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:
Good grief. You cannot set off tannerite with a cell phone.
Can't leave out the Oark Cafe. The oldest restaurant in Arkansas. Home of the mooie…