FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long had an eight-month head start on the rest of his peers in the search for a new football coach.
How well Long made use of the past seven months could be valuable now.
The college coaching search season, which began with a few firings earlier this month, is now in full swing after five more major conference jobs opened Sunday.
North Carolina State fired coach Tom O’Brien after his sixth season with the program. Purdue (Danny Hope), Boston College (Frank Spaziani) and Colorado (Jon Embree) also parted ways with coaches. But the biggest move came at Auburn, which fired Gene Chizik two years removed from a national championship.
"I'm extremely disappointed with the way this season turned out and I apologize to the Auburn family and our team for what they have had to endure," Chizik said in a statement released by Auburn on Sunday. "In my 27 years of coaching, I have gained an understanding of the high expectations in this profession.
“When expectations are not met, I understand changes must be made."
Chizik joined the list of SEC coaches let go the past few weeks. Kentucky is searching for a new leader after firing Joker Phillips this month and Tennessee needs to replace Derek Dooley. Arkansas officially dismissed John L. Smith on Saturday, although he was working under a 10-month contract with no guarantees.
It means the conference has four vacancies after a season for the first time since 2004, when Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and LSU were all looking for replacements. Urban Meyer (Florida), Steve Spurrier (South Carolina), Ed Orgeron (Ole Miss) and Les Miles (LSU) were hired and made their debuts in 2005.
While it worked well for three of those schools, Long said a log jam among programs on the open market for coaches only adds to the challenge of making a hire.
"That’s certainly one of those complicating factors. No question,” Long said last month. “There’s going to be openings at the end of the season. … You try to prepare yourself for it. That does add to the difficulty. It’s a very difficult process."
Some of the coaches Long has reportedly considered for the Arkansas job are TCU’s Gary Patterson, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Baylor’s Art Briles, Louisville’s Charlie Strong and Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes. CBSSports.com reported last week both Tennessee and Arkansas were interested in trying to lure Jon Gruden back into the profession, although it does not appear the Razorbacks are targeting the former NFL coach.
But the potential challenge remains clear: Many coaches considered by Arkansas have been in the conversation for other openings as well. For instance, Patterson, Strong and Franklin were part of an Auburn coaching hot board by AuburnSports.com, which is part of the Rivals.com network, after Chizik was fired.
Long said in a statement Saturday he thought the decision to hire Smith for the 2012 season would give Arkansas the “time necessary to identify the right coach for the future and to do so in a time that would allow us to attract quality candidates.”
He believes Arkansas would find a good fit, too, because it is in much better shape than the last time he conducted a football coaching search with improvements in facilities and the overall infrastructure of the program. Long also said Arkansas has the financial resources to add to the attractiveness for a “high-level coach.”
So Long’s job now — after months of research and background work — is securing his choice as the number of programs searching for coaches continues to grow.
“I can tell you most ADs, no one enjoys doing a high profile search for a football coach or a basketball coach,” Long told the Little Rock Touchdown Club last month. “They’re not enjoyable processes. They’re enjoyable when they’re done and you’ve hired the right person. It’s a grueling process, but, again, it’s one as an AD you better accept the challenge and I do accept the challenge. I would want you all to look at me for that competitive spirit, that passion I have for our program. And I believe that’s out there and I believe that’s important to our next coach as well.”