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July 25, 2007
Will adversity bring Razorbacks together?
But Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt might have difficulty differentiating between them.
Most college football coaches get raises and praises following a 10-victory season. Instead, after a 10-4 finish in 2006 Nutt was subject to personal attacks in a tumultuous off-season in which he became the focal point of a debate that divided the state.
Ten years ago, he took over an Arkansas program which had struggled through consecutive four-win seasons. Now, he has presided over more victories than any Arkansas football coach except Frank Broyles, has won or shared the Southeastern Conference West Division championship three times and has stayed put despite overtures from Nebraska and Louisiana State.
During the off-season he was accused of being involved in a scandal in which a family friend sent a taunting email to quarterback Mitch Mustain, who has transferred to Southern California. He was also accused of having an extramarital affair with a Fort Smith television reporter – a charge he emphatically denied. An Arkansas man even spent thousands to commission a statewide poll gauging Nutt's approval rating.
About 65 percent approved. Still, who could blame Nutt if he felt unappreciated, told the fans of Arkansas to jump in the White River and looked for a job elsewhere? Instead, on Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference media days, Nutt made it clear he would not be driven out of the job he has held since 1998.
"I had a recent conversation with (Little Rock native and world middle weight boxing champion) Jermain Taylor," Nutt said. "We said, 'Golly, we've embraced Arkansas, and now what a deal.' But I'm going to stay focused and be here in my home state."
However, Nutt acknowledged there was a brief period in which he did consider walking away.
"Maybe for a short, short period of time you thought about 'Here's the keys,' " Nutt said. "But when you talk to your family, talk to your players … there's just no way. We've got too many good things going. You just won a championship. You had Florida on the ropes – the national champion. The guys that we got at the University of Arkansas, you can't let go of that."
Nutt might not have had to think about letting go had last year's losses been better spaced. Arkansas closed the season with three losses, and although they were to LSU, eventual national champion Florida and Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, that wasn't much consolation for disappointed Arkansas fans.
One of Nutt's most distinguished colleagues suggested that inspired the personal attacks.
Nutt feels those problems largely have been solved.
He said the accusations brought him and his wife, Diana, closer together. He believes they had a similar effect on his team. Indeed, Heisman Trophy-contending running back Darren McFadden, running back Felix Jones and wide receiver Marcus Monk even wanted to hold a news conference to voice support for their coach.
"There were a lot of allegations against Coach Nutt," McFadden said. "We felt it was our responsibility as players to stand up and say something and let people know what was really going on inside our program."
Nutt appreciated the gesture, but declined. He felt a new conference would only give his detractors credibility. Instead, he encouraged his players to work out their frustrations in the weight room.
By all accounts that's what they did. Still, up in the Ozarks there remains a concern that the traumatic off-season could derail a triumphant season.
McFadden promised the turmoil didn't have a negative effect in the spring and won't in the autumn, either.
"I don't think they were distractions at all," he said. "We support each other. I don't think it bothered us. It was something we didn't pay attention to."
However, he admitted the team felt compelled to discuss the issues.
"We did have a meeting to tell each other there was going to be media publicity about it, but to keep everything to ourselves," he said. "We got a lot stronger and came together."
Perhaps the unity will spur the Razorbacks on to another season with a double-digit victory total. McFadden, Jones, Monk and All-SEC center Jonathan Luigs head a list of six returning starters that should ensure the Arkansas offense, which ranked 29th nationally a year ago, will remain among the best in the SEC.
The defense has holes to fill after losing All-SEC end Jamaal Anderson, linebacker Sam Olajubutu and cornerback Chris Houston. Still, the return of end Antwain Robinson and linebacker Weston Dacus and getting linebacker Freddie Fairchild back from injury forms a good foundation.
Also, a favorable schedule which includes three Sun Belt Conference opponents, Division I-AA Chattanooga and eight home games seems to set up the Razorbacks for another successful season.
Perhaps it will be a season so good that other issues won't detract from it.
"With all the (negative) attention the (players) felt their season was overshadowed. It's hard to get one of these," Nutt said, displaying an SEC West championship ring. "We've grown closer. We've overcome."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.