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Nolan, Bobby, Mike and Jeff

I mentioned in an earlier post the feature story I wrote on University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long for the current issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Long, by the way, will be the speaker at next Monday’s meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club at the Embassy Suites.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Mike Anderson, the new Arkansas basketball coach. My profile of the Razorback coach will appear in the November issue of Arkansas Life. Suffice it to say that I’m on the Anderson bandwagon.

Jeff Long has done important things in his almost four years as athletic director.

He brought Nolan Richardson back into the fold.

He brought central Arkansas business leaders, angered by Frank Broyles’ attempt to move football games from Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, back into the fold.

He hired Bobby Petrino.

He hired Mike Anderson.

Let’s take those one at a time.

As for Richardson, Long says: “When I first got here, I thought he would be vilified by the fans. But I kept listening to people and realized he was still loved and respected. I’m very proud of having been a part of bringing Coach Richardson back to campus for a reunion of the 1994 national championship team. Had we not had that event, I’m not sure Mike Anderson would be our coach today. That began the healing process.”

As for central Arkansas, the athletic director says: “We have to have the whole state behind this program. We don’t just want to show up and play a football, basketball or baseball game in central Arkansas. We want to make it a major event each time.”

Key business figures — people such as Warren Stephens and Joe Ford — felt betrayed by the loss of football games at War Memorial. Long appears to have closed many of those wounds.

The main thing he has going for him these days, however, is the fact that he’s the man who hired Petrino and Anderson.

Here’s how I put it in this month’s edition of Arkansas Life: “Long can easily tick off the things he has accomplished — blending the separate men’s and women’s athletic departments into one program, creating a new management team for the department, streamlining the various administrative processes. The average Razorback fan, of course, isn’t aware of those internal changes. To the average fan, Jeff Long is now known for two things: He’s the man who hired Bobby Petrino as head football coach and Mike Anderson as head basketball coach.

“These days, that’s enough to make them like Long.

“From the outside, it seemed that Long was struggling to find a Razorback head football coach following Houston Nutt’s resignation at the end of the 2007 season. The names of coaches who didn’t exactly excite the Razorback fan base were floated on websites and message boards.

“‘A lot of those reports were erroneous,’ Long now says. ‘A job actually has to be offered before it can be turned down.’

“In Bobby Petrino, who had found his short stint in professional football with the Atlanta Falcons to be distasteful, Long landed a proven winner who would be embraced by Arkansans.

“‘He already had decided he was returning to college football,’ Long says of Petrino. ‘I’m glad it was Arkansas. I knew he had been a great college coach at Louisville, and I was comfortable with his reasons for leaving Atlanta and the NFL.’

“When Long later negotiated a contract extension with Petrino that included record buyout clauses, Razorback fans again celebrated.

“‘Bobby was the first one who said, ‘Let’s go a bit longer with this contract,’ Long says. ‘He wanted to end the constant banter that he was somehow looking to leave Arkansas. Bobby said to me: ‘I’m not leaving you, and you’re not leaving me.’

“But it was perhaps the March hiring of Anderson as basketball coach that truly caused the people of this state to embrace Jeff Long as one of their own. That hiring was about much more than college basketball. At its core, it represented the healing of an entire state.

“When 5,000 people showed up for a Saturday morning event at Bud Walton Arena to officially announce that Anderson was leaving the University of Missouri, it was evident that something bigger was at play than basketball. There was a revival atmosphere inside the arena. A number of people were crying as Anderson took the stage.

“During those confusing, disheartening days of early 2002 — as Arkansans divided into the Nolan Richardson camp and the Frank Broyles camp — there was one constant. Everyone, it seemed, liked Mike Anderson, Richardson’s loyal, talented assistant of 17 seasons. Anderson would not be considered as Richardson’s replacement. The wound was still too raw, and Anderson was viewed as too close to Richardson.

“Because the Razorbacks so permeate the Arkansas culture, the hiring of a head football or basketball coach inevitably sends a message. With the hiring of Anderson, Long sent this message: The past is past, the wound has healed.

“‘I didn’t know Mike as well as the people of this state knew him,’ Long admits. ‘But I saw the success he had after leaving here as he became the head coach at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri. This is a man who’s going to be successful wherever he goes.’

“Long was gratified the day of the announcement as section after section of Walton Arena was opened to accommodate those who poured through the doors to welcome Anderson.

“‘The size of that crowd floored me,’ Long says.

“Russ Bradford, the author of the book ‘Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson,’ has this to say about the athletic director: ‘Arkansas doesn’t award a Nobel Peace Prize, but if it did, this year’s winner should be Jeff Long. … Not every AD would have hired Mike Anderson. Jeff Long did. The move got huge publicity as well as support from both Richardson loyalists and Broyles supporters.'”

Pick up a copy of this month’s Arkansas Life to read the full story.

And I hope to see you at Monday’s meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club to hear Jeff Long.

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