Let search begin; Long hired Petrino in 15 days

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012
Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long officially announced Saturday that John L. Smith will not return as coach but gave no more details on the search.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long officially announced Saturday that John L. Smith will not return as coach but gave no more details on the search.

— Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long’s search for a new football coach officially began Saturday when he announced John L. Smith won’t be retained, but in reality the process began last spring.

Long has been in search mode since April 10, when he announced Bobby Petrino was fired for cause as the Razorbacks’ coach after not disclosing a female passenger was aboard his motorcycle that crashed in Madison County on April 1, and that he had hired the woman, Jessica Dorrell, to the football staff without acknowledging a prior extra-marital affair during the process.

Smith, a former Razorbacks assistant, was hired as Arkansas’ interim coach April 24 with the understanding he was auditioning for the job on a long-term basis, but even last summer Long talked about the search remaining in motion.

“I continue to run my process, and it’s an extended process because I have the luxury of extending it,” Long said June 29 during an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “But I’m doing my research, preparing for after the season.”

Long said at that time he had a lengthy list of candidates.

“It’s really big now, because there’s nothing that tells me I have to whittle it down,” he said. “There are a number of people I’m researching and checking out, making sure I have a good idea of who they are, what they’re about, the kind of coach they would be.”

Long said there were varying levels of interest in the Arkansas job from coaches in the immediate aftermath of Petrino’s firing.

“The majority of the interest was really focused on after the season,” Long said. “But, as I told them, and I would tell people now, there are a lot of things that could change between now and after the season. ... The list in June won’t look like the list in November.”

Now it’s November, and Long might be the only person who truly knows which coaches top his list. As Long has said, name enough coaches and you’re likely to hit on the hire he’ll make.

Coaches who have been mentioned as candidates by media and Internet outlets include TCU’s Gary Patterson, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Baylor’s Art Briles, Texas Tech’s Tommy Tuberville, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Louisville’s Charlie Strong and Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes. Long also hasn’t ruled out hiring an offensive or defensive coordinator, though that seems unlikely.

Long said earlier this fall he wouldn’t initiate contact with a coach during the regular season.

“We have some unwritten protocols that you try to follow,” Long said Oct. 15 when he spoke to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. “They’re getting, to be honest with you, blurrier in our profession — what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“But I’m going to try to walk that line and not try to invade or intrude upon a coach coaching during a season. That is important to me to do it the right way. Certainly there are a number of third parties out there trying to get information to us about those who might be interested and might not be, but we’ve got to walk a fine line there. It’s really just research at this point.”

Arkansas is one of at least three SEC schools conducting coaching searches, along with Tennessee and Kentucky. It’s possible Auburn will have an opening, too, after the Tigers finished 3-9.

“There’s going to be openings at the end of the season,” Long said Oct. 15. “You try to prepare yourself for it. That does add to the difficulty. It’s a very difficult process.”

Long went through the process at Arkansas after the 2007 season. He didn’t officially take over as Arkansas’ athletic director until Jan. 1, 2008, but he had been hired in October to replace Frank Broyles and conducted the search that ended in Petrino’s hiring Dec. 11, 2007, after Houston Nutt resigned under pressure Nov. 26.

It initially appeared Long would hire Tommy Bowden from Clemson, but Arkansas’ board of trustees reportedly nixed that. Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe then accepted a job offer, multiple sources confirmed, but backed out. Long then hired Petrino six hours after Petrino resigned as the Atlanta Falcons’ coach with three games left in the NFL season.

When Long was Pittsburgh’s athletic director, he hired Dave Wannstedt, a former Pitt player who was an NFL head coach with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Wannstedt was two months removed from being fired as head coach of the 1-8 Dolphins when he was hired by Long.

Long said Oct. 15 that “no question” he believes Arkansas is a more attractive job now than it was five years ago, noting the new football operations center under construction that is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2013.

“Certainly the centralized location of all of our operations, there will be very few [schools] that have that,” Long said. “But I think more important, we’ve built the infrastructure behind the coach, what he needs to be successful, academic support. Certainly with the changes in NCAA rules, continuing eligibility ... you have to have that infrastructure. Coaches are looking for that. We have that now.”

Long has said several times in recent months he is confident Arkansas — which went 10-3 in 2010 and 11-2 in 2011 before falling to 4-8 this season — can attract an elite coach.

“I think we’ve raised our national reputation over the last five years,” Long said Sept. 27 when he spoke to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. “I think we’ve shown that you can do it at Arkansas. You can win. You can make the BCS. We can be in contention to win a national championship.”

Long said at that time he believes how the Razorbacks finished this season wouldn’t have a major impact on which coaches were interested in the Arkansas job.

“No, because I don’t think somebody looks at one season,” Long said. “I think they look at our ability to win and win at a high level. I think they’ll look at what we’ve done to build our program, the resources we’ve committed, both human and physical resources in facilities, and they’ll see we have a strong commitment to football.”

Long said having so much time for a search is a “blessing and a curse” because of the changing fortunes during a season.

“It changes every week with wins and losses at other programs,” Long said.

Long said June 29 during his interview with the Democrat-Gazette the process of hiring a coach has become more complicated.

“Contracts are complicated,” Long said. “It’s much different now trying to hire a sitting head coach than it was even five years ago in terms of buyouts, contractual obligations. It’s much more difficult than it used to be.

“We should be able to attract a high-level, sitting head coach. But in the end, there are a lot of factors that come into play when hiring a sitting head coach.”

Sports, Pages 25 on 11/25/2012