After two straight disappointing seasons in a row, Houston Nutt had to make a change. He had to make a change because he was 9-13 over the previous two years as 2005 came to a close, his streak of sometimes unlikely bowl seasons at Arkansas broken, his position increasingly under attack from fans.
So Nutt decided to turn to nearby Springdale High School, hiring head coach Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator and recruiting several players from the team, including quarterback Mitch Mustain. Two years later, Nutt would no longer be coach at Arkansas. Three years later, Malzahn would be offensive coordinator for Auburn. And Mitch Mustain would be languishing on the bench at Southern California. All of this after Arkansas went 10-4 and won the SEC West in its fateful 2006 season.
The Nutt saga was always entertaining and rarely predictable. But it was also one of the uglier episodes in the SEC over the last decade. Not simply because of what happened -- there are still some divisions among Arkansas fans about that -- but also because a fan base of a team that had actually done quite well tore itself apart with the entire nation watching.
|12/15: What a Decade It's Been; Mike Price's Trip to Pensacola|
|12/16: The Zook Experiment; Georgia Hires Mark Richt|
|12/17: Best Game; Auburn's Rise and Fall; Rivalry of the Decade|
|12/18: Worst Game; The Rise of the Nicktator; The Promise|
|12/21: Exit Phil Fulmer; Best Player|
|12/22: Best Team; Worst Program|
Most of the problems started after Nutt decided to abandon Malzahn's offense shortly after Arkansas began running it -- essentially following the first game. To be fair, Southern Cal annihilated Arkansas 50-14 at home in that first game, enough to make anyone rethink their offense. (At least it was better than the 2005 trip to Los Angeles, which ended in a 70-17 Trojan victory.)
On the surface, the move caused a renaissance for the program. Arkansas won 10 straight games, including defeating then-No. 2 Auburn. The Hogs won the division and would go to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2002. Oh, and some guy named Darren McFadden was doing a pretty decent job running the football for Arkansas. He would end up going to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation as runner-up.
But the program was falling apart behind the scenes. Mustain was benched after throwing an interception during the first possession of the South Carolina game -- Casey Dick would lead Arkansas to a 26-20 win -- and Malzahn could not have been pleased with seeing his beloved playbook ignored. Some began to speculate that Malzahn had been hired less for his offense than to make sure his quarterback committed to Arkansas.
After a two-game losing streak to LSU and Florida -- who would only go on to win the national title -- the tensions burst into the open.
Parents of the players from Springdale High School met with Athletics Director Frank Broyles to discuss the direction of the football program. Parents not generally being acknowledged as experts on college football, this was curious to some. But it was all OK. We know because Mustain's mother released a statement telling us so.
"It was agreed by all parties involved that the head coach has the valid right to determine the direction of the program and the manner in which the team would develop," she said.
His mother having defined the job responsibilities of his head coach, Mustain began to turn down talk of transferring. Damian Williams, a wide receiver from Springdale, did not.
Meanwhile, a book by Kurt Voigt on the 2005 Springdale team quoted Mustain as having less faith in the Arkansas coach than his mother's statement.
"We're doing more stuff on offense every week on a high school team than they are. And they're in the SEC," Mustain is quoted as saying. The high school senior goes on to describe the Razorbacks' conservative game plan as the "same old boring offense."
According to the book, Mustain also made an off-the-cuff comment last year after Nutt took credit for a play call following an Arkansas win. The quarterback said Arkansas "would have a better chance of getting me" if Nutt were fired.
It wasn't long before bloggers were comparing the situation at Arkansas to a telenovela while ESPN combined the football problems with some other stories to run -- I kid not -- a nearly weeklong special report on the state of Arkansas' athletics department.
Lest we forget the electronic communications that added a whole new level of bizarre to the story. Humanitarian and Arkansas booster Teresa Prewett wrote a loving e-mail [EXTREME CONTENT WARNING] to Mitch Mustain that began:
Hello Mr. Interception King:
Are you having a good morning? I'm sure you are since your precious name is in the paper again. Why in the hell did you come to Arkansas?
And in between passages that veered from homophobia to four-letter words and back again, she also managed to insult the blind.
Did I mention that I want you to transfer? Helen Keller could read defenses in the SEC better than you.
And helpfully copied a member of the Arkansas media.
To reiterate: This was during a season in which Arkansas WON 10 CONSECUTIVE GAMES.
Mustain transferred to Southern Cal, as did Williams, after the season. Two other players from Springdale left the program. Mahlzahn left to become co-offensive coordinator for Tulsa.
Most fan bases would have been happy if the story had stopped there. But these were Arkansas fans. And some Arkansas fans, as we were learning by this point, are special.
So they filed a Freedom of Information request for Houston Nutt's text message records. And while the messages themselves weren't recovered, records showed that Nutt had texted, between Nov. 30, 2006, and Jan. 11, 2007, a local anchor named Donna Bragg a mere 1,063 times. (For those of who aren't good at math, it averages out to almost 25 a day.)
When people drew the conclusion that something might be up when a man texts a woman who is not his wife almost 25 times a day, Nutt was forced to respond. He denied anything inappropriate in his relationship with Bragg.
"My communications with Ms. Bragg have concerned her work as a professional fundraiser for a non-profit organization dedicated to providing services to the developmentally disabled, her insights regarding the media, words of condolence and support regarding the loss of my mother-in-law after her battle with cancer, and information relating to her close friend who was diagnosed with cancer," Nutt wrote.
Apparently her close friend crossed Nutt's mind 19 minutes before the Capital One Bowl.
Some Arkansas fans found a more low-tech way of conveying their feelings for Nutt: They flew planes over the stadium calling for him to leave Arkansas. Nutt and his wife were beginning to think that
a portion of the Arkansas fan base was bonkers they might need to go somewhere else.
"I thought I was going to retire there," Nutt said. "But (wife) Diana and I knew that ninth year ... we'd go to Atlanta (for the SEC title game) and people still not very happy. Last game (in '07), beat LSU, third Cotton Bowl, still some people are upset, because of the handling of Mitch Mustain.
"We thought, ‘It's probably time. Probably time to make a move.'"
That would have been the eventual national champion LSU Tigers, who lost a 50-48 triple-overtime thriller to Arkansas that nearly knocked the Bayou Bengals out of the BCS title game.
By then, the relationship was too far damaged to be repaired. Broyles called Ole Miss -- which fired a coach for, you know, losing football games -- and asked the Rebels to consider Houston Nutt for the job in Oxford. Pete Boone didn't take long to decide to hire a coach who, you know, won football games.
Mustain attempted 16 passes for Southern Cal in 2008, but otherwise has not played. Malzahn went on to become the offensive coordinator at Auburn after Gene Chizik became head coach on the Plains in the wake of the 2008 season.
Arkansas hired Bobby Petrino to take over its program. This was notable because Petrino had previously been the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons. And by "previously," I mean the day before, during the Falcons' 13th game. Funny thing -- they play 16 in the NFL. Petrino made this up to his players by leaving each of them a form letter "explaining" his decision. The hiring was announced in a bizarre late-night press conference that seemed to include reporters cheering for the new coach, something that in other parts of the country would be considered a breach of journalistic integrity.
And Nutt went on to lead the Rebels to two consecutive Cotton Bowl appearances, though this team underperformed expectations that it might contend for the SEC West. Ole Miss fans seem to be a bit more forgiving of this, considering that he does win football games; Nutt has a 17-8 record in Oxford so far. Then again, rumors that he was interested in Kansas' head coaching haven't helped his position. Just as long as fans don't request his text records.