FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said the Razorbacks aren’t where they thought they’d be after opening 2012 at 1-3.
They’re not where they want to be, either, after proclaiming their championship aspirations even after coach Bobby Petrino was fired last April.
But Long insisted the program’s recent struggles will not diminish the quality of candidates interested in leading the Razorbacks in 2013 and beyond.
“I don’t think somebody looks at one season,” Long said. “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.”
Long provided some insight on his search for a coach, while also making it clear he “steadfastly” backed John L. Smith and the rest of the Razorbacks during a speaking engagement at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday.
It was the second time Long has addressed the situation publicly since the losing streak began, adding to comments he made in the week after the Louisiana-Monroe loss on Sept. 8. Arkansas’ season has, of course, fallen even further since the ULM loss after the Hogs were shut out by Alabama (52-0) and lost to Rutgers (35-26).
But Long said players and coaches still deserve support through the difficult times.
He also emphasized Smith would remain in place through his contract, turning away any notion the coach would be let go or reassigned before the season ended.
“He’s going to lead our team through the season,” Long said. “That’s something we made a commitment to in April. We’re going to stand behind that commitment.”
Long, meanwhile, continues to research prospective candidates for the full-time job.
The process began in April, when Smith was tabbed to lead the program through the 2012 season. Long said he hasn’t approached individuals about the job at this point, but indicated he has fielded some phone calls from representatives.
Long said there will be plenty of time to reach out to interested parties when the season ends and wouldn’t rule out college head coaches, coordinators or coaches with NFL backgrounds. He described the long process as a “blessing and a curse.”
“You have a lot of time to spend on a lot of background,” Long said. “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.”
But Long remained confident Arkansas has proven it has the financial means, facilities, and support to showcase its commitment to football. So Long said “without question” the Razorbacks are attracting quality candidates for the position.
He isn’t alone in his view.
Pete Roussel, a former assistant coach who is now the owner/editor of CoachingSearch.com, said the job is an attractive one for a number of reasons.
He said Petrino’s success helped raise expectations of the program and said it’s clear Long and the athletic department is committed to do whatever it can to help Arkansas compete in a conference loaded with heavyweights like Alabama and LSU.
“I do think it’s a top 15 job,” Roussel said putting those factors into his equation. “There’s going to be no shortage of great coaches that want this job.”
But Roussel also believes the Arkansas fanbase may have a say in what happens as the Razorbacks try to navigate through a difficult season.
“Arkansas fans can help the situation,” Roussel said. “It obviously hasn’t worked out the way everyone wanted it to work out, hoped it would work out. One thing that coaches they like is they want to be around good people. They want to know what they are going to be like when it isn’t all going the way we want it.
“Coaches are realistic. They understand you’ve got to win, you’ve got to produce. But they’re aware of the tendency of the fanbase. If the season turns into a dumpster fire and Arkansas fans react in a way that’s just … it could be detrimental.”
It’s a message Long also emphasized during his speech to the NWA TD Club on Wednesday, asking fans to stick with the current staff and players through 2012.
He pointed out a group of 200 students who cheered players as they walked off the practice field last Wednesday. Long also credited fans in attendance last Saturday for sticking around as Arkansas tried to come from behind against Rutgers.
“Supporting this team is the best course of action both for the short-term and the long-term,” Long said. “This team and coaching staff very easily could’ve made different choices last April. Not one coach, not one player left our program. They believed in our program and believed in what we are doing. I still believe in them.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said Long’s support was appreciated.
“It lets us focus on this football team and getting this football team better, which we have to do, which we can do,” Haynes said. “Jeff has stressed that from day one. So when things aren’t going the way we want them to go so far, it’s good to hear.”
Long wouldn’t specify whether Smith is still in consideration for the position past this season, though.
It isn’t likely with Arkansas, which was ranked in the top 10 in preseason polls, suffering through its worst start since 2005.
Long said both parties agreed when Smith was hired “it would be clear at the end of his time whether he would be a candidate or not.” That hasn’t changed for Smith, who is working under a 10-month contract worth $850,000.
Neither has the fact the Razorbacks continue to search for a coach to lead the program in 2013 and beyond despite what is happening on the field this season.
Long maintained the poor start would not hinder the Razorbacks from finding the right fit for a program that continues to carry championship aspirations.
“I think we’ve shown that you can do it at Arkansas,” Long said. “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. …
“If you want to compete, this is the place to come and compete no question.”