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Jeff Long: Right man at the right time

I’ve had the pleasure this month of spending time with Jeff Long, the athletic director at the University of Arkansas, in preparation for a feature story I’m writing on him for the October issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

After decades of having Frank Broyles as the voice and face of the Arkansas athletic program, some Arkansans had a difficult time adjusting to this “Yankee” from Ohio, who brought new ways of doing things to The Hill.

It’s not easy filling the shoes of Broyles, an Arkansas icon. Like many other Arkansas boys who were raised in the 1960s and 1970s, I considered Coach Broyles a hero.

But understanding how things work in the modern world of college athletics, I’ve become convinced that Long is the right man at the right time.

Here’s how the Arkansas Life story starts: “Try as he might, University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long cannot completely escape the shadow.

“The shadow is that of John Franklin Broyles, the still-energetic, charismatic, 86-year-old former head football coach and athletic director, the man Long replaced on Jan. 1, 2008.

“Long’s office is in the Broyles Athletic Center. He looks out his window and sees Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. There’s simply no getting away from the Broyles name.

“It’s said that you never want to be the person who replaces the legend. Instead, you want to be the person who replaced the person who replaced the legend. Long ignored that axiom.

“An Ohio native with no previous connection to the state or its flagship university, Long wasted no time putting his stamp on the athletic deparment. A commonly heard refrain in those first couple of years of the Long regime was that the new athletic director was ‘getting rid of all of Frank’s people.’ Sportswriters who covered the department would refer to Long’s team as ‘the suits.’

“In reality, the man who had left the athletic director’s job at the University of Pittsburgh was making the types of changes necessary to modernize the program and increase its revenues. The model of ‘the old head football coach turned athletic director’ — think Broyles at Arkansas, Vince Dooley at Georgia, Tom Osborne at Nebraska, Bo Schembechler at Michigan — is almost a thing of the past. Southeastern Conference athletic directors these days are, in essence, the CEOs of multimillion-dollar corporations.

“The University of Arkansas athletic department isn’t just any multimillion-dollar corporation, mind you. The Razorback athletic teams it fields long have been a part of the very essence of who Arkansans are as a people. It can be debated whether the obsession is healthy. But what’s not open to debate is that for thousands of Arkansans, their very identity is tied up in the exploits of teenagers playing football, basketball and to a lesser extent baseball at the University of Arkansas.”

Jeff Long had wanted to be a professional football player. When he realized that wasn’t in the cards, he wanted to be a coach. Somewhere along the line, he decided he was better suited to be an administrator.

“It was a tough decision,” he says of leaving coaching. “Dreams change.”

Long earned seven varsity letters in football and baseball at Ohio Wesleyan, graduating in 1982 with a degree in economics. He then headed to Miami of Ohio, long known as the Cradle of Coaches, to earn his master’s degree in education and serve as a football graduate assistant coach.

From there, Long took jobs at North Carolina State, Duke and Rice.

The life of a college football coach is one that usually revolves around lots of moves.

Long first followed Tom Reed from Miami of Ohio to North Carolina State when Reed got the N.C. State head coaching job in 1983. Reed was dismissed following three 3-8 seasons as head coach of the Wolfpack.

Long, still following his dream of coaching major college football, worked as a volunteer at Duke. The school began paying him just before the 1986 season, but Long was soon out of a job again.

“I couldn’t find work,” he says. “It was suggested that I might want to coach and teach at the high school level, but I wasn’t quite ready to make that move.”

In 1987, he received a break when Reed (who by then was working for Schembechler at Michigan) invited him to come to Michigan as a part-time coach for the 1987 season.

“It was demanding work,” Long says. “I was splicing and hanging up film in the middle of the night. I was rarely home. I really enjoyed working with kids, but I wondered if I would ever get to the highest levels as a coach.”

An administrative job at Rice opened up at the end of the 1987 season, and Long went to Houston. Nine months later, he was back in Michigan as an administrator as Schembechler took on the athletic director’s job.

The frequent job shifts were over. Long would remain at Michigan for a decade, working his way up to the position of assistant athletic director.

“I decided during that period that my goal was to become an athletic director,” he says.

Schembechler left Michigan in 1990 for a front office position with the Detroit Tigers. Long worked for five athletic directors during the decade at Michigan.

“By 1998, it was clear it was time to move on,” he says.

After a brief stay at Virginia Tech as associate athletic director, Long’s first chance to be an athletic director came at Eastern Kentucky. He worked at the school for almost three years.

“I hadn’t been at Virginia Tech long, but the athletic director, Jim Weaver, gave me permission to pursue the job at Eastern Kentucky,” Long says. “I had been asking myself whether I could handle the job of athletic director. Could I lead a department rather than working for someone else? Would people follow me?”

Long found the answers to those questions in the Bluegrass State.

While working at Michigan, Long had gotten to know an associate athletic director at Missouri named Joe Castiglione.

Castiglione is now one of the most high-profile athletic directors in the country at Oklahoma.

“I wasn’t looking for another job,” Long says of the offer Castiglione made for him to come to Oklahoma. “I liked it at Eastern Kentucky. Oklahoma, though, was planning a major stadium expansion, and Joe asked me to come over and take a look at what they had planned. I was just blown away. I knew I wanted to work at that level.”

Long became the senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma in December 2000, just before the Sooner football team won the national championship.

“One of my first jobs was to plan the parade to celebrate that national championship,” he says.

Long also helped oversee a $69 million stadium expansion and the sale of 7,250 premium seats.

“I realize now that I never would have been the athletic director at Pittsburgh had I stayed at Eastern Kentucky,” Long says. “Joe gave me a whole new perspective on the importance of things such as image and branding.”

Long was the athletic director at Pitt from 2003 until he was approached by Arkansas in 2007.

“It was not a good time to leave Pitt, but I guess there’s never a good time to leave,” he says. “When I was working at Oklahoma, I had come over to Fayetteville and toured the Arkansas football stadium. I also had been to Bud Walton Arena. I liked what I saw. This was a program that was competing at a high level in multiple sports.

“I was anxious to see if my management style would work in the Southeastern Conference.”

Almost four years later, that style appears to be working just fine.

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