Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long is a driven man, so it’s a bit of a surprise when his voice catches while talking about how much sports mean to him.
Sports took Long away from an otherwise factory-destined life in Kettering, Ohio, to the pinnacle of his career field at Arkansas. Long has won national awards for his work as an athletic director, and he was the first chairman of the prestigious College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
None of his career would have happened if athletics hadn’t given Long a chance at a college education at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
“I get chills talking about — I’m a first-generation college graduate,” said Long, who pauses to take a drink of water after his voice breaks. “Sports, even at the Division III level, got me to college; otherwise, I would have gone to the General Motors factory and gone to work like my father did.
“I get emotional talking about it. Sports gave me that access.”
Cynics roll their eyes when big-time college administrators and coaches talk about the importance of developing student-athletes. Sports, especially at SEC schools such as Arkansas, are about winning and making money.
That is true, Long readily admits, but not at the expense of what he believes is a college’s mission. It’s the same mission that Ohio Wesleyan fulfilled for Long.
“Through that experience, I understood the value of education,” Long said. “Today, when I see young people — many of them first-generation — and they get to have that awakening, that enlightenment, even though they came here because they were going pro — there is something inspirational and magical when you see the light come on with an individual.
“The essence of what we do at Razorbacks athletics, that’s the core of it. Yes, we want to win games, and yes, we want to compete and win championships, but we know that the experience and education the young people are getting [is most important].”
Self-Confidence No Problem
Long exudes a level of self-confidence that is apparent after 10 seconds, but that was not always the case.
Long was a typical unfocused high school sophomore when his football coach, Rusty Clifford, himself a young man who had just recently graduated from college, stoked Long’s ambition and drive.
Clifford demanded hard work and accountability from his players, and Long soon became a full-fledged convert.
“He had a confidence in me before I had it in myself,” Long said. “I’ve carried that with me. People who would know me early in my administrative career would maybe not recognize the leader [I am] today. It did come with maturity. It did come with gaining self-confidence. Experience is a great teacher.”
After earning seven varsity letters — four in football and three in baseball — Long graduated from OWU with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He went to work as a graduate assistant football coach at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and earned a master’s degree in education.
After one season coaching tight ends and special teams at Duke, Long hired on as a graduate assistant for legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. Under Schembechler, Long learned two things: one was toughness, and the second was that he didn’t want to live the life of a coach.
“I don’t second-guess my career path,” Long said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of what I’m doing now, and I do think I’m better-suited for this role than I was the coaching role.”
Long also spends little time second-guessing the decisions he has made since taking over Arkansas athletics in 2008. Those choices include the high-profile firing of football coach Bobby Petrino and an announced $160 million expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
He understands and accepts the criticism that comes with his influential position — David Pryor, a former U.S. senator and Arkansas governor, opposed the stadium expansion, for example — but Long said he rests easy with each decision. Schembechler taught Long that toughness is required to do what one sees as right, he said.
“It’s a simple thing: At the end of the day if you can look yourself in a mirror and say you made the decisions you made for the right reasons, you can live through and take that criticism,” Long said. “You know you did things the right way for the right reasons at the right time. You did to the best of your ability with the information you had. That’s the only way you can survive that criticism, because I think that criticism does weigh on a leader if you were unjust or had an agenda. Then that criticism would be hard to live with.”
Long can rattle off some of the things he is most proud of about Arkansas athletics: a cumulative 3.23 grade-point average among athletes, 103 graduates in 2016 and 91 athletes on the 2016 fall honor roll, the most of any SEC school.
He also oversaw the merger of the men’s and women’s athletic programs into one unified program in 2008. The university had planned to phase in the merger over time but decided to fast-track it when Long took over on the first day of that year.
Long was also following in the wake of state icon Frank Broyles, who left his unmistakable imprint on the university during his 50 years as coach and athletic director. Long said it was a unique opportunity because the merger essentially gave him the chance to totally make over the athletic department in his image.
Broyles helped considerably, Long said, by never interfering with the makeover despite his having invested most of his life in Arkansas.
“Very few ADs have had the opportunity to create a totally new athletic program, and that is really what we were given the opportunity to do,” Long said. “Jan. 1, 2008, was really the birth of a new athletic department. It was exciting; it was thrilling; it was hard.”
Long said his experiences at small-school Eastern Kentucky and Power 5 conference school Pittsburgh helped him succeed at Arkansas. Long said he was more of a know-it-all autocrat at Eastern Kentucky — ah, youth — but he relied more on his staff’s guidance at Pittsburgh.
That’s not to say Long has reservations about making a decision and sticking to it.
But he tries to listen to other opinions, even the criticisms that make him re-evaluate his original thoughts more closely, before he makes the final call.
“To be successful, you have to be surrounded by good people who are not afraid to share their thoughts and ideas, and not afraid to have their thought and idea not taken,” Long said. “When I sat down in the AD chair for the first time, I thought I had a lot of the answers. During the course of that, I learned very quickly that I don’t have all the answers.
“The answers are best found closest to the problem. I’ve learned that over time. Make sure the people closest to the problem have a voice in the decision before the decision is made.”