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Jeff Long: 2012 Arkansan of the year



Jeff Long spent much of 2012 on the fevered minds of Arkansans. His name was uttered often and in many contexts (and perhaps, as the search for a long-term fix dragged on, with some likely epithets in or around his name), and therefore it's difficult to fathom an occasion where any other agent of Razorback culture has been so frequently cussed or discussed.

In April, Long took the bold but necessary step to dismiss Bobby Petrino when the celebrated coach's imbroglios put the athletic department and university as a whole in the crosshairs. He followed shortly thereafter with the puzzling, but then-justifiable call to bring the Hogs' former special teams coach, John L. Smith, back to Fayetteville on a 10-month contract to be a Band-Aid for the 2012 season. Finally, he persuaded Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to leave a cushy post to take over after Smith "guided" a team on the seeming cusp of greatness to its worst winning percentage in 22 years. For all those decisions and the attention they drew, Jeff Long is the Arkansas Times' 2012 Arkansan of the Year.

This was the second November of the six he has spent in the state of Arkansas where Long's shoulders were weighted with the irrationally scrutinized task of selecting a long-term head football coach for the Razorbacks. But the conditions under which the university's athletic director and vice chancellor worked in 2012 were markedly different than in 2007.

The pressure cooker in the fall of 2007 was set a bit more toward "simmer" as Long was engaged in a months-long transition into the throne being vacated by Frank Broyles. He was charged with finding some kind of salve for passionate boosters and fans who had grown weary of the football program's in-house strife. Broyles was exiting after an accomplished but polarizing 23-year run as AD, and Long had been plucked away from the same position at the University of Pittsburgh with the idea that he could help shed the department's thrifty image. Though Long had not officially taken the reins when Houston Nutt stepped aside, the onus was squarely on him to aggressively locate a viable replacement for Nutt, whose final months of a 10-year tenure had been riddled with off-field controversy and maddening on-field inconsistency.

That tenor, in retrospect, may have made Long's initial hire a little easier for the fan base to stomach. When the names of Jim Grobe and Tommy Bowden surfaced, no one was remotely inspired, but then again, Long probably wasn't expected to do much better. And then Petrino, desperate to flee the NFL that had become an albatross and beat a hasty path back to the college game, came calling, and Long became a regional rock star of sorts. Petrino's fast-track resuscitation of the program — Liberty Bowl win, Sugar Bowl berth, 11-win season in rapid-fire succession — validated the AD, even as some derisively observed that Petrino just descended from football heaven right into Long's lap. In 2012, natch, Hell soon followed.

The jerky rollercoaster that was 2012 is over, and Long is no doubt hopeful that calmer seas lie ahead. Bielema's selection was so unexpected that it was actually fitting after months of sordid happenings on the hill. The 42-year-old has been indisputably successful at Wisconsin — his 68-24 mark over seven seasons included three straight Big 10 titles — but his selection by Long also appeared to represent a sharp philosophical shift for a team that had grown into the gun-slinging shoes Petrino brought with him. Nonetheless, pundits like CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd embraced the hire, even if they subtly condemned Long's methods:

"Jeff Long did it again," Dodd wrote in December, when he ranked the Hogs' hire as the best of all 26 head coaching hires in the FBS. "Totally clandestine, Arkansas' AD lured Bielema ... [w]ho knew that Bielema was so annoyed by Wisconsin assistant coaches' salaries and wanted a shot at the SEC that bad? For Long, this hire makes up for John L. Smith and is probably better than Bobby Petrino. Bielema will win and get Arkansas back into BCS/playoff bowls quickly."

Dodd's comment, of course, underscored the fact that Long did have to chalk up the Smith experiment as an abject personal defeat. Not even a full day after Arkansas's miserable 4-8 campaign ended with an upset bid against LSU falling just short, Long gave the embattled interim coach his walking papers in a manner that was both formal and a formality. Long absorbed heat for the decision to reel Smith back toward campus in May, then seemed to answer the same questions weekly afterward as the entire coaching staff stubbed its toes on Saturdays. The short-term contract defied convention, but not necessarily logic: Long rationalized that Smith's three-year run as special teams coach made him intimately familiar with the coaches and players, and that Smith's head coaching experience (132 wins at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State) made him a preferable option when contrasted with elevating an unproven coordinator or position coach, even though Smith was also 63 years old, six full years removed from ending his forgettable run in East Lansing with three straight losing campaigns and saddled with his own personal tumult in the form of a swelling personal bankruptcy.

Another CBS Sports writer, the notoriously acerbic Gregg Doyel, proclaimed Long's decision to retain Smith as "one of the dumbest hires Arkansas could have made," and pointedly criticized the man who made the call: "Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletics director, might be the single worst judge of character I've ever seen."

Even with Smith's failings, as both an investor and a coach, Long did not flinch when matters became irreparably bleak in early September. The Hogs suffered through a string of embarrassing defeats and wounded pride, but Long refused to author a cutthroat condemnation of his coach. Only as the specter of the final minutes of a lost season loomed did Long even remotely hint that change was coming. When the aforesaid Band-Aid was finally, mercifully, removed, Long did it in his usual understated fashion.

"I have great respect for Coach Smith, and I thank him for the sincere commitment he has shown our program," Long's Nov. 24 statement read. "He made a difficult decision in uncertain times to return from his alma mater to guide the young men in our football program, and I will always be grateful for his efforts."

It was an exceedingly dignified way of addressing the inevitable, but as the Razorbacks' losses mounted, so-called "caller-driven" radio shows and message boards were overrun with skeptics. Fans grumbled as the end of November came and the vacancy remained unfilled, all while other jobs across the country were being opened and closed. Cynicism once more consumed a fan base that viewed the Smith enlistment as a more accurate determinant of Long's abilities than the Petrino hire. Names and dollar amounts were leaked or possibly fabricated, most memorably a still-suspect tale about LSU coach Les Miles purportedly toying with a massive five-year offer to bring his irreverence north.

By the time Dec. 4, 2012, arrived, Long's silence had morphed from admirable to aggravating. His famously active Twitter account had been hushed since Nov. 25, only stoking the boiling public interest. As names like Mike Gundy and Butch Davis and Chris Petersen floated around without any semblance of an honest, legitimate source, Long remained shockingly mum.

And then the news of Bielema's hiring came, shooting one last ripple through the state before the calendar turned. Arkansas's 32nd head football coach was, per Long, a guy that had been eyeballed all along, not only for his successes but for his integrity. That, of course, was a callback to April 10, when Long riveted the eyes and ears of sportswriters toward the Ozarks with an emotional press conference where Petrino's baggage was exposed and then placed neatly on the curb outside the Broyles Athletic Center. Long's voice cracked and paused often, his emotions waxing and waning as the coach's missteps were recited and duly appraised. But near the end of his prepared statement, Long gathered himself fully and said with conviction:

"No single individual is bigger than the team, the Razorback football program or the University of Arkansas. I assure you we will seek a head coach that possesses the expertise, leadership skills and character to maintain Razorback football as one of the nation's elite programs."

For an athletic program that has fiscally prospered under Long's direction, opting to cut ties with Petrino carried untold risk, as did the subsequent choice of Smith to shepherd the program. The rearview analysis of Long's self-authored 2012 trilogy is as follows: Firing Petrino was responsible and correct, hiring Smith was well intended but assuredly a gaffe, and the reach for Bielema is the one that will eventually tilt Long's legacy one way or the other. While the Razorback basketball and baseball teams excel, or at least show the markers thereof, it is the football team that lords over all. If Long did not know that before April 2012, he most definitely does now.

Being Arkansan of the Year is, in many instances, equal parts blessing and curse. Long would probably just as soon hand this crown off forever if it means he'll have to experience another year like the one he just put behind him.

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