For all the endless junk on television, occasionally we get a new episode of Mad Men and see Peggy Olsen in her ‘60s best complain to her boss Don Draper that he never says “thank you,” he responds, “that’s what the money is for!” and instantly we are all aware that we’re watching something better than pretty much everything else on television. It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s inspired. It doesn’t settle for mere acceptance. And it all still makes perfect sense.
After watching Jeff Long go through the last eight months, a period in which he surely must have asked the Greek gods what he’d done to deserve such a trial, it’s hard not to look at the hiring of Bret Bielema compared to what other athletic directors did and come away similarly impressed.
For instance, at Auburn, athletic director Jay Jacobs took the ridiculous route of creating a search committee comprised of legendary former Auburn players to decide to hire the most obvious candidate Auburn could possibly hire. Auburn fans already give Gus Malzahn more credit than any other Tiger coach for the national championship in 2010, and since he had the good sense to avoid the putrid 2012 team in favor of winning a Sun Belt championship at Arkansas State, he was an easy pick.
Malzahn may very well do great things at Auburn, but if not, the committee provides Jacobs a scapegoat if the hire goes poorly. He can always say, “Well, Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan signed off on him, too.” Arkansas fans have made it very clear that they’ll hold Long responsible if he hired a less than stellar coach and Arkansas fails to rebound. Give credit to Long for never hiding from that.
At Tennessee, the Vols had spent so much money on buying out coaches that new athletic director Dave Hart had to “restructure” millions of dollars promised from the athletic department to the school so they could afford to hire a coach. And once Derek Dooley was fired, Hart might as well have started his search by using any given blog as a guide. The Vols appeared to be turned down by Jon Gruden, then were publicly rejected by Charlie Strong and possibly by Mike Gundy as well. It wasn’t until then that Hart offered the job to Butch Jones.
Instead of using a list of candidates the media and/or public created on the basis of people who “made sense”, Long networked. He met Bielema in 2005 when he was an assistant at Wisconsin and kept up with him ever since. On the surface, it wouldn’t make sense that Bielema would leave a seemingly comfortable situation in Wisconsin, but Long obviously knew where he could appeal to him.
Bielema stated in his press conference and in various radio appearances that he felt Arkansas would provide the type of financial resources he felt were necessary to maintain a successful staff – something he said Wisconsin was unwilling or unable to provide. Often, people are under the impression that simply offering a big salary to a coach will be enough to sway them, but every coach also wants to know his administration is committed to providing the resources the coach believes is necessary for success. It’s a much more complicated recruiting job, but it’s one Long was clearly able to pull off.
In fact, the only time Arkansas really made waves during the process was the odd Les Miles ordeal. However, with Bielema’s hiring, the Miles thing suddenly makes much more sense. If Long was searching for a coach with a fantastic win/loss record, was defensive-minded, BCS proven, would be a huge national splash, and with whom he had a pre-existing relationship, many of the qualities that define Bielema, why not go after Miles? And if he could have gotten Miles, there would be the added benefit of dropping a bomb on one of Arkansas’ biggest rivals.
How much of a real offer Miles had has been heavily debated, with reputable sources saying different things. Miles himself said there was at least some contact, and it shows Long wasn’t afraid to go after anybody—even if the public didn’t think it would make sense on the surface. But if Long knew Miles was upset he wasn’t given a raise after his undefeated regular season in 2011, that’s an angle he could play. It ended up not working, but, if the offer was made, it provides insight onto Long’s ambitious thought process.
I was asked during a radio interview after Bielema’s hiring, in the wake of the many refusals to Tennessee, if it would be better for athletic directors to swing and miss at big names at the risk of embarrassing rejections, or if schools would be better off going after coaches they know would say yes and avoid a PR mess. My response was to go after the biggest fish you can get because ultimately all that matters is who ends up with the job. A short term PR hit is nothing compared to losing for three years. And if you can pull off a big name like Long did, then it’s all gravy.
Despite all the complaints of “Long had eight months and still doesn’t have a coach yet?!” in an ideal world, Arkansas would have had someone announced 30 minutes after the LSU game ended, but Long bided his time, and, two days after the Big 10 Championship Game, hired the man who hung 70 points and won it, and won it last year, and won the conference title the year before.
Jeff Long has been far from perfect this year. Obviously, he hired John L. Smith, and even if certain qualities of the interim hire made sense at the time, it proved to be a disaster. But, as awful as the fall was, it’s the permanent hire of Bielema that will have a larger impact on his legacy.
Success for Bielema isn’t guaranteed. It’s difficult to imagine him having as much success on the field in the SEC West if his recruiting classes are rated as low as they were at Wisconsin. Whether his traditional, balanced offense will be able to stand toe-to-toe with those from Alabama and LSU isn’t certain. However, if Long had the opportunity to hire a coach with Bielema’s resume, how could he turn that down? Every coaching hire is a risk, and this is a risk worth taking.
The hire won’t be ultimately judged until Bielema puts his teams on the field and we all see how many games he can win. That being said, when looking at the field Long has played on since April, seeing what was available, and watching others in his shoes have more of a struggle, it’s hard not to be impressed by his work.
Doc Harper is the managing editor of Arkansas Expats and is a regular contributor to College Football News and Sporting Life Arkansas. You can email him here and follow his thoughts and observations on Twitter.