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The Razor's edge

Under fire, Nutt fights for job as controversy rages on

Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 4:48PM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 7:03PM
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Despite leading Arkansas to its first 10-win season since 1989, Houston Nutt finds himself on the hot seat.
Despite leading Arkansas to its first 10-win season since 1989, Houston Nutt finds himself on the hot seat.
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For the past two months, the state of Arkansas has been witness to one of the strangest soap operas this side of General Hospital. An ostensibly successful SEC football program appears to be unraveling.

A heralded young offensive coordinator left town after just one season. The most decorated recruit in school history will soon follow. Last Saturday, the Razorbacks' Hall of Fame patriarch/athletic director became the latest casualty.

Many figure it won't be long before the head coach joins their ranks.

If you're not an Arkansas fan, you probably have no idea as to the extent of the drama that's engulfed the Razorback State since the end of the season. You might be puzzled to hear that reigning SEC Coach of the Year Houston Nutt -- a man whose team won 10 straight games last season, played for the conference championship and reached a New Year's Day bowl -- is facing rampant speculation about his job security.

Rumors flew this week that a group of Arkansas boosters was trying to buy Nutt out of the remainder of his contract. One group of fans took out a $5,000 ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month demanding he step down. Others held a mini-protest on campus. A visit to the popular message board on Hogville.net this week turned up such subject lines as "If Nutt Were Fired Today," "Possible Replacements for Nutt," "Another Victim of Nutt's Lies" and "If Nutt Stays Here Long Term, will Vanderbilt Become Our Rival?"

It's gotten so bad that the chancellor of the university, John A. White, was moved to issue a statement Thursday saying, "I want to be abundantly clear -- the University of Arkansas is committed to head football coach Houston Nutt's leadership of the Razorback football program." Over the past two weeks, Nutt has made an unsolicited call to a Little Rock radio show to defend himself and sat for a lengthy newspaper interview in which he might as well have been on trial. And last weekend, Nutt's boss and chief supporter, 82-year-old AD Frank Broyles, announced his retirement effective at the end of the year, a move most believe was not entirely up to him.

"I've never experienced anything like this before," Nutt, the former Razorbacks quarterback and 10th-year head coach, told SI.com on Thursday morning. "To win a Western Division championship, 10 games, [produce] a Doak Walker award winner and Heisman finalist [Darren McFadden], it's just been unbelievable. It's a little bit sad."

What exactly did Nutt do wrong? In a nutshell, he sold his soul to land a prominent recruit -- and it backfired.

The Springdale saga

The subjects at the center of this storm are quarterback Mitch Mustain, the 2005 Parade Magazine prep Player of the Year who started eight games as a freshman for Arkansas, and Gus Malzahn, Mustain's former coach at nearby Springdale High. Nutt hired Malzahn as offensive coordinator days after Mustain backed off an oral commitment to the Razorbacks in December 2005. Malzahn, whom Rivals.com named its national Offensive Coordinator of the Year last season, left in January for Tulsa when he learned Nutt was hiring Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach (and former Nutt assistant) David Lee to serve as a co-coordinator. Mustain asked for his release shortly thereafter. Last week, the quarterback visited USC, where another former Springdale and Razorback teammate, receiver Damian Williams, has already transferred.

The departures of Malzahn and Mustain -- who had been the faces of Arkansas' promising future -- shocked Razorback followers, who have since divided themselves into two camps: those who believe Mustain and the rest of his Springdale posse were spoiled brats who damaged the program, and those who believe Nutt lied and broke promises to both the Springdale crew and the public regarding the direction of his program.

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