Miracle is a funny word. When the subject is the resurrection of Arkansas football as achieved by coach Houston Nutt Jr., Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles gets as wound up as a preacher in a revival tent. "It has exceeded anything that the most optimistic Arkansas fan hoped for," Broyles says, slapping the top of his banker's-sized desk for emphasis. "It's a storybook. It's not real life."
Last fall, in his first year at the helm, the 41-year-old Nutt took a team picked to finish last in the SEC West and went 9-3 to end up No. 16 in the final national poll. Nutt so energized the Hogs' dormant fan base that Broyles saw the need for a 20,000-seat expansion of Razorback Stadium. The $60 million project is scheduled to begin in July.
Five hours east of Fayetteville, at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, people are shouting the praises of Houston's 39-year-old brother, Dickey. The season before he took over the Indians' basketball team, Arkansas State ranked 269th out of 302 Division I squads in the power ratings. Four years later, in 1999, with his 36-year-old brother, Dennis, as one of his assistants, Dickey led the Indians to their first NCAA tournament berth, where they played second-seeded Utah evenly for more than a half before losing 80-58 in the first round.
Now, maybe those aren't really miracles, just exciting turnarounds. But miracle might be the only word to describe the turnaround executed by another Nutt brother, 38-year-old Danny, who works as Arkansas's running backs coach. On Dec. 30, he underwent surgery to stop bleeding in his brain stem. Three months later, after battling blindness and deafness and then learning to walk again, Danny returned to his job at the Broyles Athletic Center. Even his doctor calls that a miracle.
That four brothers grew up to coach at two of the largest universities in their home state is so corny it could have come from a John R. Tunis novel. Tunis, who wrote sports fiction in the postwar era, is a relic of a less cynical time. So, too, are the Nutts.
To truly appreciate the brothers, it helps to start in Fordyce, Ark., a small town that sits about 200 miles southeast of Fayetteville. It was there that their father, also named Houston, grew up hearing impaired in a family of eight. It was there also that he honed the skills that would make him the answer to a trivia question—the only person to play basketball for both Adolph Rupp, at Kentucky, and Henry Iba, at Oklahoma A&M, both Hall of Fame coaches.
After graduating from A&M and settling down in Little Rock, Houston joined two of his two brothers on a basketball team that played deaf teams in the U.S. and around the world. They represented America in the 1957 Deaf Olympics in Milan and won the gold medal. In later years they barnstormed to towns such as Amity and Tuckerman, Sheridan and, as it is now known, a place called Hope, playing against town teams with a showtime style that made the Nutts local legends. Before their father and uncles played, the Nutt Pee Wees—Houston Jr., Dickey, Danny, Dennis and a cousin or friend—would take the floor. "You got four boys," says the elder Houston, who's now 68. "You got to get them to come up right. This way, you get all the family coming to the game."
The Nutt Pee Wees often played kids older than they were, but they rarely lost. Life at home was a series of two-on-two games. The brothers played basketball in the backyard with an eight-foot goal and a volleyball, and in the living room with a Nerf ball and shoe boxes taped over two doorways. When they got on a regular floor, "we could do amazing things with the ball," Dickey says. "Houston was a phenomenal ball handler. I was known for shooting bombs. Danny could get going full speed, slide on his knees and keep his dribble going."
The elder Houston and his wife, Emogene, taught their boys to work hard and respect others. It's hardly surprising that Emogene was named the Arkansas Mother of the Year for 1998 by American Mothers, Inc. "If we heard it once from my mother," Dickey says, "we heard it a million times. Treat people the way you want to be treated." She meant all people, no matter the color and no matter the handicap.
The Nutt boys grew up six blocks from Little Rock Central High, a school that became a national symbol for racial intolerance in 1957, when Governor Orval Faubus's efforts to prevent its integration caused President Eisenhower to order the National Guard to escort black students into the school. They also grew up three blocks from the Arkansas School for the Deaf, where their parents taught for 31 years. Many nights after supper, the brothers would walk to the deaf school with their dad and play in the gym while he put in some extra hours. He asked them to play with only one light on so they would be less likely to draw the deaf kids out of their dorm and away from their homework. When the brothers did play with the deaf students, sound was never an issue. "One thing about the deaf playground," Houston Jr. says, "there was no, 'Hey, Johnny, throw me the ball, I'm open.' Nobody is hollering. When I played basketball for Eddie Sutton at Arkansas, he believed I saw the court better because I had played with the deaf kids."