Asked before Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M if John L. Smith has been “an embarrassment,” Arkansas vice chancellor and director of men’s athletics Jeff Long said, “I don’t want to answer that question.” He didn’t have to. Arkansas’ collapse from a preseason top-25 ranking to a 1-4 team that lost its first two SEC games by a combined score of 110-10 shows how far the Razorbacks have fallen from Bobby Petrino’s 2011 team that finished 11-2.
Long’s decision to bring Smith back to Arkansas as a ten-month head coach was just as reckless as Petrino putting his former mistress on the athletic department payroll. Smith had returned to his alma mater, Weber State, as head coach after serving as Petrino’s special teams coach in 2011. It was presumably the last stop for a coach who enjoyed modest success at the lower levels of the FBS before a 12-20 stint at Michigan State that ended in 2006. Still, Long felt Smith’s Big Ten experience made him ready to come back to Arkansas on short notice to clean up the mess left by Petrino’s firing.
This is not to suggest Long was wrong to fire Petrino. As I wrote six months ago:
The last thing Arkansas can afford to be is a national punchline. And the longer Jeff Long kept Bobby Petrino around, the more laughter there would be. Long admitted it was the “negative publicity” of Petrino’s motorcycle accident—and the “inappropriate relationship” with Jessica Dorrell that it unraveled—that proved the “key factor” in Long’s decision to fire Petrino for cause. As I noted last week, what the media calls the “morals clause” in Petrino’s contract is really a “bad publicity” clause.
But this wasn’t just about some today’s headlines. It was about Arkansas’ ability to remain competitive in recruiting with Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC West. We all know that negative recruiting is a big part of the game. Anything that publicly damages a coach’s reputation is fair game. (Heck, even rumors of things you can’t prove are “fair” game.) Moreover, once you’re in the media’s crosshairs, their tendency is to keep digging until they find even more stuff to embarrass or destroy you with. Jeff Long has been an athletic director long enough to understand this.
Unfortunately, Long went ahead and hired a temporary coach on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. That’s not a crime, but neither was Petrino’s affair. Smith told Long about his financial problems before he was hired back as head coach, which only emphasizes the recklessness of Long’s decision. Long’s first responsibility is to protect the reputation of the University of Arkansas, and coming off of Petrino’s malfeasance, Long needed to bring in a leader, interim or not, with no lingering personal baggage. It did a disservice to the team, and even to Smith, to give the public any further ammunition to use against Arkansas as the team struggles on-the-field this season.
It also begs the question of why Long felt it necessary to hire a temporary coach from the outside in the first place rather than promote a member of the remaining staff. Long suggested he always viewed Smith as a figurehead, saying last week, “I think Coach Smith has said he was counting heavily on the offensive and defensive coordinators, and I think that has been his style as a head coach and he’s continued that.” So what was he expecting Smith to do then, aside from giving bizarre press conferences?
Long’s hiring process was also suspect with Petrino. Not the decision to hire him, mind you, which clearly yielded excellent on-field results, but Petrino’s haphazard march from the Atlanta Falcons to Fayetteville in the middle of the night with three weeks to go in the NFL season. Long, then taking over at Arkansas from Frank Broyles, was desperate to lure a name coach after reportedly being spurned by Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe, and he induced a coach to quit on his team via a note posted in the locker room. That showed a lack of professionalism by both Petrino and Long, which in retrospect may help explain how the former coach felt empowered to undermine his athletic director with the Dorrell hiring.
(Arkansas defenders might point to a similar lack of professionalism in Nick Saban’s departure from the Miami Dolphins to Alabama, but there were two key differences: Saban finished out his season with Miami, and he had already proven his ability to win the SEC and a national championship.)
There’s nothing in Long’s past performance to give Arkansas fans much confidence in his ability to hire his third coach in a year. Prior to Arkansas, Long’s only football coaching hire was Dave Wannstedt at Pittsburgh; it’s not exactly rocket science to hire an alumnus of the school who was a two-time NFL head coach and, by all accounts, a model citizen. Now that the Petrino and Smith firings have blown up in Long’s face, Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart needs to think long and hard–no pun intended–whether he trusts Long to get things right the third time around.