FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Dave Gearhart watched athletic director Jeff Long’s public announcement about the firing of football coach Bobby Petrino on television, just like the rest of the country.
The Arkansas chancellor, who didn’t attend the news conference based on the advice of the school’s attorneys, called the visibly shaken Long immediately afterward to offer his support and express his admiration.
Even then, away from the glare of the national spotlight, Long struggled to collect himself after discussing the 2012 departure of the scandal-ridden coach. It was a moment that told Gearhart his athletic director had the human touch to go along with his long track record of professional success — and could handle any situation.
“He’s a pretty cool customer,” Gearhart said. “I’ve seen that so many times. He doesn’t bend under pressure. I’ve never seen him lose his temper, I’ve never seen him get rattled, even back during the Petrino crisis.”
As intense as that spotlight was, it is nowhere near what he will face on Sunday as chairman of the committee that will announce the teams in the first College Football Playoff. Long has explained the committee’s thinking and rationale six times this season — often on Twitter — beginning with the first rankings on Oct. 28.
None had the finality that will come Sunday, when several playoff hopefuls will be left out of the final four. It’s a highly charged moment the Ohio native has prepped for at stops such as Michigan, Virginia Tech, Eastern Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Arkansas during his career.
“I know this: We will select four teams,” Long said. “I can’t tell you whether somebody’s going to think 5, 6, 7 and 8 deserves to be in that top four. But I can also tell you it will be the most highly scrutinized, debated, reviewed rankings in the history of college football, without question.”
While pressure comes in various scales, Long has faced plenty inside Arkansas since taking over for legendary athletic director Frank Broyles at the beginning of 2008.
More than anything, the transition from nearly 50 years of Broyles’ influence in the athletic department — both as football coach and athletic director — provided the early challenges as Long tried to respect the past while putting his mark on the future at Arkansas.
It wasn’t until his firing of Petrino, though, that Long caught the attention of the nation — including then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.
Bielema had met the athletic director while he was still at Pittsburgh, but it was the Petrino news conference that prompted him to send a hand-written note of support to Long. Less than two years later, it was Long who hired Bielema to rebuild the struggling Razorbacks.
“I knew, you could tell by the expression, that he gave during that talk that he was a man of compassion, there was a human element to this business that really attracted me,” Bielema said. “Since that point, nothing has changed.”
Long was first approached about serving as the chairman of the selection committee last year. Somewhat surprisingly, he was hesitant — a reluctance he expressed to Gearhart when discussing the possibility.
The pressure of chairing such a scrutinized committee wasn’t Long’s primary concern. Rather, he knew the appointment would take him away quite a bit from his daily duties at Arkansas. At the least, he’s watched a lot more games on television than ever before.
It was Gearhart, who had already known of the upcoming appointment from Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive, who stepped in and told Long “this is something you can’t turn down.”
Following Long’s appointment, the Dallas Morning News reported last November that he was one of three finalists for the Texas athletic director position that was eventually given to Steve Patterson. That interest resulted in Long’s second raise in 13 months at Arkansas, with his salary now at $1.1 million annually.
Gearhart said Long’s track record of success and high-profile status have likely given him the “ability to go about any place he’d want.” However, he said Long has turned down numerous overtures from other schools and that the athletic director “is committed here.”
“Yeah, I worry about it,” Gearhart said. “You always have to be on guard, and that doesn’t suggest he’s not loyal to this place, but life is what it is and he’s going to have a lot of opportunities.”
Before Gearhart accepted the position as chairman of the search committee for Slive’s replacement, he approached Long to see if he was interested. Long, a married father of two daughters, told the chancellor he wanted to remain on a college campus and was happy at Arkansas.
“His name was, frankly, at the top of the list for that job,” Gearhart said.
Whether his position as chairman leads to future high-profile positions, it’s still unlikely Long will ever face as much scrutiny as Sunday.
So far, his career has shown he’s ready for the moment.
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