Jim Harris: SEC’s Newest Deal Will Help Jeff Long With His Goals

It’s not like Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long is oblivious to the Razorback basketball program’s need for a practice facility. He’s well aware of it.

“We might have lost a recruit this week because we don’t have a practice facility,” we heard Long say Thursday on “Sports Talk With Bo Mattingly” while we were headed somewhere in the car.

It’s certain the subject of a practice facility came up two springs back when Long was talking Mike Anderson into taking over the men’s program. It’s doubtful Anderson would have left Missouri, as much as he might have liked and missed Fayetteville, without the promise of one in the works to take over a program in such disarray.

But for now, Arkansas has to wrap up the work on its spacious, new football facility and offices south of Reynolds Razorback Stadium and have that paid off. Then, with money pledged to it, the work can start on a much needed basketball practice facility, bringing the Razorbacks up to the standard of the other 13 teams in the Southeastern Conference. And Arkansas can also start work on its academic and dining center.

“These aren’t luxuries,” Long emphasized. “These are necessities” as the Hogs continue to compete in the toughest conference in America.

It’s a good thing it’s also the richest conference in America and one that equally distributes its cash among the 14 members. Alabama may be supreme in college football, but the Tide won’t get any more money for its football success from the league than what Missouri accrues. Auburn, which seems to be in perpetual rebuilding mode in basketball and yet beat out Arkansas for Rutgers transfer Jerome Seagears this week, still gets the same share as Kentucky, which expects to dominate college basketball next season with a much-ballyhooed recruiting class.

Thursday, after delaying the announcement for a couple of weeks in light of the Boston Marathon bombings, the SEC and ESPN revealed the newest plans to keep the SEC rolling in dough. It should help also in recruiting in all sports as the SEC’s reach through cable systems stretches throughout the country.

Players who will one day enroll at SEC schools haven’t been born yet before this newest SEC-ESPN contract winds down – a deal that will create an SEC Network with more than 1,000 televised events, including 45 football games a year.

The income from that deal due to each team should ease the burden of athletic directors like Jeff Long who have to keep up in the SEC arms race.

My old-school sports upbringing keeps telling me that facilities aren’t the be-all, end-all to recruiting. Rather, I’ve thought, go work your tail off in recruiting, and win, and the better facilities will follow because the faithful will pay more to keep winning more. I thought it was a cop-out by the previous head coach, Bobby Petrino, to demand a $40-million-plus football facility to assure better recruiting, knowing that recruiting was never a Petrino strongsuit to begin with, but Petrino did win his last two years and the fan following (and their dollars through tickets and increased donations) did grow proportionally.

I think back to what Frank Broyles faced when he came to Fayetteville, with no air conditioning in the athletic dorm and a high school-like weight gym, and yet was able to recruit Arkansas into one of the three most successful programs of the 1960s.

Yet, even Broyles was crying to the state legislature for help in the early 1970s when it came to bettering the facilities. It’s the only time Broyles leaned on state government for some quick assistance, but he had to have it.

Broyles also only hired basketball coach Eddie Sutton with the promise that Sutton would have more than a barn with a sawdust floor for a home court after a few seasons. Sutton was able to recruit with those plans only on paper, but the better in-state players came and winning followed.

Nolan Richardson in the early 1990s could use plans for a bigger and better basketball palace to recruit the squad that won the 1994 national championship in the first year in that very arena.

Bret Bielema could point to the new building coming to life where the old practice field once was to his outstanding first class of Razorbacks, with an impressive influx of south Florida talent, this past February.

Mike Anderson still only has plans on paper, or on a computer program, to show recruits. A two-year guy like the transfer Seagears probably wouldn’t be around to enjoy a new practice facility. A top 100 prep guard like Anton Beard, who is a rising senior and a recent transfer to North Little Rock High, can better appreciate that soon enough his future college team will have a state-of-the-art practice facility like the rest of the SEC teams (and most of the premier college basketball programs). Yes, Anderson does need to complement the addition of Beard with other difference-making guards in this November’s signing class for Arkansas to move up in the SEC standings.

But it’s amazing to think that men’s and women’s basketball players at Arkansas don’t have a place to shoot around at night (reportedly, the university locks up Bud Walton Arena) outside of the HPER building with other students. Some days, practices have to be held elsewhere than the Bud. The powers that be turned old Barnhill over to gymnastics, so that’s no longer an option (unlike old Carmichael Hall at North Carolina or Memorial Gym at Kentucky, and of course those places also have practice facilities that wow recruits).

Arkansas went too long thinking it had basketball covered with just Bud Walton Arena. Now, it shows the wear and tear of neglect throughout its corridors after nearly 20 years. It was “state of the art” for only a brief time.

Since Jeff Long’s arrival in late 2007, he’s been doing everything he can and hitting up every big Razorback donor for help to address a number of athletic needs.

Back when Broyles addressed the legislature for monetary help for a new football complex (about the same time as he and Wilson Matthews created what became the Razorback Foundation), he said that without the support the Hogs might as well start competing in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Well, don’t expect Jeff Long to say that the Hogs might as well join the Great American Conference if the money doesn’t come. He knows he has to bring it in. These days, though, Arkansas also has to have what its fellow SEC brethren possess in all sports (and, did you hear that Texas A&M plans a $400 million renovation of Kyle Field to bring its capacity to 103,000?).

The SEC’s newest TV and digital platform contract, along with its continuous growth, will help its members’ coffers (Just how much each team will receive from the deal is still in question. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive wasn’t forthcoming Thursday with the specific financials.) but its members have to also help themselves to keep up.

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