J.R. and Henry: Chaos, and everything after
Just when we thought losing Gus Malzahn was as bad as it was going to get, Mitch Mustain, the heralded high school all-American and 8-0 starter for the Arkansas Razorbacks requests a release from his scholarship. That means, in no uncertain terms, that he is leaving the football team. Who can blame him?
This entire situation has become more entertaining and more outlandish than a Ringling Brothers Circus. Barnum and Bailey couldn’t put together a better time. But as much as we have chuckled at the spin (Did anybody hear Frank Broyles on Drive Time Sports? The unintentional comedy scale was off the carts.) the reality of the situation is this: Arkansas Razorback football is in a freefall. And Houston Nutt is the problem.
This all started, as we now know, when Athletic Director Frank Broyles demanded that Houston Nutt hire an offensive coordinator. Why? Because after back to back losing seasons and an offense that looked more like what we being run in junior high games, it was time for someone with some sense of how to coach a passing attack to step in. Was it a vote of no confidence for Houston Nutt, who had been calling the plays for the past eight years? You bet it was.
Several coaches were in the mix for the job, including David Lee, whom the Dallas Morning News now reports will take over as the offensive coordinator. Gus Malzahn, then coach of the Springdale High School Bulldogs, was approached about playing a supporting role as a wide receivers coach. He declines. He’s then re-approached with the offensive coordinator job and play calling duties. His offense, presumably, would be the offense of the future at Arkansas. Lord knows it’s 100 times more advanced that the Tecmo Bowl crap Nutt was throwing out onto to field.
So Malzahn agrees. And with him come three of the most talented recruits in Arkansas high school football history. But the season starts and this happy marriage begins to disintegrate.
It starts with the USC game, where Arkansas gets hog tied by a much better Trojan team. It was clear from the get go that Arkansas was running the same tired offense. It resulted in 5 turnovers, none of which came as a result of the HUNH or Mitch Mustain. In the second half, with the game out of hand, Nutt inserts Mustain into the game and they start playing fast. What happens? The Razorbacks score, with relative ease. That’s the only time the Hurry Up-No Huddle was used this season. To suggest otherwise is to be completely out of touch with reality.
But after this game, Broyles intervenes and according to conflicting reports, loses confidence in Malzahn. For what reason, we don’t know. Nevertheless, with the exception of the Wildcat (a formation brought by Malzahn and adopted by many coaches around the country this season) and a few trick plays, Malzahn’s play book is scrapped. Arkansas doesn’t even bother to employ the HUNH (a 2-minute drill used throughout the game) when the time required it. Remember Tennessee? Arkansas had the ball with about two minutes to play before the end of the first half. Did they run it? Nope.
All the while this is going on Gus Malzahn is being referred to in practice as “high school” by the other coaches. There are reports that during spring practice Malzahn was berated constantly by Defensive Coordinator Reggie Herring. That had to be fun for Malzahn, who, by all accounts had a more sophisticated understanding of offense than any of the Murray State Mafia (Danny Nutt, Mike Markuson, Houston Nutt).
The season comes and goes. Mustain plays well, and then he doesn’t. Dick plays well and then he really doesn’t. The offense goes from good to really bad and the Hogs, under Nutt’s direction, blow a shot at a SEC title, a BCS title, and a BCS bowl bid.
When the season ends, there are lots of questions by concerned fans. What happened to the offense? Why can’t we pass? You can’t give it to McFadden and Jones every single play. Concerns arose about Malzahn’s future. But those concerns were put to rest when a contract extension for Malzahn was said to be a formality, and Malzahn was named offensive coordinator of the year by Rivals.com.
But then Nutt pulled out the knife and he jammed it right in Malzahn’s back. Not literally, of course. But behind Malzahn’s back he contacts David Lee, who, when he was here as a quarterback coach, helped coordinate a passing attack that generated 146.6 and 134.6 passing yards per game in two years. Wow. That’s the exactly the type of coach that Broyles had in mind and that the fans deserve. Sike! Remember, David Lee was also once the head coach at UTEP. He led them to 11 wins in 5 seasons, winning 2 games total in his last two seasons (for the record, under the last two seasons under Mike Price UTEP has won 13 games).
Malzahn comes to understand that something is going on and calls Nutt. Nutt informs him that he’s going to be relegated to wide receivers coach only and that someone else is going to be brought in to serve as offensive coordinator. Malzahn, with the knife still in his back, places a call to newly hired Tulsa coach Todd Graham and asks if there’s a spot for him. Graham says of course and within hours Malzahn is the new co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa, scripting and calling plays in a Hurry Up – No Huddle offense.
One thing that people need to be reminded of is that Gus Malzahn made a name for himself long before Frank Broyles and Houston Nutt came calling. As Graham noted in a radio interview with a Tulsa station, he first heard about Malzahn 10 years ago from Rich Rodriguez, now the very successful coach at West Virginia. Graham and Rodriguez were talking and Rodriguez told Graham that he needed to check out a video that a high school coach at Shiloh Christian in Arkansas had produced about a type of offense that called for a 2-minute drill style then entire game. Intrigued, Graham looked at the video and called Malzahn. They’ve been friends every since.
So you see, Razorback fans, Gus Malzahn, then a coach at small high school in Arkansas, was so advanced in his thinking that he caught the eye of one the most successful coaches in college football long before he became that success. Rich Rodriguez has won a Sugar Bowl and numerous Big East titles. His teams have consistently been players on the national state since his second year.
And that’s just one example. Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino, Charlie Weiss and others have commented that their playbooks have incorporated some of Malzahn’s schemes. We all know that the Wildcat package, one of Malzahn’s inventions, has the ability to be one of the most widely used schemes in the game. Guess what? It’s a running scheme!
But our desire is not to litigate the merits of the Hurry Up – No Huddle. Malzahn’s gone and the style will never be used at Arkansas so long as Houston Nutt is the coach. Regrettably, we’ll be back to the run-run-pass options of the past. As we said, Tecmo Bowl.
Within 24 hours of Malzahn announcing he’s leaving, Mitch Mustain, who amassed an 8-0 record as a starter at Arkansas asked for his release. He didn’t give reasons why, but it’s clear that he was treated just as bad as Malzahn. And all he did was win games. A lot of them.
For Razorback fans who want to come after Malzahn and Mustain, don’t. Take a breath. It won’t matter what you say about them now because they’re gone. While, Arkansas will not be better without them (There’s nothing statistically, empirically or instinctively that supports such a conclusion), we all have to deal with what’s left.
And what’s left is a program that has become, slowly over the past eight seasons, a national joke. It’s no one’s fault but Nutt. And he needs to go.
If you want more reasons than those from the past 8 years, especially his handling of this entire mess, then look no further to Arkansas recruiting. Ft. Smith Northside quarterback Kodi Burns is committed to Auburn. Rogers lineman Lee Zeimba is committed to Auburn. Pulaski Academy running back Broderick Green is on his way to Southern California. Springdale wide receiver Zach Pinalto is going to North Carolina. These are four of the best players in Arkansas and players the Razorbacks, even before the departures, desperately needed. You have to protect your home turf.
Nutt hasn’t been able to and it stands Arkansas is going to sign a recruiting class than ranks 9th of 10th in the SEC. When in-state recruiting got this bad under Lou Holtz, he was shown the door despite his accomplishments.
Unless Arkansas wins an SEC Championship next season and a BCS bowl game, nothing is going to change for the state of Arkansas football. Since neither of those things has ever happened in Nutt’s tenure, and with only one scholarship quarterback with game experience on the team, there’s no chance it will.
The University and Board of Trustees had a chance at the end of the 2005 season, when Arkansas football under Houston Nutt had appeared to hit rock bottom, to make a change. Butch Davis, now the head coach at UNC, was available. They blew it.
No, to the disbelief of many of us, Razorback football has hit an even lower low. Dennis Dodd, writing for CBSSportsline.com remarked, “You are about to see this little Camelot collapse. Certainly this doesn't reflect well on Houston Nutt, who recruited Malzahn and the players, but couldn't keep them. . . Now that Mustain is gone, it doesn't matter if those parents were pushy or not. The best prep player in the country in 2005 couldn't be retained after going 8-0 as a starter in his freshman season. . . Nutt's recruiting credibility has been diminished, not to mention his job security. He is minus one superstar-in-the-making quarterback. Arkansas' SEC chances in 2007 are hurt. Hogs everywhere are going to want an explanation soon. . . Stay tuned. Right now this is the juiciest story of the off-season.”
Arkansas football is in worse shape now that it has ever been since the Hogs dropped a game to The Citadel. Make a change, U of A administration. For love of the program. For love of the fans. For love of the game.
J.R. and Henry are a couple of Little Rock-based sports aficianados who long got tired of the same-ol', same-ol' from the usual sportswriting subjects and started filing their column on this blog last year. They've pretty much called this fiasco from the start, and if things keep going as they've gone this week, J.R. and Henry promise more than the two columns a week we usually get. They won't be able to help it, they tell us.