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Being a University of Arkansas football fan used to be so simple. Fans either attended the games or listened on one of a hundred radio outlets around the state. They were ecstatic if the Hogs won and groused if they lost, or felt despondent for months if not years if that loss was to Texas. If the program wasn’t going in the right direction, the UA powers took care of it, sometimes surprising the fans with a sudden “resignation” of a Lou Holtz or the instant disappearance of a Jack Crowe. Or a coach such as Ken Hatfield simply beat the posse out of town. Legendary sportswriter Orville Henry would sum it up in the old Arkansas Gazette, telling the masses why the change was necessary and insisting that better days were ahead.
Simple times, those: Dress up in red on Saturdays, call the Hogs, and if Arkansas only won half its games, there was always next year.
But by 1997, the fan base wasn’t so reliable any more. There were empty seats in Fayetteville and Little Rock.
Then came Houston Nutt, more wins, sellouts at home and nice bowl trips. “SportsWeek” was launched on KATV, Channel 7. Five major Razorback Internet message boards sprung up, plus five hours of afternoon-evening radio sports talk, and then another seven hours in the morning, all over the state. The stadium in Fayetteville was enlarged to 72,000-plus seats and more games moved there.
It was an explosion of passion for the Hogs, like Bellingrath Gardens blooming in spring. Only, Nutt hasn’t kept up with his early success or his promise of contending for a national championship. Expecting great things, the fan base has fractured, with a strong segment of dissidents.
It’s not boring.
“I went through the whole Danny Ford firing deal and I think fans were upset but not polarized like they are now about Houston,” says Mike Irwin, a 30-year television reporter in Fayetteville for Fort Smith’s KFSM, Channel 5. “People are very passionate on both sides. There is not a lot of neutrality here … I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Caleb Larru of Alma is like a lot of young Hog fans. He posts on Internet message boards, befriends current and former players, and he’s cheered the Hogs and coach Houston Nutt for the last decade. But the program’s stagnation and downturn soured Larru enough that he decided to stage a little protest — as a joke among friends, he said.
He created a T-shirt that spelled out Houston Nutt’s failings in his now nine years as coach. Taking the coach’s quote of a “national championship under construction” when Nutt took the job in 1997, the shirt lists a series of “achievements”:
• “0” ten win seasons.
• “0” SEC Championships.
• “0” top 10 recruiting classes.
• “0 for October” 4 out of 8 years in SEC play.
• “0” SEC wins against teams with winning records since 2002.
• 1-11 against Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
• 2 lower level wins out of 6 bowl game opportunities.
• 7-24 against SEC teams with winning records.
• 31-34 overall SEC record, 12 of those wins against Mississippi schools.
The front of the shirt features a drawing of Nutt in headphones, “Moral National Championship” written above Nutt’s image — Larru says that’s in reference to all the “moral victories,” or close losses, of late — and the Nutt quote “Boy I tell ya, we’re so close.” The list on back closes with “This shirt brought to you by the 5 percent club,” a reference to UA athletic director Frank Broyles’ statement last year that he felt only 5 percent of the fan base was unhappy.
Larru brought a few shirts to the Hogs’ season opener against Southern Cal in Fayetteville Sept. 2 and sold them at cost to friends. Many others saw them and requested shirts, he said. His next batch was barely off the screen press, though, when the UA ordered Larru to cease and desist.
Matt Shanklin, the UA marketing director, and Scott Varady, the school’s lawyer, both say that the university was only protecting its license of Nutt’s image in ordering Larru to turn in the 50 or so shirts he’d had printed in Fort Smith. Varady says the printer of the shirts agreed immediately to destroy the printwork. After a week of wrangling over the matter and threatened with the loss of his football season tickets, Larru turned in the remaining shirts before the Hogs’ game with Alabama. But he would not sign a 17-page release that Varady drew up that, among other things, said he could not speak to the media about the settlement and could not produce any more shirts without UA’s consent.
“The biggest thing in this is just that I’m disappointed,” Larru said.
Varady says the university’s opinion is that by common law, the UA owns the name, likeness and image of its employees and wrote that into its contract with Houston Nutt. The legal argument would be whether Nutt is a public figure, like the state’s governor or Bill Clinton or President George Bush, so that anyone could put his image on a shirt or coffee cup with a protest message. One lawyer contacted for an opinion immediately laughed when told the UA believed it owned Nutt’s image.
Shanklin says the UA’s problem was merely with the unlicensed production and the sale of shirts, particularly on campus, which also violated university policy. The black shirt with white lettering contained no trademarked Razorback emblem and did not mention Houston Nutt by name; it only contained a drawn image. Larru sold the shirts at cost, he said.
However, for anyone to legally print shirts that tout the Razorbacks and — according to Shanklin and Varady — Houston Nutt or any coach or UA employee, he or she must go through several steps, beginning with contacting the university for a list of printing vendors licensed by the UA and Collegiate Licensing Corp. In the case of a shirt like the one in question that bears a likeness of Nutt, that also would have to be approved by Nutt himself.
Even if the shirt had said, “We love Houston” or “Save Our Coach,” the university would have pursued action against the shirt seller and maker, Shanklin and Varady insist. The Fort Smith shirt maker was not on the list of approved printers and made a profit on the shirts, Shanklin said.
The UA isn’t happy that the subject is getting a public airing.
“Is 50 shirts really newsworthy?” Shanklin asked.
On the other hand, is shutting down a protesting fan and season-ticket holder for printing up 50 shirts for friends worth the time and effort of the UA marketing and legal departments?
“We would have done this if it was one shirt,” Shanklin said. “I have to as part of our agreement with Collegiate Licensing.”
A frustrated Larru turned the problem over to Fort Smith lawyer Barry Neal and said he’s done with creating shirts, he’s taking time away from the Internet boards, and he may be done with his tickets if Arkansas retains Nutt after this season.
“The issue they should be looking at is not why I made the shirts or how many I had made,” Larru said. “They should be looking into why so many people want them.”
The rancor that’s arisen in the last six years of Nutt’s tenure resembles the national political debate: One side is hell-bent on defending its hero/leader no matter the blunders and malapropisms uttered; the other is determined that the Razorback Nation would be far better off with regime change. On message boards, Nutt supporters often are referred to as “huggers,” while the detractors are the “darksiders.”
The debate extends to the radio talk shows, where handles of daily callers such as “Forrest City Joe” and “Gentle Ben” have become household names with sports fans. “Joe” has been asking relevant questions about Nutt’s direction of the program for several years; “Ben” deserves his “gentle” adjective.
There has been nothing gentle, though, in the debate among the radio hosts. Chuck Barrett, who leads “Sports Rap,” which began on Fayetteville’s KFAY and now is carried nearly statewide by KARN, and Rick Schaeffer, who joins Randy Rainwater on KABZ-FM’s “Drive Time Sports,” also carried via a network to all corners of the state, have taken Democrat-Gazette columnist Wally Hall to task in recent days for Hall’s columns on Nutt’s leadership, possible coaching staff dissension and even Nutt’s climb to the top of the bandstand after Arkansas’s 24-23 double-overtime win over Alabama on Sept. 23.
KFSM’s Irwin said, “I don’t remember a time in three decades where the media was split over a coach. In the past, reporters knew it was their job to cover things [in the athletic department] and they didn’t advocate a coach being fired or retained. What you have right now are people in the media who seem to believe they need to defend this coach and feel a need to go after other people in the media. It’s rather odd. I’m not really sure of the motivation there … I’m a little puzzled what has caused that to change.”
Then there is “SportsWeek,” which features former Razorbacks David Bazzel and Bruce James debating each week’s Hog effort on KATV, Channel 7, known for four decades as the “Razorback Station.” Bazzel was among those leading the parade in rushing the small-college coaching Nutt to the front of the contenders for the UA job after Ford was let go in 1997, and they consider themselves good friends, but Bazzel hasn’t let that stop him for the past several seasons from criticizing Nutt’s offensive direction, particularly of the passing game. James’ critiques, which cover the bad and the good, are now legendary.
“What they say sometimes can’t make the university happy,” admits KATV sports director Steve Sullivan, who anchors “SportsWeek.”
But everyone in the media will say there is no direct influence from UA athletic director Frank Broyles or the university in dictating what they say. When the Hogs are successful, such as in Nutt’s first two seasons or in 2003 when the Hogs opened 4-0 with a win over Texas and a No. 7 national ranking, the talk is going to be mostly positive and everyone will be happy. When the Hogs are tanking in the 2002 SEC Championship Game, the 2002 Music City Bowl, the O-for-October of 2003 and the past two seasons of 5-6 and 4-7 records, the negative comments are certain to be more prevalent.
Hall says that “not once in my career” has anyone from the university told him what to write. “On one or two occasions, Houston has called to discuss my opinion and he wasn’t happy, but he was polite and professional.” He’s also gotten calls from an upset basketball coach Stan Heath, he says. As for Broyles? “I’m way below Frank’s pay grade.”
“The truth is, I’d rather them tell me than go around and keep it all bottled up,” Hall said. “If we’re going to dish out criticism, we have to be able to take it.”
Mostly, the comments come from fans, Hall said. After his column criticizing Nutt’s exuberance after the win over Alabama, “In one day I was called a homer, a hater, a hack and the most talented writer who ever lifted a finger. It was e-mails, phone calls. A really good friend called and chewed me out for 10 minutes, and when she called back a few minutes later she asked when we were going to go to lunch,” he said.
Media people such as KFSM’s Irwin will say that there is subtle influence from the UA.
“They aren’t going to tell you you can’t have a press pass or you can’t eat the pregame meal or you have to park somewhere other than the press parking,” Irwin said. “They’ll say certain things to you or ask you about a report, ‘Is that being objective?’ I won’t say who this was, but somebody questioned a story I had before the USC game and asked if I was being objective and that I was out of line. We were standing right where you could see Bud Walton Arena and I said to him, ‘If that building was on fire right now, would I be out of line to point that out? Well, I think the program’s on fire and I’m pointing it out.’ I was saying, you’re not going to silence me.”
Other subtle messages to the media that indicate Nutt isn’t pleased with the coverage include the closing of most of the practices, which started last year, Irwin said.
“Houston got mad at [Fayetteville-based sports anchor] Bo Mattingly about a story he did and in the course of the conversation Houston said, ‘I can make these players unavailable to you guys [for interviews],” Irwin said. “So, after a recent practice he said the players would be unavailable because they had a team meeting and then had to go to some position coach meetings, but I was suspicious of that because I knew what he had told Bo.
“I don’t believe the excuse that they need to cut down on distractions for the reason to close practices. He always closes practices when they are having problems … They also don’t single out one person. They usually do something that affects everybody … Closing practice to the media is his way of showing us he doesn’t like what’s being said. I think you get pressure that way, but they’re too smart to direct it at an individual.”
Both Barrett and Schaeffer, who are on the two afternoon radio shows, are also employed by the Arkansas Radio Sports Network, which is a division of KATV, and contracted by the university to handle its sports broadcasts. Ultimately, the final decision on who works for ARSN rests with the UA athletic director, Broyles. Barrett does UA pre- and post-game football and handles baseball play-by-play. Schaeffer, who was the school’s sports information director for more than 25 years, is the basketball color announcer alongside Mike Nail, replacing former Hog great Joe Kleine, who was fired a couple of seasons back by Broyles after being too critical on the air of Stan Heath’s coaching.
One would hardly expect Barrett or Schaeffer to be critical of the athletic program. Schaeffer also is widely known among colleagues as being generally positive about everything. Barrett controls his show and the callers who offer their opinions and will influence the direction of the show and its discussion of Nutt or the UA athletic program.
Schaeffer, who started one of the first Northwest Arkansas sports talk shows in the early 1980s and joined Rainwater on KABZ in 2002, notes his UA connections and admits he’s partial. He adds, “I try to give our listeners a rational explanation for why decisions are made. I’m not trying to defend anybody … It’s OK that people have different opinions.”
Schaeffer says the audience outside of Northwest Arkansas is much more critical of the Hogs and is more into rumors. “The further you get away, the more people like to start things.”
“The other thing is, anytime you have a coach that has been around as long as Houston Nutt has, everybody loves new,” Schaeffer said. “People forget that when Lou Holtz was at the end of his career here, people wanted him gone. Then he won a national championship at Notre Dame and people blamed Frank Broyles for running him off.”
The general consensus among the media is, when these shows start going negative, time is up for the coach. They haven’t gone negative yet on Nutt. But Broyles watchers noted that both Barrett and Schaeffer were preaching recently that offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense was “too finesse” for the SEC and that Arkansas needed to be focused on its “power running attack.”
Besides his “SportsWeek” duties, Bazzel spends mornings on Tommy Smith’s KABZ talk show with Wally Hall. James makes once-a-week appearances. Smith, admitting he has been friends with Nutt for many years, nevertheless has been critical on his show and has said that Nutt has called him about it.
Bazzel is a founder of the Little Rock Touchdown Club, a weekly gathering of football fans, which has grown to 500 members in three years. KATV’s Sullivan said the perception in Fayetteville was that the Touchdown Club was also negative toward Nutt. When Alabama sportswriter Paul Finebaum visited the group and gauged its opinion, he closed by saying, “If Houston Nutt called me tonight and asked me, what do you think, I’d have to say, ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem.’ ” Nutt’s agent, Memphis-based Jimmy Sexton, expressed his reluctance about speaking to the club when he noted his visit was to come after Arkansas’s game with Alabama.
Bazzel created the Frank Broyles Award honoring the nation’s best assistant coach, as chosen by a panel of famed head coaches. He maintains contact with the UA athletic director. But, he says, Broyles has never questioned the opinions Bazzel has on radio or TV.
“I know the perception of me on the show with Bruce, but he’s never once said to me, ‘Can you call Bruce down?’ ” Bazzel said. “It’s never been implied, he’s never brought it up at all, and nobody in the athletic department has said anything at all. Which, to tell the truth, isn’t surprising to me. They know Bruce is his own man. And the manly thing to do to shut people up is to put points on the scoreboard and win.”
Debate on football, media and personalities rages on the many Internet message boards. The leaders among the free boards are Hogville.net, woopig.net and rabidhogfans.com, with Hogville currently topping out at 12,000 members. A staggering 6,000 hits were made in six hours on one post last week concerning rumors about a riff among Malzahn, Nutt and the staff over play calling and use of the sideline headset during the Alabama game. The D-G’s Wally Hall relayed the same information in a column last week. Radio man Barrett took all of it to task and branded the Internet messenger “a liar.” The messenger happened to be Dana Caldwell, the former sports editor of the Morning News of Springdale who now works in Tampa, and who said in his post that if he were still working in Springdale he would have written the story.
(For full disclosure, this writer is one of a number of people with administrative privileges on Hogville.net and posts and writes occasional sports columns on the site).
Orville Henry’s son Clay Henry owns Hawgsillustrated.com, which features a “premium” board of “inside” information. Henry and his staff monitor their board closely for comment that might be seen by the UA as negative. Henry owes much of the early success of his Hawgsillustrated magazine to the support and mailing list of the Razorback Foundation, the athletic department’s fund-raising arm.
Otis Kirk was printing on Xerox copy paper his Arkansas Recruiting Report out of Mena before Nutt arrived, but in nine years has risen to “guru” of Razorback recruiting. He worked for Henry at Hawgsillustrated.com before joining the Democrat-Gazette and moving to Rivals.com, which offers a premium recruiting and discussion website just for Hog fans at arkansas.rivals.com. Criticizing Houston Nutt’s recruiting, which Bruce James often has done on “SportsWeek,” would not be expected from Kirk, who has been privy to Arkansas’s recruiting lists for many years, dating back to his days as a Henderson State University student when he wrote letters to Hog recruits (it was legal for fans to do that years ago, and also legal then for boosters to be given the Hogs’ list of recruits).
The free boards are where the majority of negativism can be found. Hogville.net, with its thousands of visitors, carries the reputation as a “negative” board, though owner Lanny Beavers of Hot Springs says his wish is for a board that ran 50-50 pro-con.
“I like debate,” Beavers said. “I think the board was 50-50 until the Vanderbilt game last year [a stunning 28-24 Arkansas loss at home]. It’s at least 75-to-25 against Nutt now. After the last two victories, I don’t see where it’s let up any, either. People are happy for Razorback victories but unhappy with the coach.”
But, like the rest of the media, Beavers says no one from the university has asked him to tone down the board’s temper.
Things are currently looking up for the head coach, even if the 3-1 record includes wins over Vanderbilt and Alabama that would have been losses but for missed field goals by the opponents.
After this week’s trip to No. 2 ranked Auburn, the Hogs have a “cupcake” October featuring Division 1-AA Southeast Missouri State, a downtrodden Ole Miss and mid-major Louisiana-Monroe, all played in Arkansas.
One of the points of Caleb Larru’s protest shirt was the Hogs’ miserable Octobers. That seems likely to change this year, though it’s not clear that will reunite Razorback Nation.