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Happy days such as this are long gone from Arkansas right now.

Jeff Long went from savior to scapegoat in a matter of 13 months

Eric Bolin

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My, how quickly things change.

Less than one whole calendar year ago Jeff Long had few cares in the world. Athletically, anyway. Sure, support for his football coach began to wane after a smacking at the hands of Auburn. But that’s all it was doing — beginning to wane. Basketball was on the rise and baseball, while coming off one of the worst seasons in the last 30 years, was about to be back among the best in the country. Again.

Now, he is out of a job. At Arkansas, anyway.

Long may not have been on top of the world, but he wasn’t far from it. The only people calling for his job were those who felt like Arkansas should be a regular 10-win football program. Well, and there were those who thought Long was never a fit because he was a “Yankee.”

The embarrassment of a 56-3 loss against Auburn was the first domino. Even if that wasn’t on Long, it was on Bret Bielema, the man he hired as coach. Two weeks later came another: the way Long handled the kneeling protest of the Arkansas women’s basketball team. He and coach Jimmy Dykes came out — publicly, it should be noted, publicly — in support of the women’s right to free speech. Such a protest, however, was ill-received in the state of Arkansas.

That same month was the football team’s collapse against Missouri. In December, it was the Virginia Tech bungling. In the spring, Long fired Dykes, whose values aligned with a bulk of the fan base and administration, but whose on-court results and development of player relationships were downright poor. Then came football again, and, well, you know where that stands.

All in the course of about 13 months, give or take. This is college sports in 2017.

Who replaces Jeff Long?

Search me.

I wrote a five-candidate story and it was arguably the hardest thing I’ve done in four-plus years on this beat. There are simply too many things to take into consideration. Under normal circumstances it’s a hard call. At Arkansas, with a seething fan base, it’s even harder.

There exists this notion Arkansas should hire someone who knows the Natural State, who knows the Razorbacks. At the very least, the next hire should be someone who knows the South. It’s a silly notion but a very real one. Arkansas is largely insulated. They close up ranks quickly and are wary of outsiders. Not completely, and I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush, but I’m from here, know here and have seen countless examples.

That complicates matters. Another “Yankee” or “coastal elite” won’t go over well, whether that’s the right hire or not. That limits the options.

Of course, the board and chancellor could ignore that, as they rightfully did when hiring Long in the first place, too. But given how that turned out and whoever comes next will be just the third athletic director in about 50 years, who knows how they go?

Arkansas football is between a rock and a hard place now

Here’s the thing about hiring a new athletic director at Arkansas right now: loads and loads and loads of people also want a new football coach.

In previous years, the timing would be irrelevant. Arkansas could wait until it hires its next AD, then that AD could fire Bielema — if he or she so chooses — upon performing due diligence. Whether that would be within a week of a hire or a month, whatever.

Things are complicated, however, by the new early signing. Some of the best recruits in the country are going to be signing with their particular schools Dec. 20. What happens if Bielema is the coach then but not, say, by New Year’s? Or what happens if Arkansas doesn’t have a coach on that date? No chance in the world all those recruits would still be committed to Arkansas. Lots would. Maybe even most. But there will be casualties in the class.

The only way this is avoided is if the board of trustees has a plan in place or can get one in a hurry. If a new athletic director is hired before the end of the month and that AD can immediately bring in a coach, things could be salvaged.

Or not. Still have to imagine some de-commits, but, at least with them, Arkansas might also gain the services of players it wasn’t otherwise “in” on, depending on whether the coach brings any of his recruits.

Either way, it isn’t an ideal place for the football program.

ICYMI

Tweets and the like

• Bielema didn’t mention Long’s removal on social media Wednesday, which struck me as somewhat unusual. Not wrong. Just unusual. He had another tweet, instead, which wasn’t so unusual for a coach who preaches focusing on the game.

• Dari Nowkhah is the face of SEC Network. He isn’t an Arkansas fan. He is fan of kind people. Long and Bielema are decent human beings.

arkansas-arkansas football-jeff long-bret bielema

• Long received some appreciation from his fellow athletic directors, too:

• Finally, a personal message from me. Tough day, folks. Tough day.