FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas athletic department achieved a hard-earned goal when the clock struck midnight Wednesday.
The Razorbacks are no longer under an NCAA cloud for the first time since 1997.
Arkansas’ status as a repeat violator in the NCAA’s eyes, which had stemmed from a string of major infractions cases and periods of probation in sports like football, men’s basketball and men’s track and field, finally expired. Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long called it was a major accomplishment for the athletic department, one the Razorbacks had been targeting since his arrival on campus five years ago.
"This has been a goal," Long said Wednesday, hours before it expired. "We’ve talked about it not only in our annual meetings, but in our monthly department staff meetings. We’ve put that goal out there. I’m excited about our next department meeting because, again, we will celebrate to a degree because it’s a significant accomplishment by coaches, student-athletes, staff, to get out of this window."
Arkansas was actually classified as a double-repeat violator by the NCAA before the window finally expired Wednesday.
Sanctions in men’s basketball began the 15-year period in 1997. The football program was subjected to three years of probation and scholarship losses in the Ted Harrod and J&H Truck Service case a few years later. Then came the major infractions case in track and field on Oct. 25, 2007, which resulted in Arkansas vacating two NCAA championships and serving three years probation.
The NCAA probation period for the men’s track expired two years ago. But the repeat violator status that came with it stretched for five years, subjecting the Razorbacks to harsher penalties if other major NCAA violations occurred.
Long said Arkansas wasn’t "holding a trophy" over its head after the window expired Wednesday. But he believed plenty of credit was due to his staff and coaches for helping to "build the reputation" of the program the past few years.
"I’ll be honest: our reputation with the NCAA was not good," Long said in regard to the 15 years under an NCAA cloud. "They looked at us as a program that didn’t understand compliance, had not made a commitment to compliance. …
"It’s something we weren’t proud of before. But now we can feel like we are an honorable member of the NCAA and the SEC when it comes to compliance."
Long said Arkansas focused on improving its efforts in compliance since his arrival. There has been a noticeable growth in personnel within the department, which went from three full-time staff members to five with two graduate assistants.
While it’s not the largest in the SEC, Long believes it’s the best. He credited senior associated athletic director Jon Fagg and associate athletic director Tracey Stehlik for their work in changing the culture in compliance the past several years.
"One of our goals was to change compliance from the bad cop so to speak to someone that is seen as, ‘Hey, this is an assurance to help you coach not make a mistake,’" Long said. "So you should embrace the compliance staff. You should welcome them. They’re not here to get you. They’re here to protect you."
The end of the repeat violator window is good timing for Arkansas, too, with Long’s current search for a new football coach.
Being under an NCAA cloud didn’t hurt Arkansas in attracting former football coach Bobby Petrino or basketball coach Mike Anderson for their respective positions the past few years. But Long said Arkansas’ efforts in compliance will be noticed.
"I would think the vast majority of coaches want to do things the right way, work very hard to do the right thing," Long said. "They want an athletic program that has the resources to support them in doing it the right way. I think that will send a very positive message to any prospective coaches as they look at our program."
But Long also wanted to make two things clear as the NCAA window expired.
It doesn’t guarantee Arkansas will remain free and clear of any NCAA rules violations in the years to come. But he stressed the Razorbacks will not relax moving forward as they work to maintain their new status clear of any NCAA clouds.
"In the message that I shared with the chancellor, we’re proud to have reached this benchmark and have come out of this period, this repeat violator status," Long said. "But I wanted to assure him our resolve is still here and we’ll continue to work to guard against them. But also share that should we find a major infraction, we will not turn our backs, we will not turn our heads, we will investigate it and carry it through to the full extent of the NCAA rules.
"We’re adamant and we’re quite resolute on continuing to make compliance and important part of our program."