UA hire all about wins, losses, dollars, cents

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Monday, November 26, 2012
Jeff Long's football hire will have a major financial impact on the university's overall athletic program.
Photo by Ryan McGeeney
Jeff Long's football hire will have a major financial impact on the university's overall athletic program.

— No decision at the University of Arkansas in 2012 is likely to have a larger financial impact than the one facing Athletic Director Jeff Long in the coming days.

The candidate Long hires as the next head coach for the Arkansas football program will impact the university on various levels: monetary contributions to the athletic program and possibly the university, future revenues generated by merchandising, ticket sales and bowl game appearances, and how the university is perceived by the rest of the nation.

“He’s got a huge task in front of him to find and select the new coach, and I think we’re going to know very soon,” said Mike Akin of Monticello, chairman of the UA Board of Trustees.

“I think the next hire is going to be extremely important, and I’m totally confident in Jeff,” said Ben Hyneman of Jonesboro, assistant secretary of the board.

Jane Rogers of Little Rock, vice chairman of the board, said the football coach hire is of the utmost importance, and she praised Long’s direction of the athletic department.

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“He’s gotten our program in top-notch shape all the way around,” Rogers said. “It would be a very appealing situation [for the next head coach].”

The CBS news magazine show 60 Minutes recently ran a segment on the escalating power of college football, which correspondent Armen Keteyian described as “an arms race in the college game, the likes of which the sport has never seen.”

In the piece, Keteyian made the case that increased revenues from TV contracts and other streams are keeping up with “skyrocketing coaches’ salaries” and other large expenses at only a fraction of the 125 universities that play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level in college athletics.

“You’ve got 125 of these programs, [and] out of 125, 22 of them were cash-flow even or cash-flow positive,” Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon told Keteyian. “What that means is you’ve got a model that’s not sustainable in most cases. ... The costs continue to go up.”

Arkansas, with an athletic department budget estimated at $75.6 million in the current fiscal year, is one of the programs that breaks even or better. Hiring the right football coach can be central to sustaining or raising revenues.

“I think every head coach that you hire is ... very important,” said Jim Lindsey, a former UA board member and key player on the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team. “And I trust the people making the decision. It’s their responsibility. They will be responsible for it. But at the same time, we do want them to have freedom to make it happen.”

Keteyian said the University of Alabama athletic department’s annual profits are now nearly triple from when Nick Saban took over the football team in 2007, which begs the question, is Saban’s salary of almost $5.5 million per year justified?

“Probably not,” Saban replied when asked by Keteyian if he was worth that much. “But I think the other side of that is ... what return has there been on that investment?”

Alabama has won Bowl Championship Series national championships in 2009 and 2011 under Saban, and the Crimson Tide are among three teams in the hunt for another one this season.

Long told an audience at the Little Rock Touchdown Club in October it would be an “irresponsible statement” to say Arkansas would make its coach the highest paid in college football. He did say Arkansas had the financial resources to attract a high level coach.

“I think when coaches have a chance to look at us and what we have to offer, they’re going to see, if they’re interested in a challenge, if they’re a competitor, if they want to play and beat the very best, we’ve got a lot to offer,” Long said at that appearance. “We’ve got the resources and the facilities and the team around them to be successful.”

Arkansas, in direct competition with Alabama in the SEC West, along with big spenders like LSU, Auburn, and now Texas A&M, wasn’t far from reaching the apex of college football just one season ago.

Consecutive seasons with records of 10-3 and 11-2, accompanied by lucrative berths in the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, helped the Razorback Foundation push its fundraising and membership to record highs.

The race to keep up with the SEC West powers in fundraising and on-field performance has gotten more competitive with the 2012 addition of Texas A&M. Arkansas must also recover from a disaster of a football season, which included Long’s very public firing of Bobby Petrino after he fell from grace with a Harley-Davidson wreck that included football staffer Jessica Dorrell, with whom he had an inappropriate relationship, and a 4-8 season that tied for the most losses in school history.

Long gave an indication of where he thinks the program is headed during the topping off ceremony of the university’s $35 million football operations center in September.

Sports, Pages 13 on 11/26/2012