Two years ago, Bret Bielema led his Razorbacks into a massive Week 2 disappointment against Toledo. It’s a result that’s still inexcusable and perhaps should have been an even larger red flag for fans and administrators than it was, but the fact remains that Bielema led the Razorbacks to an impressive turnaround that season in which Arkansas won seven of their last nine games, including five SEC games.
That’s the story we’ll probably hear from Bielema himself and/or his supporters over, at least, the next two weeks. I’m always among the first to suggest unusual results from prior years are worthless indicators of future success. And if Bielema is not able to quickly get this season headed in the right direction, discord among the fanbase will only continue to grow. Patience in Year 5 is lower than it was in Year 3, as it should be. Frustration with Bielema following the TCU game was understandably as high as I’ve ever seen it.
Does that mean that Bielema’s on the so-called hot seat? The most frequent argument that he’s safe is the massive size of buyout, which sits at $15.4 million throughout the calendar year (it drops to $11.7 million on January 1st). It’s a figure big enough that Long has been subject of criticism himself. Bielema’s original 2017 buyout from his initial 2012 contract was just $6.4 million, so Long more than doubled it following Arkansas’, let’s say, “memorable” 7-6 2014 campaign.
As far as I’ve been able to find, the $15.4 million would be the largest buyout in SEC history, and the only one in all of college sports I’ve seen larger than that is Charlie Weis’ buyout at Notre Dame. Les Miles’ LSU buyout topped out at $12.9 million. If Texas A&M fires Kevin Sumlin this year, they will owe him $11.25 million.
Jeff Long has not been known to spend money in ways that are “largest in the SEC”. Arkansas’ revenues aren’t as high as other teams in the league and while Long has orchestrated the building of some great new facilities on the Arkansas campus, the Hogs don’t have the capability of spending as much as some of our neighbors.
Further complicating the matter is Arkansas’ very recent, high profile stadium renovation. There will be concern that if Arkansas spends record amounts in buyout money, it may have more difficulty in affording the new stadium upgrade. At least that would be the public perception, especially among those who disagreed with the initial decision to spend the $160 million on the football stadium (even though it’s all supposed to come from donations and ticket sales).
Bielema’s buyout, plus whatever would be owed to his assistants and the possible additional buyout Arkansas might have to pay for the next coach to get out of his current contract, could easily be well more than 10% of the actual expansion. And that’s assuming the next coach is more successful and we don’t have to consider a buyout for him in 4-ish years. That’s hard to swallow politically.
The flip side of the issue is the fear of apathy resulting in fewer donations, ticket sales, and merchandise sold. As being a college sports fan gets more expensive every year, the cost of apathy for universities only grows as well, and the offseason is long. How much would it cost Arkansas if it has to spend next winter, spring, and summer with a reputation as a sinking ship?
Also, Arkansas may decide this fall to discontinue playing games in War Memorial Stadium. Since it’s not solely a Jeff Long decision, its unknown if he thinks he can factor in additional revenue from playing an extra game in Fayetteville when considering future decisions. An added game in Fayetteville that includes the stadium expansion should bring in seven figures per game at a minimum (not counting the significant lost revenue Arkansas already misses out on from the extra bleacher seats, suites and club seats that have been available for 15 years). It could make a difficult decision a little easier.
It would be ironic if getting out of War Memorial Stadium, something Bielema has always wanted to do even if he’s never said so publicly, would be a primary way to be able to pay for his buyout and cost him his job.
I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 games. We must remember that TCU regularly fields one of the better defenses in the Big 12 (low bar, but still) and is a more than respectable opponent. Arkansas was definitely not the only SEC team to struggle this weekend, so I do believe there will be opportunities for successes this year. But will it be enough to satisfy a fanbase and administration that’s lived through as many embarrassments as triumphs with this regime?