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Citizen journalist covers football beat 

A Hog fan stirs a buzz with Houston Nutt’s phone records.

click to enlarge BUSY SIGNAL: Houston Nutt.
  • BUSY SIGNAL: Houston Nutt.

Razorback football coach Houston Nutt has a cell phone and knows how to use it.

From November through December, Nutt made hundreds of calls and text messages on his cell phone in the stretch run of the Razorbacks’ final football games and the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1.

How do we know?

Because his telephone records, from phones donated to the University of Arkansas by AT&T, are open under the state Freedom of Information Act. And they’ve been circulated worldwide on the Internet, with plenty of attendant controversy.

The publicity stems from the work of Searcy resident Thomas McAfee, who works in Little Rock for Alltel. His citizen journalism, if you will, has been cited on sports blogs nationwide and discussed in outlets of conventional media, ranging from Fox Sports to a North Carolina newspaper website.

The buzz stems from three distinct recipients of Nutt’s calls: 1) Teresa Prewett, his brother’s physical therapist and the author of a notorious e-mail to quarterback Mitch Mustain. The e-mail, critical of Mustain, figured in Mustain’s announced departure from the UA. 2) Calls to representatives of the University of Miami and North Carolina State while both universities were searching for new football coaches. 3) More than 1,000 calls and texts in two months to and from Donna Bragg, a Fort Smith TV news anchor. Nutt’s attorney says she and Nutt are active volunteers in a nonprofit project in Fort Smith.

Those are the facts, based on public record. The content of the calls and messages is only speculation — and there’s been plenty of that on the Internet. As a result of untoward implications, Nutt’s attorney, Byron Freeland of Little Rock, has twice written McAfee. He wrote a letter first after McAfee forwarded the results of his FOI request to the UA Board of Trustees with the suggestion that they inquire further. Freeland’s letter said McAfee, in noting some calls to Bragg and Internet speculation, had defamed Nutt. He’s since written again and McAfee has retained a lawyer.

And there it stands, a rumor-driven story that has been widely published on the web and discussed despite the decision of Arkansas daily newspapers and TV news staffs not to cover the story. (To draw a parallel: Remember the wide media coverage given the UA’s threat to sue a Hog fan over a handful of anti-Nutt T-shirts he’d sold?) It is only the latest indication that the mainstream media are no longer arbiters of what gets reported about people public and private.

To date, an oblique reference in a column by Wally Hall in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has been the only direct reference to the matter by the state’s largest newspaper.

Despite lack of major media coverage, McAfee’s reporting has been responsible for nearly out-of-control rumors about Nutt’s employment status. The rumors reached a crescendo last week in advance of a Board of Trustees meeting in Marianna. The board had an executive session on athletics, but took no action.

Among the unfounded rumors prompted by the episode was one — aired on Drive Time Sports and picked up by our Arkansas Blog — that the FOI request had prompted removal of UA coaches’ phone records to the Razorback Foundation. The Foundation claims its records are private, even though much of its money comes from sale of preferred seating at University of Arkansas athletic events. The records are NOT being moved, university officials said. The NCAA must be provided access to coaches’ phone records and text messages to enforce recruiting rules.

McAfee, the 28-year-old who started it all, said he only wanted to find the truth about Nutt’s knowledge of e-mail sent by his brother’s therapist and occasional sideline Hog fan, Teresa Prewett. The unflattering e-mail to heralded recruit Mustain contributed to his announced departure from the UA. Nutt has said he didn’t know about Prewett’s messages until long after they were sent and admonished her when he learned about them. But Nutt’s wife, Diana, received copies of the e-mail. The phone records McAfee obtained also showed Prewett had numerous phone contacts with Nutt on the day the message was sent. Proof of Nutt’s knowledge it’s not. But circumstantial evidence of a close relationship it is.

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