Razorback athletics more than just business

Courtesy, UA Athletics

When folks are accustomed to being treated as friends and in some cases like family, hard feelings develop when they are treated merely as customers.

That’s at the heart of why the University of Arkansas fired Jeff Long as its athletics director Wednesday.

Now, there are other reasons. The most visible, of course, is the football program that for the last year has experienced what many feel is the worst 12 months of play they have experienced as Razorbacks fans.

Had Long cultivated better relationships as Arkansas’ athletic director during the last ten years and not kept so many at arms length, he might have had the support to hold on to his position despite the woeful performance of the football program.

However, the corporate nature of the way Long ran and branded the Razorback program garnered a relatively quick and corporate response when the football program spiraled south.

Corporations are unforgiving when their CEOs fail, and the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees was unforgiving with Long despite some of the fine work Long accomplished as Arkansas’ athletics director.

Long’s tenure can’t be considered a failure just because he was fired. Ten years is a good stretch as an A.D., and Arkansas’ overall program is improved, particularly in terms of academics and facilities since Long took over the program.

However, it’s also true that Long had the luxury of being A.D. during a time when television contracts with the Southeastern Conference alotted him more money to improve things like academics and facilities than even Frank Broyles could have envisioned when he ushered Arkansas out of the dying Southwest Conference and into the SEC in 1991.

Upon replacing Broyles, who had served as AD for 34 years, Long brought the UA athletics program into the 21st century.

He made moves that were a long time in coming like merging the men’s and women’s athletic programs into one, adding staff to make the department more productive, and also creating new revenue streams. Those were positives.

He also tightened up the Razorbacks’ ship. The leaks, access, and cronyism that were at the crux of the Nutt-Malzahn-Mustain feud that ultimately ended Broyles’ tenure as athletic director in an embarrassing fashion were gone. That probably needed to happen.

However, some of the ways he accomplished those improvements and necessary changes seemed unnecessarily cold or even Machiavellian to those who found themselves on the outside of Long’s business-suit mafia.

Many of those people were loyal Razorbacks, some of whom possibly could have aided Long when his chips were being called in as A.D, if Long had bothered to get to know them.

If I heard Broyles say it once, I heard him say it scores of times that the Razorbacks are about relationships. Broyles knew that, cultivated that, and lived that from the time he stepped on campus late in 1957 until he passed away this year.

Long understood how to modernize Arkansas’ athletics program and even improve it, but I don’t think he truly understood what being a Razorback meant to the people of the state. If he did, I think he would have had more support at the end.

One thing I did respect about Long was the integrity he showed in handling the dismissal of Bobby Petrino after Long discovered that Petrino had hired a woman on his staff whom he was having an extramarital affair with, and whom he had given $20,000 in cash. Petrino had also been deceitful with Long following a motorcycle accident that ultimately uncovered the affair.

While Long had no real choice in the matter but to fire Petrino, the way he explained his actions made many Arkansas fans proud, and the media spin from that speech did a fine job in polishing a very ugly situation.

The national publicity from that dismissal, no doubt, propelled Long into being named the first chair of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, generating more positive publicity for himself and Arkansas’ program. Long served in that visible role for two years and remains on the committee.

That’s why many outside the state and some within were stunned by Long’s dismissal Wednesday, despite that four-hour meeting last week in Little Rock when the Board of Trustees left him waiting in the wings while it entered executive session with Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz.

Was there a final straw that sent Long packing?

That’s unknown at the moment, but it will probably come out in the wash.

Might he have refused to fire Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema? It’s possible. Long does have backbone.

I don’t know if there was one straw that broke the camel’s back or not, but the UA’s demand that $10 million of improvements be made to War Memorial Stadium for the venue to continue to host a single Razorback game each season might also have played a role.

According to a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Long and Steinmetz presented a power-point display to the Board and Gov. Asa Hutchinson in late October. A little over two weeks later, Long is out of the job.

While most in Northwest Arkansas feel that games in Central Arkansas are unnecessary, we shouldn’t forget that the Razorbacks are the state’s program. Most Razorback fans do not live in Northwest Arkansas, and it is cheaper and easier for many fans to attend a game Little Rock.

Plus, the program was built on games being played in Little Rock. While that may not seem like a necessity now, there is something to be said for the tradition.

Remember, most of the Trustees do not hail from Northwest Arkansas, and while they understand the monetary considerations of playing a game away from campus, they also understand the need for the entire state to support the athletic program and how much good a successful football program can do for the morale of the entire state. I question if Long ever understood that, particularly the second part.

My question is what type of attitude did Long strike with the Board and the governor during that presentation?

Long has been known to come off as arrogant and condescending. No one appreciates that.

Now, if the football program were cooking rather than being smoked on a weekly basis, Long’s tenure likely would not have ended in the manner it did.

People will trade a measure of aloofness, a cold shoulder here, or a stiff arm there, if the product they are buying is exemplary. However, when the product is as poor as Razorback football has been for the last year, customers aren’t going to be loyal.

Friends and family might have been?

Long boiled the Razorbacks down to just being about business.

Now, he understands how some fans have felt over the last ten years.

Only he has a million-dollar parachute as consolation, while Hog fans are left with a football program that seems like a shell of what it should be.