Reason to be high on the Hogs
The setting was almost too good to be true for Jeff Long.
The athletic director at the University of Arkansas sat on a rooftop bar in Manhattan last month, looking out at the colorfully lit Empire State Building, surrounded by his wife, Fanny, and his three most senior executives and their wives. Each of them has been with Long at Arkansas almost since he was hired as AD in 2008.
|Jeff Long succeeded legendary former football coach and AD Frank Broyles at Arkansas in 2008.
“You don’t get an individual award like this without a great team,” Long said.
It may sound cliché, but no athletic director understands the importance of a strong staff more than Long, especially after this past year.
Throughout last fall, Long served as the selection committee chairman for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Those duties took Long and the committee into uncharted territory. There had never been a playoff or a football selection process before.
The committee met every week during football season in Dallas, requiring Long to be away from the Fayetteville campus in northwest Arkansas for three days a week — Sunday through Tuesday night.
Somebody had to mind the store back home. Long and his senior team spent the first half of 2014 preparing for the times when Long would be gone. They envisioned scenarios, mostly related to student-athlete welfare and behavior, that might require the staff to react quickly if Long was away. This is the same staff that managed through the Bobby Petrino scandal in 2012 when the football coach covered up an affair with a staffer and subsequently was fired. So, they had some experience with crisis management.
“We had to juggle some responsibilities, but honestly I don’t think we skipped a beat because of how we prepared,” said Matt Trantham, a senior associate AD for internal operations. Trantham was one of the three senior associate ADs in New York with Long, as well as CFO Clayton Hamilton and Jon Fagg, who oversees the department’s administration and governance.
“We shifted the weekly staff meetings to Wednesday afternoons, when we knew Jeff would be back, so that we could keep him up to date,” Trantham added. “Luckily, none of the situations we prepared for actually happened.”
That night on the rooftop was a chance for Long to reminisce with his staff about the last eight fiscal years.
There have been big wins to celebrate, like landing football coach Bret Bielema from Wisconsin and locking down a $10.65 million donation from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in January, money that will go toward new facilities. They have endured their challenges as well, namely the Petrino scandal three years ago.
“I know Jeff well enough that when he says this award is a reflection of the people around him, he really means it,” said Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, who hired Long at Oklahoma as a senior associate AD in 2001 and has remained a friend and confidant. “He’s just a guy that engenders the trust of those around him, and I think that’s also what made him such an effective chair of the first CFP committee.”
A lifetime in athletics
The play call was “16 veer” to the right or “17 veer” to the left. Back in the 1970s, when Long played quarterback for Fairmont East High School in Kettering, Ohio, the veer option was the offense of choice.
Long’s job was to read the defensive end and hand the ball off or pitch it. The defensive end’s job was to knock the stuffing out of the quarterback on the chance that he still had the ball.
“Jeff would absolutely get blown up, even if he didn’t have the ball,” said Rusty Clifford, Long’s high school coach at Fairmont East. “You had to be intelligent as the quarterback to make the read, but you also had to be tough because of all the hits you took. Jeff was so tough and so hard-nosed, he’d take the hit and pop right back up.”
Long grew up in the town just south of Dayton when times were good, thanks largely to the massive General Motors vehicle assembly plant.
“It was the kind of middle-class, manufacturing town you don’t see much anymore,” Clifford said.
|Long’s ability to handle scrutiny is front and center in his role as chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Long was there to open the gym and initiate offseason weightlifting at 5:30 in the morning. As a senior, Long was voted the school’s best male athlete.
“Whenever he threw a touchdown pass, Jeff would always say what a great catch it was,” Clifford said. “He never took the credit. That’s one of the things that made him everybody’s best friend, whether you were a starter or the last guy on the bench. So, seeing him now run an athletic department or chair the playoff committee, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Long, not surprisingly, remained friends with many of his old teammates. They still talk about the showdowns against Fairmont West, even though the two rival schools have since consolidated.
Long enjoys telling the story about the game his senior year when West was undefeated and its defense had not given up a point in seven games. But the East offense took the opening drive 14 plays for a touchdown, setting the stage for a huge upset.
Long went on to play football and baseball at Division III Ohio Wesleyan and contemplated a coaching career before deciding that administration was a better lifestyle fit.
Don’t let all of this “teamwork” talk fool you. Long has a demanding side that his staff sees regularly. There’s no question who’s in charge.
During the 10 days of the Petrino scandal, when the ex-coach was caught in a lie about his affair with the football staffer, Long gathered his staff to plot the school’s next move. It wasn’t certain at the time if Petrino would be fired or allowed to keep his job. He was, after all, coming off an 11-2 season.
“In the meetings, voices were raising,” Trantham said. “You could sense the emotions in the responses. We were at a crossroads. But Jeff was a calming influence over all of it. By the end of the meeting, Jeff said, ‘OK, I’ve heard from everyone. Now I need some alone time to make some decisions.’ Watching him through that, my respect for Jeff went through the roof.”
When Long announced that Petrino would be fired, he faced intense scrutiny from fans who were more concerned about the football program taking a step back, which it did with a 4-8 record the next season.
But during that time, the two major influences in Long’s professional life were clearly evident.
Long has the meticulous attention to detail and ability to see the big picture that has distinguished Oklahoma’s Castiglione. He also has the intensity and firm handle that were trademarks of Bo Schembechler, who was AD at Michigan when Long served his longest stint as an associate AD.
“I don’t consider myself someone who seeks the spotlight, but when you’re in a leadership position, you better be ready to step up and face the scrutiny,” Long said. “The decision in the Petrino case wasn’t hard to make. It was dealing with everything around it that was hard. There was anger, there was outcry, there were feelings of betrayal. But the student athletes were the ones that helped me stay calm.
“I could feel that all eyes were on me, watching me, and we had to make a statement that we’re not a win-at-all-costs school.”
That’s not the only high-profile test Long has faced in Fayetteville. It started almost immediately upon taking the job in 2008. Long succeeded legendary former football coach and AD Frank Broyles and quickly found out how difficult it would be to replace Broyles’ 50 years of relationships in the state when it came to fundraising.
One of Long’s first chores was to merge men’s and women’s athletics, a move that required consolidating some positions and redefining roles. Arkansas was one of the few remaining schools with separate departments, a structure that had been in place for 35 years.
And then, more recently, there was the College Football Playoff, which called for Long to go on ESPN every Tuesday night during the last half of the season to explain the committee’s rankings.
“Jeff’s task was to take 12 individual opinions and consolidate that into one message,” said Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff’s executive director. “He did a great job of that. He encouraged everyone by making sure they knew that their opinions mattered.”
He managed the group so effectively that the committee voted him to serve as chairman for year two.
Under Long’s guidance, Arkansas has transformed into a revenue-producing juggernaut. The Razorbacks will top $100 million for the first time in school history this fiscal year and rank in the top 20 to 25 schools nationally. That will be good for only ninth or so in the hypercompetitive SEC, however.
Long is especially proud that his department turns a profit and over the years has managed to build its cash reserves. When the school spent $7 million to upgrade its production facilities in anticipation of the SEC Network launch last August, Long simply made a withdrawal from savings to cover the expense.
|Long shows off his Sports Business Award for being named AD of the Year.
Long launched the “Never Yield” campaign in 2013 and donations have helped cover the cost of a $9 million baseball and track indoor facility, a $25 million basketball practice facility and a $23 million student-athlete success center slated to open this year, where Arkansas’ nearly 500 athletes will go for tutoring, career planning and nutrition needs.
The success center, which will carry Jerry and Gene Jones’ names, “will become the most important athletic facility on campus,” Long said of the 55,000-square-foot building. “It’s going to make a strong statement about who we are.”
That’s in addition to a recently completed $40 million football operations building, and a new north end zone for Reynolds Razorback Stadium that’s in the works.
Long began by transforming Arkansas athletics from the inside and now he’s transforming it on the outside. During this transformation, the rest of the country apparently has been watching this little corner of the state. Long’s name in recent years reportedly has been linked to the vacant AD jobs at Michigan, Texas and Stanford.
For now, though, Long appears happy calling the hogs with the team he’s built around him.
“Listen, Jeff Long knows who Jeff Long is,” said Clifford, his old football coach at Fairmont East. “He’s the same person leading that playoff committee as he was leading a high school football team. I’ve always said about Jeff that he’s big on the inside, not the outside.”
NACDA award winners
The following are winners of the 2015 Under Armour Athletic Director of the Year award, presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. Each year, NACDA recognizes the top four ADs in each of the seven collegiate divisions. NACDA will honor this year's winners at the organization's annual convention, which is being held this week in Orlando.
|Mitch Barnhart||University of Kentucky||Football Bowl Subdivision|
|Chris Del Conte||Texas Christian University||Football Bowl Subdivision|
|Warde Manuel||University of Connecticut||Football Bowl Subdivision|
|Ian McCaw||Baylor University||Football Bowl Subdivision|
|Keith Gill||University of Richmond||Football Championship Subdivision|
|Richard Johnson||Wofford College||Football Championship Subdivision|
|Justin Sell||South Dakota State University||Football Championship Subdivision|
|Tim Wabler||University of Dayton||Football Championship Subdivision|
|Victor Cegles||Long Beach State University||Division I-AAA|
|Jeff Hathaway||Hofstra University||Division I-AAA|
|Bruce Rasmussen||Creighton University||Division I-AAA|
|Jim Schmidt||University of Illinois at Chicago||Division I-AAA|
|Michael Covone||Barry University||Division II|
|Michael McBroom||West Texas A&M University||Division II|
|Francis Reidy||Saint Leo University||Division II|
|Eric Schoh||Winona State University||Division II|
|Bob Corradi||Massachusetts Maritime Academy||Division III|
|Bob King||Trinity University||Division III|
|Julie Soriero||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Division III|
|Charlie Titus||University of Massachusetts-Boston||Division III|
|Tim Drain||Tyler Junior College||Junior/Community College|
|Brenda Hampton||Iowa Western Community College||Junior/Community College|
|Jay Mehrhoff||East Central College||Junior/Community College|
|Michelle Ruble||College of Southern Maryland||Junior/Community College|
|Jim Abbott||Oklahoma City University||NAIA/Other Four-Year Institutions|
|Jeff Bain||Martin Methodist College||NAIA/Other Four-Year Institutions|
|Kevin Steele||MidAmerica Nazarene University||NAIA/Other Four-Year Institutions|
|Darin Wilson||Georgia Gwinnett College||NAIA/Other Four-Year Institutions|