- 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.
McAfee e-mailed his findings to UA trustees, UA System President B. Alan Sugg and Chancellor John White in mid-March. They didn’t respond, save a thank-you note from one board member. Two days after McAfee’s letter to the board, Nutt’s lawyer and former Sunday school teacher, Freeland, sent McAfee a four-page response saying he had defamed the coach.
McAfee said he saw the letter as an intimidation and ignored it. But last Friday, April 6, after McAfee was erroneously credited in many circles, including a national Fox Sports Radio report, of being the author of a 48-page analysis of Nutt’s phone records posted anonymously on the Internet, Freeland sent another letter to McAfee. He again demanded a face-to-face meeting with McAfee and his attorney. Over the weekend, McAfee retained Nate Coulter of Little Rock.
“Our intent is not to scare anybody,” Freeland said. “When someone makes false statements, we feel you should make people accountable for it.”
Responded Coulter on Tuesday: “I’m going to send a letter to Byron today. Essentially, we’re happy to meet. He’s made his concerns clear. I don’t think there is anything defamatory or illegal that [McAfee] has written to the Board of Trustees. If you take everything in Byron’s letter [to McAfee] as true, it states objective things that can be interpreted in different ways, and [Freeland] obviously has a different interpretation of the facts … It doesn’t dispute the authenticity of the calls or the frequency of them.”
McAfee denies he had anything to do with the compiling of the 48-page document, but readily acknowledges he’s distributed the phone records widely and told several people that he says he knows only by first name that they were free to use them.
Freeland, who taught Nutt Sunday school at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, said, “People can make all the criticism they want about Houston Nutt’s coaching ability or his professional life, but they need to tell the truth about someone’s personal life. If you make false statements about his personal life, we’re going to hold people accountable for it. People are totally making things up.”
McAfee insists he did not defame Nutt, but only pointed out to the Board of Trustees his concern that rumors were rampant about the football coach and that he had found the volume of text messages between Nutt and the Fort Smith anchorwoman troubling.
Freeland says, “In my view, that’s totally false and anybody that comes to that conclusion isn’t reading it correctly. There are several hundred other text messages to many people. Coaches text-message very frequently.”
In Freeland’s first response to McAfee, he identified two messages to Bragg as concerning a charity benefit the two were planning for the Bost Clinic in Fort Smith. In another, Freeland said that Bragg had learned that an ex-boyfriend of Bragg’s had been diagnosed with cancer and that she wanted to discuss it with Nutt. The call Nutt made to the Springdale Holiday Inn moments after a text to Bragg involved checking up on a handful of football recruits who were staying at the hotel on their recruiting visit.
“He has business to conduct with that lady,” Freeland said. “It might be foreign concept to some of these people that you can have a business relationship with someone of the opposite sex.”
Nutt has not responded to requests for an interview, but Freeland answered some of the Times’ questions about the calls.
“People have nothing else to do,” Freeland said of Internet discussion about Nutt. “Most of this stuff happens during business hours. It quiets down during the weekend. It makes me wonder how anyone gets any work done during the week.”
Much has been made of the phone records indicating that Nutt texted Bragg at 11:43 a.m. Jan. 1, about 27 minutes before the kickoff of the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 (a game the Hogs lost 17-14 to Wisconsin). This was, presumably, a time football should have been Nutt’s primary concern.
Freeland said, “If that is correct, it doesn’t make any difference anyway. He has reasons to communicate with this woman and it’s no business of anyone else’s what those reasons are. If he [McAfee] is so interested in what [Nutt] is making telephone calls about, what’s his purpose in that?
McAfee, who doesn’t contribute to the Razorback Foundation, describes himself as “just a Razorback fan” who goes to the games “as often as I can.”
He got the idea of asking for the phone records after the Democrat-Gazette reported extensively on the Teresa Prewett e-mails and he learned the newspaper had requested coaches’ phone records. He thought there were unanswered questions in interviews Nutt gave to reporters and radio show hosts.
“I thought starting with the phone records could prove or disprove that Coach Nutt had been in contact with Teresa Prewett, because he said he didn’t know anything about the e-mails,” McAfee said. “I went in with an open mind.”
The communications with Prewett were highlighted on the records by the UA, McAfee said. Within minutes were calls between Houston and Danny Nutt, too. Then he noticed more than 1,000 text messages or calls, an average of more than 15 a day, to one number. “I was curious,” he said. He verified by calling the number that it belonged to Bragg, a fact confirmed by Freeland’s letter. In a two-month period, there were about 1,100 exchanges between the numbers. Bragg did not respond to our calls.
McAfee said he and acquaintances also had determined Nutt had called a major booster of the University of Miami football program several times and called his agent Jimmy Sexton immediately after some of those calls. He also found multiple calls to North Carolina, apparently meant for an assistant football coach, Joe Pate, who formerly worked with Nutt at Arkansas under Jack Crowe in 1990-92. Some were misdialed, according to a North Carolina newspaper. Again, calls to Sexton followed the calls to North Carolina.
“After both those firings, it looks like he talked to those schools,” McAfee said. As for the communications concerning Prewett, he said, “Before the e-mail was sent [to Mustain] there was lots of communication between the brothers. Based on the phone records, there had to be some knowledge there. I said in the letter [to the Board of Trustees] it seemed like he knew, but you couldn’t say for certain.”
McAfee says Freeland’s letter felt like it came from “left field.”
“I didn’t know what to think. It seems like a bad joke, really. I was asking some legitimate questions, checking on what I had been hearing, trying to get the facts. I never said ‘This is what Houston has been doing,’ just that this is what is out there, what I’ve been hearing, and then I get this. It really shocked me.”
He says he wasn’t a Nutt fan, but wasn’t trying to dig dirt. “I want what’s best for the university.”