Arkansas fired athletic director Jeff Long, it announced Wednesday. That’s bad news for Bret Bielema, the head football coach he hired.
“Since coming to Fayetteville in 2008, Jeff has led our department with character and integrity and helped move us forward in so many ways," university chancellor Joe Steinmetz said in a statement. "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."
Julie Cromer Peoples, a former NCAA official, will be Arkansas’ interim AD.
Long hired Bielema five years ago, after the then-Wisconsin head coach reached out to him personally about the job. Long was considered a strong Bielema backer, because Bielema was more or less the off-field opposite of former Hogs coach Bobby Petrino.
The dots here aren’t hard to connect. Arkansas is 4-6 this year and 29-32 under Bielema, with particularly awful results in SEC play. Arguably Bielema’s chief advocate at Arkansas is now out of a job. When athletic directors leave in the middle of bad football seasons, that’s virtually never a good thing for his head coach.
Arkansas has two games left this season, three if it makes a bowl. Those are both home games, one against a ranked Mississippi State and the other against a resurgent Missouri that’s won four games in a row. Arkansas lost last weekend to LSU, 33-10.
So the Hogs’ 2017 season could end in two weeks, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the school decided to fire Bielema then. Fans have been calling for Bielema’s ouster for months (or years, in some cases), and his on-field results have been bad.
Bielema’s buyout is sizable, but it’s not the $15 million monstrosity it was once reported to be. It would cost the school a little less than $6 million to part with him, and that’s just not a huge sum in the realm of SEC coaching contracts.
My colleagues Steven Godfrey and Ryan Nanni wrote earlier this year:
If you’re an Arkansas fan, what IS the highlight of Bielema’s time?
Shutting out LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back wins by a combined score of 47-0 in 2014? (The Hogs would lose to Missouri the next week.)
-The “erotic” kneel to end a Texas Bowl win over the University of Texas? (That Longhorns team finished 6-7.)
-Finally beating Gus Malzahn in 2015, the coach some Arkansas fans blame for fracturing their fan base during the Houston Nutt saga? (Bielema is 1-3 vs. Auburn.)
-Maybe it was playing spoiler to Ole Miss’ best chance at a division title in the modern era on the famous fourth-and-25 play?
That’s certainly a fun memory, but to Hogs fans, the idea that the program would live to spoil a Mississippi program’s conference title pursuit is an insult.
If Arkansas doesn’t have a new athletic director in place — which would involve an extremely quick hiring process — a potential coaching search could get really uncomfortable. Regardless of Arkansas’ ultimate decision on Bielema’s future, not having a long-term AD in place to make the call doesn’t seem good.