FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was the guest speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club meeting on Wednesday.
It was a packed house for obvious reasons. Arkansas is off to a 1-3 start, struggling under coach John L. Smith. It's not what Arkansas expected. And there are plenty who are unhappy about the way things are going. Long addressed the topic during the meeting, saying he was standing "steadfastly" behind Smith and the players as they continue to navigate what has been a disappointing season to date. He also emphasized his search for the long-term coach for the program began in April and is ongoing.
Long addressed some of these topics more during a question-and-answer session with the media after the event.
Here is the complete Q&A:
Q: Guys at the national level have worked at Arkansas’ program and said they’re top 15 in the country. What are your thoughts about where you stand?
A: About thte level of our program? I think we’ve raised our national reputation over the last five years. As I said in my comments, I think we’ve shown that you can do it at Arkansas. You can win. You can make the BCS. We can be in contention to win a national championship. And again, it’s a factor of being in the toughest division of the toughest conference. And itt’s about being a competitor. If you want to compete, this is the place to come and compete no question.”
Q: Have your or anyone else had a conversation with John L. about his public speaking and how he comes across?
A: John L and I speak weekly. We talk about a lot of things, and certainly when he speaks to the public, the messages that he sends, yeah, we’ve talked about those things.”
Q: As an athletic director, being in a temporary situation in a 10-month contract the head coach is not the same as it would be a guy who is a long-term contract. How do you as an athletic director handle a situation like this if there feels like there’s instability? Do you manage the football program any way where you otherwise might not?
A: Again, back in April, you know that this is going to be a difficult situation regardless of whether we’re successful or not successful. It’s different when you have a coach who’s not your long-term coach. You have to manage the season differently because of that and we’ve tried to do that. Certainly I engaged our coaches as much as I can to make sure they understand that we’re supporting them and engage the student-athletes that we’re going to have a program going forward and we’re going to be here and we’re going to continue to support them. It’s a different situation, no question.”
Q: Are you committed to John L. for the contract as long as there’s not something outside of wins and losses?
A: Yeah, and again I tried to make that clear today. Sometimes I don’t in my speeches. But we’re committed to this season. He’s going to lead our team through the season. That’s something we made a commitment to back in April and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”
Q: Has his role changed?
Q: Have you talked to him at all internally and are part of those discussions with him about public speaking and limiting his exposure in any way? We only had 10 minutes with him the other day …
A: Well, that’s between our media and John L. No, I’ve not told him to limit his speaking engagements. No.”
Q: People have estimated the impact of GameDay showing up on campus at about $5 million …
A: “Who would get that money? GameDay would not have a $5 million impact on our athletic program. It might be on the community.”
Q: Do you feel any financial impact by what has happened with the 1-3 start?
A: “No. Not at this time. We don’t feel any financial impact.”
Q: When he was brought in what was his job obligation? There’s some speculation whether he was told to be involved this much with the coordinators or that much.
A: “No, no. He’s the head coach and he’s a different kind of head coach. There are types of head coaches, and he certainly is a manager of the program and is in there less Xs and Os wise with either side. He’s more involved with the special teams that he has been that he coached at Arkansas. No, he hasn’t been any more or less involved. He’s managing our program and being the leader of the program.”
Q: Does that approach need to change going forward?
A: “No, I don’t think you change that approach in the middle of the season. He’s our head coach and will continue to lead our program through the season.”
Q: How disappointed are you personally with how things have gone?
A: Well, look, I’ve been through a lot of football seasons. Andyou know what, if you play this game, if you’ve seen this game played, you’ve supported a program, there are years where you start off disappointingly. Now we’ve got to fight back and I think this team will fight back. There’s certainly no guarantees, but I see them working extremely hard at practice and I think they’ll continue to perform and work hard for the Razorbacks. I have that confidence in them.”
Q: Do you see the start affecting who you might be able to hire at the end of the season?
A: “No, because I don’t think somebody looks at one season. I think they look at our ability to win and win at a high level. I think they’ll look at what we’ve done to build our program, the resources we’ve committed, both human and physical resources in facilities, and they’ll see we have a strong commitment to football. We’ll be one of the top programs. If you look at how we support our program, we’re one of the top programs in the country. And I think one season does not make or break whether your program is a strong program going forward.”
Q: When you hired Coach Smith, what did you think his impact would be as far as with the other assistants on the team?
A: “Well, as we said at the time, I think he worked with 8 of the 9 assistants. He’d be on our staff for three years. He knew the players. I saw that as his strength coming in. And that he had been a leader and been a head coach at a BCS level school. So those were the things if I’m answering your question.”
Q: Well, some thought a caretaker and let the offensive and defensive coordinators do their jobs.
A: “Well, I think Coach Smith has said that he was counting heavily on the offensive and defensive coordinators. I think that has been his style as a head coach and I think he’s continued that.”
Q: Was John Smith ready for primetime? Is he an SEC level head coach?
A: “He’s been in the Big Ten, so yes. I think for this situation he was ready for this situation.”
Q: What about those who are saying it would’ve been different with Petrino?
A: “What about it?”
Q: Some people say the team would’ve been different.
A: “Certainly it would. When your leader is different, your team would be different.”
Q: How critical is the continued support and attendance this season for long-term growth and hiring a coach?
A: Well, yeah. I’ve said it, we’ve said it many times over five years that it really is true. The reason we can compete in the strongest conference and the strongest division when we’re in one of the smallest states is because we have a passionate fan base. I want a passionate fan base. We need a passionate fan base. So we need them supporting our program and that says volumes about who we are as a program for perspective student athletes. For a perspective coach. That says a lot. So your fan base is critically important. Not only because they buy tickets and they make donations, because they love and they live and breathe Razorback sports and Razorback football in this case. So they’re critically important to us going forward.
Q: Where are you in the search? And because you’ve had a long time to do the search you normally don’t get. … where are you and does it help you that you have so much time?
A: Well, that’s a good question. I did say earlier I think it’s a blessing and a curse. Because you have a lot of time to spend on a lot of background. But I will tell you every week it changes with a win and a loss and another program. So, you know, there’s a broad pool of people and you’re looking at a lot of people at this time. And, again, it changes every week with wins and losses at other programs. Where we are in the search, we’re just doing background, we’re just looking at who may be attractive to us, who may be interested in us and who may be a fit for us.”
Q: You mentioned not talking to candidates until the season is over. What about representatives of candidates. Have you had interaction with them?
A: “I have not.”
Q: Do you anticipate it?
A: “I don’t know. They can reach out to me obviously and I would listen to them. I don’t think I’m actively reaching out to them. I’ve gotten messages to talk to people. And we’ve talked to some. But I want to be clear: That’s not something I’m actively going out and doing because it’s not an appropriate time to do that. And there’s plenty of time to do that at the end of the season.”
Q: You were asked about coordinators. What about NFL coaches, former, current, will they be on the list also?
A: “They could be. Yeah. Yeah. I haven’t eliminated that. I think it would take a special person from the NFL to lead this program, but I have not eliminated those people from the candidate pool.”
Q: John L. said in the summer you couldn’t afford injuries on this team. Thin at some spots. Those have occurred. I’m wondering if you have some sympathy toward the fact it wasn’t a deep team coming in and those things happen?
A: “We don’t make excuses. I’m not going to make excuses. Injuries are part of the game. They’re unfortunate. I feel more for those individual young men that I know on our team than I do about anything else. They’re unfortunate, but, uh, you know what? Everybody has injuries. We’ve got to fight through them. We’ve got to play through them. And we’ve got to compete and I think we will.”
Q: If you find somebody that’s not actively coaching right now, but would be a candidate, is that somebody you may hire in December?
A: “You know what, at this point I haven’t seen a lot of those people surface for me. But, again, I’m not saying no. If they’re out there and they identify themselves, if they have the credentials and they have the fit and they have what we’re kind of looking for, those things I mentioned in my talk, I wouldn’t rule them out.”
Q: When you say they haven’t surfaced, they haven’t approached you or you don’t have interest in the ones who are there?
A: “No. I’m just tell you, I’m not going out, as I said a moment ago, I’m not going out and reaching out to people at this point. If they self-identify, fine. And we’ll take that information and consider it going forward.”
Q: So those folks haven’t self-identified?
A: “Well, I don’t know what… I don’t’ mean to be difficult… I don’t know what I’m saying hasn’t identified themselves. Are we talking about his specific – which are people that are currently not coaching? Um. Gosh. That’s pretty broad. I don’t think I can say that. I can’t say they haven’t identified themselves.”
Q: Have sitting head coaches made known through their representatives or friends that they would be interested at the end of their season?
A: “Again, that’s hard to say. You know, there was things back in April. But I would, I’m not, again, I’m not being coy, I don’t recall recently anybody really reaching out and making that be known. Because I think those coaches also understand that, you know, we’re playing a football season. They’re playing a football season. There will be time at the end of the football season to handle that.”
Q: Could Butch Davis be on your radar? A guy with local ties …
A: “I’m not going to talk about individual candidates. That’s not appropriate. I wouldn’t do that with any coach you might bring up.”
Q: Has John L. Smith been an embarrassment to the program? (Spokesman asks for next question)
A: “Yeah, I don’t want to answer that question.”
Q: What has been the level of communication between the chancellor, the Board of Trustees and financial stakeholders in the program?
A: “I talk to the chancellor daily. I talk to supporters very often.”
Q: In regard to the search?
A: “Oh. No. Not about the search. No. No. Uh. Well, certainly the chancellor and I talk about it, but I’m not talking to, you know, … Certainly I may talk to a trustee who might see me at a football game and share a thought or two, but nothing formal, nothing that’s a part of what we are doing going forward.”
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau