FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jeff Long couldn’t wait to put his helmet on in fourth grade. He had played flag football in third grade, late 1960s, and tackle football arrived in fourth grade. He loved the game.
Long loved watching the game, too. Growing up in Kettering, Ohio, a Dayton suburb, the whole family would gather around the tube and watch college football. Long would lie on the floor, surrounded by his dad and aunts and uncles, who all had their favorite teams. The debates would rage.
“I loved the game,” Long said. “I’ve grown up loving college football.”
Forty-five years later, the debates still rage, and Jeff Long is putting the helmet back on. Not to play, but to survive the slings and arrows that come with leading the most powerful group in American sport. The Arkansas athletic director, once Joe Castiglione’s chief lieutenant in the OU athletic department, is chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which debuts in this 2014 season.
“Probably the highest honor I’ll ever receive in my professional life,” Long said. “I can’t imagine something more meaningful to me, having put a helmet on in fourth grade and wearing it all the way through college.”
A kid from Ohio who played at Division III Ohio Wesleyan, got a master’s degree from Miami-Ohio and coached on staffs at Rice, Duke and North Carolina State now holds the Star Chamber gavel. The 13-member committee will select the four teams to fill out the bracket for college football’s first championship tournament. Quite an ascension. Quite an acquisition of power.
“I don’t necessarily look at it that way,” Long said from his office overlooking Razorback Stadium. “My feelings are more getting it right for the student-athletes playing the game. I get chills talking about it. That’s where the pressure comes from. To me, it’s not the coaches; it’s not the fan bases. To me, it’s the young men who have put all the work in. I want to get it right for them and I’m confident we will.”
Of course, the players will beef the least. Coaches, fan bases, media. All will gripe ‘til the cows come home. Virtually everyone except those student-athletes will hold the committee accountable. Will place the historic Dec. 7 announcement under extreme scrutiny.
The NCAA basketball committee long has been under the microscope for its tournament pairings and seedings. But the controversies are centered on who gets in or left out of a 68-team bracket. The football committee must send condolences to the fifth-ranked team in all the land, in a sport that inflames passion to dwarf that of hoops.
“When you accept this job, you have to think about that,” Long said. “If you’ve been around football, you know how important it is to the nation. The majority of people on that committee have been in stressful situations.”
Certainly the mild-mannered Long qualifies. He left the coaching rank decades ago, joining Bo Schembechler’s Michigan staff as an administrator and working there 11 years before going to Virginia Tech and eventually, as athletic director, to Eastern Kentucky. It was there that Castiglione called, naming Long OU’s senior associate AD in January 2000. Three years later, Long became the athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh, and on Jan. 1, 2008, Long took over as Arkansas’ AD.
Few administrators have stood in the fire as has Long. First, replacing an icon like Frank Broyles, who coached the Hogs from 1958-76 and transformed Arkansas athletics as AD from 1974-2007. Replacing Broyles in the Ozarks was as intimidating as coaches who had to replace Bear Bryant or Darrell Royal or Barry Switzer. And Long stood tall in April 2012, firing successful football coach Bobby Petrino after he misled Long about a scandalous relationship that went from infidelity to workplace favoritism.
Picking between Michigan State and UCLA seems downright easy after that.
“He has the right temperament,” Castiglione said. “He’s respected by his peers. He’s a person of real integrity, great character. I think he’ll handle it well. It’s a difficult, if not daunting, task.”
Long had no idea his name would be so popular among administrators who offered nominations for the committee. SEC commissioner Mike Slive called Long while he was on vacation in Europe — “between the London Eye and London Bridge,” Long said — telling him to expect a call from playoff executive director Bill Hancock. Even more surprising to Long, he was a unanimous selection among the committee members to be their chairman. Long’s extensive work at a variety of schools, working in four of the five major conferences, no doubt drew such support.
And now Long leads a committee that includes Tom Osborne, Condoleezza Rice and Archie Manning.
“Thus far, that’s been the most rewarding thing,” Long said. “Getting to know the people. Incredible group of accomplished individuals. The fun part is watching us come together and getting to know each other, react to each other.”
The conference commissioners, the management committee of the playoff, say they’ve learned from the basketball process that familiarity and camaraderie within the selection committee makes for better communication. “When we say something out of the box, or something controversial, or maybe not widely accepted, that’s part of the process,” Long said.
Long’s job as chairman is to speak publicly for the committee and to keep it on point during deliberations. And come Dec. 7, he’ll have to explain to the world why Georgia, or Oklahoma, or Clemson, or Ohio State, is in or out.
The kid from the floor in Kettering is looking forward to it.
“I think we all feel we’re giving something back to the game,” Long said. “Give back to a game I truly love. I missed it when I stopped playing. It’s a passion of mine.”
Never fear. The helmet is back on.