At this point we've read all the articles about new University of Kansas Athletic Director Jeff Long, but reading about a new hire's resume and contract details only takes you so far. Sometimes you have to talk to the people closely following a school's programs to get proper context for an athletic director's time at a given job.
Enter Eric Harris, head honcho over at Arkansas Fight, SB Nation's authority on Long's former employer. He was kind enough to answer some questions with some very in-depth responses on the newest member of the KU Athletics family, and his time in Fayetteville.
David: Most Kansas fans seem to be pleased with the hire of Jeff Long, but the one piece of his resume that has people hesitant is being fired from his last job. What can you tell us about the circumstances of his departure from Arkansas?
Eric: Jeff Long’s departure really split the fan base in half between those who wanted to keep him and those who were ready to move on. The debate over completely moving games out of Little Rock and to Fayetteville was at the center of things. The contract that was currently in place to have one regular season game per year in Little Rock was about to run out and Long had made it pretty clear he wasn’t a fan of games there.
That upset a small but powerful group of donors from central Arkansas. Right about the same time, Arkansas’ football season was turning into a mess on the field and reports were coming out that he and new Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on things. The combination of all of those things led to the University moving on.
David: Bobby Petrino and Bret Bielema, at least from an outsider’s perspective, seemed like great hires for Long at the time. For very different reasons, neither worked out. Was that bad luck for Long, or were there red flags that perhaps he ignored?
Eric: Looking back at both hires, there was definitely success in each but I think there was an element of bad luck to both hires. Petrino was seen as a risky hire, and Long knew that. I think once he got burned with that he played it more carefully from a personality perspective when hiring Bielema, and even though he had an excellent resume at Wisconsin, he didn’t realize how much of an influence Barry Alvarez still has on that program.
Petrino came to Arkansas with a job hopping reputation, so Arkansas fans largely had the feeling that the program was moving in the right direction with him but were unsure about how long it would last. Things definitely ended ugly, but most applauded Long for sticking to his ideals of integrity and dropping Petrino after he improperly gave his mistress a job and car, plus initially lying to Long about the situation before the police report became public. That decision was a tough one since Petrino just took the Hogs to the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl in back-to-back seasons.
Then he hired Bret Bielema which seemed like an excellent hire on paper. His resume was excellent and promised to run a much cleaner program than Petrino did. Things looked to be moving in the right direction, Bielema led the program to three straight bowls, but bad assistant hires and recruiting mistakes doomed him.
David: Most of what’s been in the media in terms of this hire has centered around Arkansas’ football program. How did the other Razorbacks programs fare under his watch?
Eric: Football is obviously king in the SEC, but Long definitely made a point to make sure all the programs at Arkansas were getting more in terms of resources. Because of that, overall there has been a lot more consistency in the other programs at Arkansas.
He has been hit or miss in hiring coaches, missing very badly on Jimmy Dykes for the women’s basketball program but he pulled the plug on that experiment and brought in Arkansas native Mike Neighbors after he was successful at Washington. He also seems to have nailed a softball hire with Courtney Deifel who led the Hogs to their first Super Regional in program history.
David: How was Long generally perceived at Arkansas? Are there any notable successes or failures from his time in Fayetteville that Kansas fans might not be aware of?
Eric: The things everyone at Arkansas will remember from Long’s time at Arkansas will be the Petrino and Bielema hires, but his most lasting impact in my opinion will be the work he did to improve facilities at Arkansas. The football stadium just finished a large renovation, and baseball and basketball got huge practice facilities during his time as well. Softball also opened their brand new stadium during Long’s tenure. There was an overall master plan to improve all the venues and practice facilities at Arkansas during his time and that impacted just about every program in a positive way.
David: If you could go back ten years to when Long was hired at Arkansas, would you choose someone else to run the athletic department? Or did he accomplish enough to make it worthwhile?
Eric: I would definitely do it again and I think most fans, despite what they think now, would as well. Like I already mentioned, Arkansas made a Sugar Bowl and a Cotton Bowl in football, the basketball program is back to making NCAA tournaments much more frequently than they were after Nolan Richardson left, and baseball came within a game of a National Title. Baseball coach Dave Van Horn was hired way before Long came in but the improved facilities definitely allowed the team to recruit and practice at a much higher level.