|Razorbacks can't ignore offseason drama involving coach Houston Nutt|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 23 August 2007 16:35|
The Arkansas Razorbacks are ranked No. 21 in the nation. They have a Heisman Trophy candidate in Darren McFadden, who helped them reach the Southeastern Conference title game last year. Several other key players are also back.
Yet amid those reasons for hope, an uneasy subplot looms in the background: coach Houston Nutt and his offseason of turmoil.
``We're just ready to show everybody that we can still play, and that it's our own football team without whatever went on in the offseason,'' quarterback Casey Dick said. ``We just want to show everybody that we can still come out here and play football.''
Dick's attitude is understandable, because for a while, it was easy to forget about the Arkansas players. For months, attention was focused solely on Nutt, who is entering his 10th season as the Razorbacks' coach.
Fans used the Freedom of Information Act to investigate Nutt's cell phone records. One man filed a lawsuit over a nasty e-mail a friend of Nutt's family sent to an Arkansas quarterback.
Is Nutt a victim of the controversy or is he responsible for it? That's an argument with no end in sight. But now another fascinating question will be answered: Can the Razorbacks reach their potential this season after everything that's happened?
The season starts next weekend against Troy. One thing seems certain - it won't be boring.
``I'm going to back him, everybody's going to back him on the team,'' wide receiver Robert Johnson said of Nutt. ``We're going to go to the SEC (championship game), we're going to hopefully get to the national championship. We're going to prove a lot of people wrong.''
The Razorbacks went 10-4 last season behind McFadden, who ran for 1,647 yards and was the Heisman runner-up. But Arkansas lost its last three games, and trouble began immediately during the offseason when offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left to join the staff at Tulsa. Quarterback Mitch Mustain also left - he eventually transferred to Southern California.
Nutt has faced pressure before, but this was different. Malzahn was a respected high school coach in Arkansas, and Mustain had played for him while becoming one of the most decorated prep players ever in the state.
They both stayed only one year at Arkansas, and soon after Mustain's departure, details surfaced about a critical e-mail the quarterback received in December. Nothing unusual about an athlete receiving an e-mail - but this one was from booster Teresa Prewett, a friend of Nutt's family.
Nutt gave an official reprimand to Prewett, and he has said he did not initially know about the e-mail. Fans have been investigating, though. A 48-page report circulated online, detailing findings from Nutt's phone records, such as contact among Nutt, his brother Danny Nutt and Prewett around the time Mustain received the e-mail.
Thomas McAfee, one of the people who obtained the phone records, has been concerned about death threats. Another Arkansas man filed a lawsuit against university officials, claiming the school did not adequately investigate the e-mail. John David Terry's suit has been dismissed, but his attorney, Eddie Christian Jr., plans an appeal.
Christian says the issue shouldn't fade away once the season starts.
``This case is not about football to begin with. It was about the harassment of a student-athlete - and who was involved with that,'' Christian said. ``Just because it's football season, that doesn't answer the questions that still remain unanswered.''
Nutt also had to defend his private life. Phone records showed he exchanged text messages with the cell phone of a female television news anchor more than 1,000 times over a six-week period. Nutt, who is married, said his correspondence was appropriate communication with a friend and colleague, some of it about her work for a nonprofit organization with which he is involved.
Through it all, the players remained out of the spotlight, but they weren't oblivious.
``Coach Nutt ain't perfect - nobody is. Everybody's going to have troubles and problems,'' fullback Peyton Hillis said. ``But I understand he has to deal with the media and all kinds of people throughout Arkansas. ... Him as a man, he's taken to it very well I think.''
Nutt also had to replace Danny Nutt as running backs coach last month when he resigned because of a persisting condition that involves bleeding in his brain stem. Reports on Danny Nutt's condition have become more encouraging lately.
``He has to work through a lot,'' Hillis said of Houston Nutt. ``We're here to help him.''
Nutt's response lately has been to downplay the upheaval. When practice started this month, he said the drama was ``no factor in what we do here.''
Nutt says he's asked about the turbulent offseason a lot.
``But I'll tell you, we don't ever think about that until somebody brings it up,'' he said.
The players are trying to keep quiet about it, too.
``We know about it and we have our personal opinions about it, but we really never confront it,'' Hillis said.
``For the seniors and some of the juniors, just because we've been with him so long and we know him, it's kind of a rallying point for us,'' Hillis added. ``We want to do well for him and show everybody that he is a good coach.''
It's not clear what percentage of fans are disgruntled - although one fan did his best to find out. He solicited donations and commissioned a poll through an Arkansas firm, but a pair of public opinion experts said the survey's methodology was flawed and the results may have been skewed.
For what it's worth, the poll said 63 percent of those surveyed were either very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with Nutt, and 28 percent were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Each side could easily spin the results: Nutt could claim victory with a clear majority, and his critics could insist they were far from an isolated minority.
Meanwhile, the Razorbacks say they've kept their focus. With McFadden, running back Felix Jones and wide receiver Marcus Monk all back, this team could be as good as last year's. But the Hogs must play Alabama, Tennessee and LSU on the road.
Johnson is one Razorback who seems to have a chip on his shoulder after the offseason soap opera. Now he and his teammates must prove themselves all over again.
``We'll show it,'' Johnson said with a confident smile. ``You'll see it this upcoming season.''