FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas fired athletic director Jeff Long on Wednesday, ending a nearly decade-long tenure that included the scandalous ouster of football coach Bobby Petrino and the continued mediocrity of the program under Bret Bielema.
The College Football Playoff selection committee member, formerly the chairman until this season, was under contract through June 2022. Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz said the university would honor the provisions in Long's contract, meaning the school could owe him more than $5 million by firing him.
"Since coming to Fayetteville in 2008, Jeff has led our department with character and integrity and helped move us forward in so many ways," Steinmetz said. "However, over the past year, Jeff has lost the support of many of our fans, alumni, key supporters and members of the university leadership, support that I believe is critical in our pursuit of excellence."
Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said he invited Long to remain a member of the selection committee for the rest of his term through the end of this season — an invitation Long accepted.
"My wife Fanny and I have raised two wonderful daughters in Fayetteville, one of which has her name etched in Senior Walk," Long said in a statement. "... Thank you for the opportunity to serve our university the last 10 years. It has been a true honor."
The firing comes at a time of turmoil for the football program, which is 29-32 in five seasons under Bielema, including a mark of 11-27 in the Southeastern Conference. The Razorbacks (4-6) will fail to win at least nine games this season for the sixth straight year, the school's longest stretch since an eight-year run that coincided with joining the SEC in 1992.
"I think the part that I've enjoyed during my time here with Jeff, from day one to where we are today, has been awesome," Bielema said on the SEC coaches' teleconference before news of Long's firing had become official. "For our student-athletes, everything he stands for, everything he's tried to give them off the field, on the field, all the services we provide, all the support we've given ... It's been awesome to witness."
Long was in Little Rock last week for a meeting of the school's Board of Trustees, but he never met with the board during an executive session. Instead, Steinmetz was called into the session while Long waited outside.
Several issues were thought to be a part of the discussion, including the performance of Long and the football program, along with the fate of Arkansas' long tradition of playing in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium once per season. The school currently has one year left on the agreement that has caused friction between the school's northwest Arkansas constituency and the rest of the state since Razorback Stadium was expanded in 2000.
Long said in September that he hoped to have a resolution about future of games in central Arkansas by the end of this season.
Long was hired away from Pittsburgh by Arkansas, and he replaced former longtime athletic director Frank Broyles at the beginning of 2008. He came into prominence nationally for his handling of Petrino's departure in the spring of 2012.
Petrino, now at Louisville, was fired after a motorcycle accident during which it was later discovered he was riding with his mistress. That led to revelations that he had hired the woman to a position in the athletic department, and that he had given her $20,000 to buy a new car. Long hired John L. Smith as the interim football coach for the 2012 season and the Razorbacks went 3-9.
Long was praised after that season for his hiring of Bielema away from Wisconsin. The Razorbacks were coming off a scandal-ridden eight months at the time, and Bielema was hired to restore the program to the level it had reached under Petrino, when it went a combined 21-5 over the 2010-11 seasons.
Bielema had led the Badgers to three straight Rose Bowl appearances when he was hired, and he brought with him instant credibility. However, after improving Arkansas' win total in his second and third seasons, the Razorbacks have struggled mightily since the end of last season — losing eight of their last 12 games.
Following the Petrino firing, Long agreed to a new contract in 2013 that raised his annual salary to nearly $1.1 annually by the following summer. The agreement included a public acknowledgment about Long's pursuit of another job — believed to be Texas. He also was reported to have been a candidate for the Stanford job in 2012.
Long also was responsible for the hiring of basketball coach Mike Anderson away from Missouri in 2011, and he also spearheaded the current $160 million renovation of Razorback Stadium, along with numerous other building projects on the Arkansas campus.
"He's been an unbelievable leader, and it's kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around it — the things that have transpired today," Anderson said.
Senior associate athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples was appointed interim director of athletics pending a search for a new hire.