LITTLE ROCK — When it comes to answering questions without providing specifics, politicians have nothing on Jeff Long.
In fairness to the Arkansas athletic director, his diplomatic expertise at the Little Rock Touchdown Club was exactly what you would expect from a man who is on a secretive search for the next Razorback football coach.
The quest to identify John L. Smith’s successor before Long is ready to share is in the laughable stage.
During the weekend, I crossed paths with three people who were more than willing to reveal that they were well connected and that Long had identified the object of his search.
Without encouragement, they confided the name.
Each of the "insiders" named a different coach.
After Long offered some prepared remarks to the TD Club and handled a few questions, and before the media began asking serious stuff, a wiseacre in the media complimented Long for not saying anything during his presentation.
Knowing it was a joke, Long smiled and answered in kind: "Thank you. I pride myself on that."
From there, he offered a few substantive things about the most talked-about topic in Arkansas sports:
—Other soon-to-be coaching openings complicate the situation. Even if he knew, he wouldn’t identify schools that might cut loose their coach, but in the Southeastern Conference alone, the Kentucky job is likely to be open and coaches are on the hot seat at Auburn and Tennessee. Last year, more than 20 schools changed head coaches.
—There is no predetermined bent — offense or defense — for the next head coach. Many philosophies are successful in college football. Being a leader is top priority.
—The search for the next coach is not limited to sitting head coaches, and he mentioned that Bob Stoops had made the jump from coordinator to head coach of a national champion at Oklahoma. Long’s statement fit nicely with a trivia question that TD Club president David Bazzel raised during the luncheon. He asked the audience what TCU’s Gary Patterson, Boise’s Chris Petersen, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Florida’s Will Muschamp and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen had in common. All were finalists for the Broyles Award, presented annually to the top assistant coach in the country.
—Part of the process is figuring out who is truly interested in the Arkansas job and who is hinting at interest to get his name out there so he can use that as leverage in his current position. Third parties are trying to get information to the UA and intent might not be clear until late in the game.
"You don’t just pick out a candidate and go get them," he said.
Asked about a timetable by an audience member, Long said he hoped to make a hire within a few weeks after the season ends. Adroitly, he ducked a question about Arkansas State University head coach Gus Malzahn and used a query about potential salary to refute somebody who said Long had said he would make the new coach the highest paid in the country.
"That is simply not true," he said. "That would be an irresponsible statement to make."
He told the media the intensity of interest in the next hire is beyond anything he had experienced at other schools. Asked about the enormity and importance of the hire, he agreed it is a big decision. There is no need, he said, "to dramatize any more than that."
Long said he had received recommendations about everybody from high school coaches to retired coaches to NFL coaches and everything in between. There was no need to broach a particular coach on Monday. He answered that question at a recent meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club with a "That’s not appropriate."
Meanwhile, some in the audience had some ideas. They got them straight from somebody who knows, they said. If only there had been time to listen.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.