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The conversation has already changed. The focus now is on who the next head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks might be.

It is a change many Arkansas fans want and it will come, maybe sooner rather than later.

But first, remember that two good men lost their jobs in the process.

Others are also dramatically affected by the change, or will be, but consider for now the two whose jobs have been a constant subject of debate all around the state for months now.

Gone are both Bret Bielema and Jeff Long, who had been the head football coach and the athletic director, respectively, of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Both had success in their high-profile, high-paying, high-pressure jobs -- just not the kind that counts most in the sports world.

The win-loss tally for the football Razorbacks fell far short of expectations for Bielema, hired away five years ago from Wisconsin back-to-back-to-back Big Ten championships to his credit.

Long hired Bielema midway through Long's own distinguished decade-long run in the top job.

Bielema arrived on campus making a big promise: He would deliver a Southeastern Conference championship for Arkansas. He didn't. His overall record at Arkansas ended at 29-34, including just 11-29 in the SEC.

Nevertheless, what he did do was leave the place better than when he got here, as Bielema himself said a coach should.

Assessing this coach's impact on the program requires remembering what happened when a winning but philandering former coach wrecked his motorcycle, his reputation and, to some degree, the Razorback football program. That coach, Bobby Petrino, certainly upended the program with his untimely wreck, sending Razorback footfall into limbo under an interim coach.

The motorcycle incident ultimately exposed the affair Petrino was having with a woman he hired into the athletic department. The scandal led to Petrino's dismissal by Long, who rightly drew praise for his handling of the matter.

Long's subsequent decision to put John L. Smith in as interim head coach unfortunately didn't help things. But Long followed up with Bielema, fully expecting the then-successful Wisconsin coach to turn the Arkansas program around.

Long stuck by Bielema, saying as recently as September that he remained "100 percent" behind the football coach.

"He's building a program and he's doing many, many things right," Long said then.

His stout defense of Bielema apparently had a lot to do with why the UA Board of Trustees met at length behind closed doors with Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz a while back as Long sat outside, never invited in.

A week later Steinmetz would fire Long and release a statement that said Long had lost support from many fans, alumni, key supporters and university leaders.

Steinmetz also named Julie Cromer Peoples as the interim athletic director. It became her job to fire Bielema just minutes after the Razorbacks lost to Missouri last week.

The decision, although expected, seemed abrupt and insensitive. It was abrupt. It was not insensitive.

Cromer Peoples quickly pulled Bielema aside immediately after the game to give him the news in a small stadium office.

She later held a press conference and explained the timing, which was intended to give the coach the chance to inform his players before they were to be dismissed to enjoy what was left of the Thanksgiving weekend.

He got to do that and to hold a final press conference that let him speak to Razorback fans, too.

Cromer Peoples has been criticized for the way Bielema's firing took place, but she wanted the UA student-athletes to get word directly, not from outside sources. Nor did she want to dispatch assistant coaches on post-game recruiting trips without full knowledge of the situation here.

All these fans and others who were clamoring for a new coach must realize how competitive the market is. That famed coaching carousel is spinning hard and fast as numerous programs, including several in the SEC, hunt for their next head coaches.

Cromer Peoples asserted herself, saying she will lead the search for Arkansas' new head coach, which also brought her heated criticism. Nevertheless, she is the interim athletic director and that is her job, even if she'll likely do it in consultation with her boss, Steinmetz, and probably a lot of other people.

Also, those so quick to condemn the woman ought to take a look at her resume and at how UA coaches and others reacted to her being named as Long's immediate replacement.

What came across most clearly is the confidence that key people have in her ability to lead. She is also expected to continue the same kind of commitment Jeff Long had to student-athletes of all sports.

The latter sentiment was clearly part of Long's dogged support of Bielema, despite his failure to win more games.

Among the many things Long had said Bielema got right in his job was his emphasis on his players, not just their football skills but also their development as young men.

Bielema gave players support and guidance and he expected accountability from them.

Their off-the-field performance, particularly in the classroom, mattered to this coach. His student-athletes did not disappoint, achieving several academic records during his tenure. And their names seldom showed up on a police blotter.

Bret Bielema did get a lot of things right. So did Jeff Long. And at least some in the fan base respect these good men for those contributions.

Winning matters. But all winning doesn't happen on a football field.

Commentary on 11/29/2017

Print Headline: Bielema, Long winners

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