ENGSTER: Houston... We Have A Problem!

Fifty-year-old Houston Dale Nutt Jr. leads his Arkansas Razorbacks into Death Valley this Friday in what could be Nutt's final regular season game as head coach of the Hogs.

Nutt is 74-48 in a decade at Fayetteville. The previous 10-year span (1988-97) produced a record of 57-52-2 for the Razorbacks. Nutt has improved the program he inherited from Danny Ford in 1998, but it appears he is on his way out as the leader of the Porkers.

Nutt has had a curious relationship with Arkansas for more than three decades. He was a prep All-America quarterback at Little Rock Central in 1975 and was expected to sign with Alabama. Bear Bryant made several trips to the Arkansas capital in hopes of luring Nutt to Tuscaloosa. It appeared Nutt would play for Bryant, his fellow Arkansan, but the recruit snubbed the Bear, who settled for signing Steadman Shealy – a quarterback who led the Tide in passing and rushing yards in the national championship season of 1979.

Houston became the last signee of head coach Frank Broyles in 1976. Broyles, who is departing as the longtime athletic director at Arkansas, made Nutt his final football coaching hire, as well. Interestingly, Nutt is struggling because he is often compared unfavorably to Broyles, the head man of the Hogs from 1958-76.

Nutt started as a freshman for Broyles and also played for Eddie Sutton's 26-2 basketball team in 1976, but he transferred to Oklahoma State shortly after Lou Holtz became the grid coach of the Razorbacks. Nutt received his degree at Stillwater and later served as offensive coordinator at OSU, mentoring the likes of Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas.

Past performance is not sufficient to prevent an onslaught of attacks on the former golden boy of Arkansas. Nutt has weathered rumors of an alleged affair with a Fort Smith television news anchor and had his cell phone records posted on the Internet. There is even a damning Web site devoted to the Razorbacks' coach, titled Houston Dale Nutt Sucks.

Nutt will rue the day he used a state-issued cell phone to correspond with Donna Bragg. Published reports indicate Nutt and Bragg, who have denied any wrongdoing, exchanged a total of 1,311 text messages in November and December of last year – including 32 text messages on Nov. 26 (less than 36 hours after Arkansas lost to LSU 31-26). Nutt also sent a text message to Bragg at 11:41 a.m. – 19 minutes before Arkansas's kickoff against Wisconsin in the CapitalOne Bowl.

The vitriol directed at Nutt isn't limited to Internet kooks. The usually reserved Arkansas Times columnist John Brummett penned a recent entry that concluded, "This Nutt character has had 10 years, which is plenty of time to benefit from the facilities upgrades, the academic gravy-trains and the lifting of probationary clouds. …This one's ego trip has become a tiresome journey."

Max Brantley, the Arkansas Times editor, lifted the Nutt frustration to another level and lashed out at Louisiana in a recent op-ed piece from the newspaper.

"If Bobby Jindal is to uplift Louisiana, he must reorder the state's priorities. Louisiana children remain hungry, sick and illiterate while the state gives all its resources, and all its love, to the football team at Louisiana State University. Let Bobby Jindal say ‘The money that's been spent on football scholarships and weight rooms will now be used for textbooks and free lunches in the schools. Louisiana will no longer tolerate the squandering of its resources on frivolous athletic competitions. Geaux Tigers, and I mean that literally.' If he says it he'll be remembered."

It sure sounds like the state of Arkansas also exhausts ample money, emotion, and time on the football program at Fayetteville. Brantley took a page from Paul Finebaum's toxic waste playbook and ridiculed Louisiana's landscape in his misguided missive. Before he writes again about spending related to LSU sports, Brantley should understand that all funding for athletics at the Ole War Skule is self-generated and doesn't include tax dollars.

Maybe Nutt's replacement at Arkansas will be the current coach at Alabama. It's about time for another move for Nick Saban, who is 21-22 since leaving LSU after the Tide's loss at home to UL-Monroe. It looks like it may take another hire at Alabama to restore the manhood of Finebaum, the Saban sycophant. Mike Price may be available again after his payout from Sports Illustrated. He's 20-15 at UTEP – a better record than Saban has compiled since his defection from LSU.

As for Nutt, Friday's date at Tiger Stadium is his last stand at Arkansas. Houston Dale Nutt Jr. has never won in Baton Rouge, and the Razorbacks have lost 10 of the last 13 matchups with their rivals to the south. The reality is that a victory over the Tigers will not change the fate of the embattled Nutt.

He was born three weeks after his high school (Little Rock Central) was integrated with the assistance of federal troops. A stampede demanding his ouster rivals the protests that erupted a half century ago when nine black students entered the hallowed halls of Central High.

It makes one wonder about misplaced priorities in the Natural State.


Jim Engster is the general manager of Louisiana Network and Tiger Rag. Reach him at jim@la-net.net.

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