Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
For the better part of three years, Pearls About Swine has largely championed Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long for how he's met various decision points. Prior to the genesis of this column, even, I thought axing John Pelphrey after four seasons as men's basketball coach was undeniably proper: Recruiting and retention were slipshod, and he didn't warrant another glance after two losing seasons and ill feelings about the program surfaced. Long had the temerity to make the long-anticipated overtures toward Mike Anderson, and he did so because it was logical, not simply popular.
Following that came the first of Long's hellish trio of calls about the head football coaching position. He implored for veracity behind Bobby Petrino's halfassed Knievel story and got it, then went at the Gordian knot with both hands. The John L. Smith plug-in shorted out the wiring pretty badly, but Long gritted his teeth and smartly waited out the lost 2012 season to secure Bret Bielema's name on the contract.
Here's the thing about those decisions: In the proverbial vacuum or with a wide lens flanked by context, Long acted reasonably if not altogether shrewdly. Bielema may be viewed as boorish by some, but he won over 70 percent of his games in a major conference and was, by all rights, a surprising coup just the way Petrino was in late 2007. He's obviously going to get two or three solid years to calm the presently turbulent seas he sailed in upon. Anderson came "home" and will be here for at least two more seasons in theory because his credentials earned him a longer leash than the one Pelphrey was afforded, and his job performance to date hasn't been so thoroughly discouraging as to warrant a quick hook.
Long was this publication's 2012 Arkansan of the Year, in fact, not because of ingenuity. He was simply an ever-present lightning rod for many months, and even if you cast him off as some kind of interloper from the other side of Mason-Dixon, you at least had to respect his fearlessness.
I guess you could applaud him again for what he did Sunday — a full 48 hours ahead of April Fool's Day, mind you — when he hired an ESPN analyst to lead the women's basketball program. Do not interpret any mocking tone herein as a slight toward Jimmy Dykes personally; he lobbied for the job hard and got it, and even if his commentary during games makes you bristle, you can at least appreciate his robust knowledge of the sport. He's going to get and apparently embrace a fair opportunity to invigorate a program that has been more or less dormant for a while.
The hiring generated momentary social media buzz on an otherwise sleepy Sabbath morning. Predictably Dykes' TV colleagues took to Twitter to well-wish, and extol his brilliance. Long had replaced Tom Collen, who has won 348 Division I games, with a guy who has never been a head coach above the small high school level. This isn't to lambaste the firing of Collen, which was legitimized by yet another poor SEC campaign, but to point out that Long really went off-script with this choice.
And why? Was it truly for public relations currency, which is of dubious actual value? Did Long think he could get away with this move simply because women's basketball isn't a revenue stream? His duties toward the athletic department are indisputably fiscally motivated, but there's got to be a cry about gender equity looming beneath the surface here. Had he fired Petrino in 2012 and permanently replaced him with, say, Kirk Herbstreit just because the latter had observed hundreds of games and played the sport, this fan base would be livid. If the hiring standard varies from one sport to the next based on gains and losses alone, we're facing a rather grim societal problem.
Further, Long was visibly shaken in April 2012 when, in detailing Petrino's various offenses, he emphasized that the departing coach had flagrantly violated university hiring policies by retaining Jessica Dorrell for a recruiting liaison gig that paid just shy of $60,000 per year. Now Long, less than two years later, has given Dykes just shy of a half-mil to be in full control of an entire varsity sport despite his own undeniable dearth of experience.
But to skirt the risk of likening Dorrell to Dykes, let's hearken back to 1997 for something more relevant and comparable. When the late Orville Henry memorably penned that he was "furious" when a selection committee tabbed the rah-rah of Houston Nutt over the seasoning of Tommy Tuberville, it was because that committee bought into a sales pitch and strayed from common sense.
Time will tell if that has transpired again, and Pearls can't share Orville's rage over this decision, but it's a perplexing turn of events to say the very least.