Heading into tonight’s game against No. 10 Texas A&M, Arkansas has excelled in close games since last September — to the oint where ESPN now deems the Hogs as the SEC’s “Drama Kings.” Arkansas has won five of its last six games decided by eight points or fewer, including three straight overtime contests.
It’s been quite a turnaround from the first 25 months of the Bret Bielema era, when the Razorbacks lost nine straight games by eight points or less. And within that stretch no team has stuck in the side of the Hogs’ program more than the Aggies. In 2014, an unranked Arkansas lost 35-28 in overtime to No. 6 Texas A&M.
Heading into last year’s clash, Texas A&M had slid to No. 14 nationally while Arkansas was still unranked. Rinse and repeat on the heartbreak: the Hogs led 21-13 late in the fourth quarter but eventually lost in overtime 28-21.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long knows this year’s go-around, again in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is big. The winner, after all, will be in the front seat to challenge Alabama and LSU for the SEC crown.
Below are excerpts from Long’s recent interview on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly. We start with Long laying out the advantages of playing this series in the DFW metro as opposed to a home-and-home:
Jeff Long: It’s a big win for us to play down there, in many many ways.
First of all, we all know the recruiting that goes on down there. For Arkansas to have that place. We also know how important it is to play in the world’s most fabulous stadium, Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. AT&T Stadium. That’s huge for us. It’s also where we go to recruit students. We get a high number, high level, a high quality students. It’s our second largest alumni body outside the state of Arkansas. There are many many reasons why it’s a big positive for Arkansas.
I think we’re very fortunate to have the long term contract down there because it does allow us to do so many things. So much presence for Arkansas in the state of Texas.
Bo Mattingly: We talked about how big the TCU win was. What’s the importance of this game. What does it do if you win the game? What kind of impact is it beating a Top 10 team in that stadium?
Jeff Long: The focus on Top 10, I get it. To me, it’s just beating an SEC team on a neutral site. Again, huge for us. Huge for the conference rights, but also in the eyes of the college football playoff eventually. When we, hopefully, we’ll get to that point where that’ll matter. Playing that game in a true, neutral site, is a even bigger bonus for us.
Bo Mattingly: Where are you on replacing the Michigan game? What happened there? Did they just call you and be like, “Hey, we’re out.”
Jeff Long: We had heard some rumors that they might have something going. Kept waiting to hear from them. Heard from a number of other people first. Finally heard from them. Their deal was already done with Notre Dame by the time they let us know and just informed us that they were going to buy out of the contract, which they have a contractual right to do, but it does leave us in a bind. Struggling is a kind word to say. We’re struggling to fill that opening.
Bo Mattingly: As an athletic director, you’ve been approached about other jobs. Did you get a call on the Florida job?
Jeff Long: I’m not sure why people continue to ask me. The last guy had the job for 50 years. Why do you guys think I’m ready to run out of town?
Bo Mattingly: I didn’t ask if you were leaving, I asked you if they called you. Tom, check the phone records.
Jeff Long: We’ll say it for fans because you already know my answer: I don’t comment on searches of other institutions. That wouldn’t be appropriate.
Bo Mattingly: Why have you decided to stay at Arkansas when you could get interest from others? You could seek interest from others. But you’ve, you’re going on your ninth year here. Some people thought you sold your home and maybe you were leaving.
Jeff Long: Seriously, you all know. Some of you have lived here your whole life. Those who’ve been out to other places, this is a very very special place. Northwest Arkansas. University of Arkansas. The natural beauty. The friendliness of the people. It’s a great place. Plus, you know, I think we build our athletic program into one that can compete against anybody.
I’ve said before too, and I hope people don’t take this the wrong way, we are from a small state. We don’t have all the advantages of some of the larger schools or the more populated schools. We don’t have the alumni base. I’m not well with me. I’d respond better as an underdog than I do as the favorite. I’ve always thought of myself as a fighter. I want to fight with Arkansas to win on the highest level. That can be football, basketball, all of our sports.
Bo Mattingly: … Does it feel better [to] win in Arkansas than in some other places?
Jeff Long: I think it does. I know for personally, it does me. When we beat Alabama or we beat LSU, we beat Ohio State. These other schools that maybe have more resources or more things going for them in some respects, yeah, it means more to me. Like I said, I’m always felt like I was an underdog. Again, I got to be careful how I say that. I think we built a program that is not really an underdog to very many people, but the fact that we’re in a state than less than 3 million people, and our University has just recently grown to 27,000 [students], we don’t have that huge alumni base to draw from. But we’re growing and we’re getting better.
On one hand, I’m really proud that we built a program that I think can stand toe to toe and compete against the perceived big boys, but there’s still a little chip on our shoulders that we want to get it done. When we do get it done at Arkansas, doing it the right way, it’s a little more special.
Interviewer: Do you ever feel like people aren’t doing it the right way? Does it bug you?
Jeff Long: Absolutely does. Absolutely it bothers me. Yeah.
Interviewer: What do you tell your staff? What do you tell your coaches when they come up and they go, ‘Hey, so and so school doing this. Look at the success’?
Jeff Long: Turn them in. I’m a big believer, if you’ve got information on people cheating let’s not just talking about it. Of course, there are always rumors. Anybody who has a great recruiting year, they “cheated,” right? So I don’t mean that stuff, that’s coffee talk.
But if you’ve got something on someone doing something inappropriate, I want to know. I’m gonna share it and we’re gonna hopefully get it stopped at that institution…
The above excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity