigm shifted as student athletes became cash cows. Powerhouse universities no longer wanted an old coach in the top position, meddling with its largest profit center. Modern times demand a savvy businessman. Someone who will run the athletic department like a corporation. Someone who sees the Razorbacks as a brand. No matter if he was the last one picked for sports teams or the first one out in dodgeball, athletic experience is strictly optional. In fact, it’s no longer required for the modern AD to have any prior affiliation with the university, state or even region whatsoever.

Enter Jeff Long, with his bag of carpet in one hand, a bottle of Pepsi in the other.

By most metrics, Long was incredibly successful at Arkansas. He raised revenue from ninth in the conference to sixth. Athlete grades and graduation rates are better than ever. Most of the athletic programs have been competitive in their respective fields, with just one glaring current exception. Postseason honors, including an occasional championship, have not been #uncommon for the athletes under Long’s care. Long quickly dealt with the Bobby Petrino affair, the only notable scandal to besmirch his tenure here.

Ironically, Long would still likely be at Arkansas had he found a way to retain Petrino as football coach, assuming he continued to win. But while the football program’s post-Petrino struggles may have led to fewer ticket sales, that doesn’t seem to be the sole reason Long was let go.

When considering where Long went sideways with the UA Board of Trustees, the north end zone stadium expansion is the elephant in the room. Notable old-school members of the board, led by the honorable former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, vocally challenged the $160 million renovation. It has been insinuated that the project and its accompanying bond issue got railroaded past the trustees.

Even more damning is the rumor construction costs are already over budget, and the project is nowhere near complete. Of course, Long was too busy proclaiming he had sold all of the new luxury suites, as well as 59 of the 70 loge boxes, to confirm whether his vanity project was actually under water.

Long became infamous for that kind of selective truth-sharing. Previously, Long bragged Arkansas student athletes had achieved their highest Graduation Success Rate ever, without revealing that the GSR was still the lowest in the conference.

Long may not have been terminated for any one particular comment, but he left a fair number of people — from bigwig board members to longtime Hog fans — feeling misled and disrespected. Those who go to every football game or who have bought season tickets for generations should be seen as loyal partners. Instead, Long treated diehard fans like a captive audience, practically daring them to leave so he could re-sell those seats to a higher bidder.

This season evidently upset enough of the right class of donors, the ones between the 40-yard lines or behind the glass, to finally seal Long’s fate. The former AD will be paid over $4.5 million to take his hashtags elsewhere.

It looks like the pendulum will swing back home for the next chapter of Arkansas athletics. The emphasis seems to be on finding a new AD and head football coach that both have Arkansas roots. The good ol’ boy network outlasted the Yankee invasion.

Who will be the next Arkansas AD? It’s too early to tell, but it won’t be Long.
Editor’s note: David Rice is a member of Tusk to Tail, a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together for more than a decade. The opinions expressed are those of the author.