A final thought on each team before the 2012 season begins. Inspired by Off Tackle Empire
The SEC never lacks for interesting personalities. There are the obvious ones like Les Miles, of course, and the players who come along every once in a while and are worth watching almost as closely in press conferences or on Twitter as they are when they take the field. As much as we generally like to knock the media for "narratives" during the season, it is part of what keeps us watching -- what odious historical regime is Derek Dooley going to compare his team to this week?
But for my money, the most interesting person in the SEC this year isn't a head coach, and it isn't even close. The most interesting man in the SEC this year is Jeff Long.
Not because Jeff Long is that interesting a fellow to begin with; he is the same mix of business acumen and school boosterism that you get in most athletics directors. Instead, it's the minefield that Long will have to navigate sooner or later that makes him so fascinating.
Consider that he will be weighing the performance of an interim head coach leading a dark-horse national title contender in the most difficult division in college football -- and trying to decide where to go with the program if that coach doesn't work out.
Long is in this position, of course, due in no small part to his own decisions. He decided to fire Bobby Petrino despite the coach's history of winning generally and at Arkansas in particular. (Though one could argue that Petrino really made the decision for Long.) He decided to hire John L. Smith to a one-year contract. And he will be the man who will decide, at the end of the season, whether to give Smith another year or two or three at the helm or to go in a different direction.
The thing that's so fascinating about that decision is, as much as I can remember, Long's decision to fire Petrino and hire Smith for one season is unprecedented. When Jim Tressel resigned under pressure at Ohio State, the school promoted Luke Fickell to be interim head coach. Essentially the same thing happened when Bobby Johnson decided to leave Vanderbilt and Robbie Caldwell was promoted to interim. When Mike Price took his ill-fated journey to Pensacola, Mike Shula came from the NFL assistant coach ranks and was given a six-year contract.
What I have never quite seen, and what I'm not sure anyone has seen in modern college football history, is a coach being fired in the spring and a head coach at a different program being brought in on what amounts to an interim basis. That's what makes this such a bizarre and interesting situation.
The thing is, Long has now put himself in a position where any statement he makes throughout the season will be parsed for what it means about Smith's future. It's almost like JohnL Smith is on the hot seat, only he's not really on the hot seat but also doesn't really have any long-term job security.
Get ready for Long to get asked about what it means for Smith if Arkansas loses to Alabama, or beats LSU, or wins the West through a war of attrition between the top three teams, or pretty much does anything. If Arkansas goes 10-2, with the two losses being to the Tide and the Tigers, does he get retained because he did just as well as Petrino's done in recent years? Or does he get fired because the goal of being a dark-horse national title contender wasn't met? Does anybody know? Does Jeff Long even know?
After all, Long hasn't exactly followed the predictable path so far in the aftermath of Petrino's accident. Many thought he wouldn't dare fire a successful coach over a personal indiscretion; he did. Others thought Long was unlikely to poach a short-term hire for head coach, particularly given the reputation Arkansas has after hiring Petrino during the Atlanta Falcons' season; the athletics director did just that. Long seems to relish destroying the conventional wisdom, a pattern that in some ways goes back to the hiring of Petrino in the first place.
And that will give each of Arkansas' games this year an added air of mystery. We don't know what Long is thinking or what his standards for keeping Smith will be -- even as we're watching the games that will decide that fate unfold before us. Long will be lingering in the background of every Arkansas game, even if he would prefer to stay in the relative obscurity that surrounds most athletics directors.
After all, it will be easy to watch a South Carolina game without thinking about Ray Tanner or an Alabama game without thinking about Mal Moore -- but it will be almost impossible to watch an Arkansas game without thinking about Jeff Long, if for no other reason than every game will serve as a reminder that JohnL Smith's position rests entirely on the actions of a man who's proven utterly unpredictable. That attention is unusual for someone in Long's position at any school.
Sure, there might be people who will say or do more interesting things in the course of the football season than Long. But when you look ahead at the decisions he will have to make by the end of the year, there's no one who will be more intriguing than Long. We won't always follow the off-field narratives this year, but when we do, we'll prefer Jeff Long's.
Earlier: Tennessee's relevance