FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said he would do everything possible to follow proper protocol during his search for the program’s next coach.
He planned to exhaustively research coaches to identify candidates for the Razorbacks. He would work through the back channels, finding out what it might take to hire the next head Hog. But all the while, Long wanted to make sure he didn’t interfere with any coach, team or school while the regular season was ongoing.
“In our world, unlike the business world, you don’t just pick out a candidate and go get him,” Long said. “We have some unwritten protocols that you try to follow. They’re getting, to be honest with you, blurrier in our profession – what is appropriate and what isn’t. But I’m going to try to walk that line and not try to invade or intrude upon a coach coaching during a season.
“That is important to me to do it the right way.”
The hurdle is clear now that college football’s regular season is over, opening the door for Long to step into the final leg of his search for Bobby Petrino’s replacement.
He told players during a team meeting last Sunday the Razorbacks would have a coach in place between 10 and 14 days. So, by those parameters, the next hours and days will be used to sit down with candidates, hammer out a deal with one, and introduce him to fans during an on-campus press conference.
The timeline makes sense, considering several coaches who have reportedly been in the mix at Arkansas — coaches like Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Baylor’s Art Briles, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini — just wrapped up their regular seasons or conference championship games last week.
It means everyone is available, technically, to talk about the Arkansas job. And Long said during an interview with “Sports Talk With Bo Mattingly” in early November he didn’t plan to make a hire without a face-to-face meeting first.
“I don’t believe you can simply hire a coach based on his record and what he’s done at another place,” Long said. “You have to have that person sit down, look each other in the eye and understand where each is coming from is very important.”
There’s no exact science to what takes place, how long it lasts and where those meetings are held. It depends on the schedules of athletic directors and coaches. One convenient place for coaching interviews this week will be in New York City, where the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame annual awards dinner is held.
It’s not known if Long plans to travel to New York for the festivities - and a few interviews. But no matter the venue (hotel airport at a neutral site), the timeframe (one hour, five hours, 10 hours) and topics of conversation (from X’s and O’s to fundraising plans), other athletic directors agree the face-to-face meeting is a vital moment in the hiring process.
“A lot of it you might know when you walk in the door,” said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, who hired Butch Jones when he was at Cincinnati and Tim Beckman to lead the Illini last season. “But the face-to-face, you get into the fit, the chemistry, you get a better sense of their personality and how you envision them being the CEO of the program and the face of your program. …
“You just want to validate some things that maybe you’ve seen in their background. Maybe you have some questions or concerns or things you need more information.”
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne has found the right fit twice at different schools the past few years. The first came at Mississippi State, when he tabbed former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to take over the program. Byrne also hired veteran coach Rich Rodriguez to lead the Wildcats last winter.
Byrne said he traveled to see Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, Mich. Secrecy is key in coaching searches, but Byrne didn’t fear his cover being blown for Rodriguez — who had taken the season off after being fired by Michigan — in his visit.
He spent several hours at Rodriguez’s home and even went to dinner with him.
“People weren’t going to know who I was in Ann Arbor,” Byrne said. “So I was able to walk around with him. … I hadn’t painted my body red and blue, so it was OK.”
In the end, Byrne said he learned everything he needed to know about Rodriguez and hired him. But he said it’s not unusual to leave a meeting — or end one earlier than planned — feeling like there wasn’t a fit between program and coach.
So simply interviewing a candidate face-to-face doesn’t mean a hire is imminent.
“You’ve got to feel like there’s a connection there and the way you’re able to communicate the vision for your athletic department and your football program coincides with the vision the candidate has as well,” Byrne said.
The possibility of a bad fit isn’t the only thing that can go wrong. Take the last Arkansas search as an example, when Long reportedly met with both Tommy Bowden and Jim Grobe before hiring Petrino. Grobe appeared close to taking the position, but reportedly had a change of heart and remained at Wake Forest.
It’s the type of snafu Long could face again if he meets with candidates like Patterson, Petersen or Gundy. All three have long-standing ties to their respective schools, enjoying immense success during their tenures. Packing up and leaving – if offered a job by Arkansas or anyone else – isn’t simple when decision time arrives.
“When someone calls, you should always listen, because it’s the right thing to do,” Patterson said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, of the possibility of leaving the program he has practically built from the ground up. “But I’ve been at TCU for 15 years now, and I’ve always let that facts speak for itself.”
So Long’s challenge – in the end – is two-fold over the next few days as his search for Arkansas’ next football coach winds down. Determine which available candidate is the best fit for the Razorbacks. Then close the deal.
He hasn’t been available for comment regarding his search the past few weeks, but Long said in October he’s confident it will be accomplished.
“It’s a big decision,” Long said. “We’ll work extremely hard to get the best person here at the University of Arkansas.”