Jan. 2, 2008 — the day after the Cotton Bowl. Somewhere, the Razorback football team is weeping into their jerseys and bemoaning the newly minted Curse of the Red Legs following a 38-7 drubbing by Missouri.
Even at that, the end should come as a relief. The Hogs have done fair to middlin' this season, ending up 8-5 and winning a berth — win or lose — in the best bowl game they've made it to in years.
Off the field, however, it has been A Season in Hell.
If you've read this far, you probably know some of the things I'm talking about: The e-mail napalm dropped on then-quarterback Mitch Mustain by Coach Houston Nutt's pal Teresa Prewett (and the ongoing lawsuit over the university's handling of the incident). The unhappy exit of both Mustain (to USC) and UA defensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (to Tulsa) — and the fan discord that festered in their wake. The like-clockwork stories of Razorback players getting arrested, on charges ranging from shoplifting to credit card fraud. Coach Houston Nutt's 1,000-plus text messages to That Other Woman. Repeated rumors that Nutt was history. Fans upset and motivated enough to pitch in and hire an honest-to-god airplane towing a “FIRE NUTT” banner over the stadium — an anonymous effort that Nutt eventually called “gutless.” All that, and the eventual firing/resignation/going-away-party for Nutt, who — much to the chagrin of the Nutt Busters — came in for a pillow soft landing, handed a $3.2 million severance package (paid for by the private but ticket-supported Razorback Foundation) before being scooped up by Ole Miss faster than you can say “Platinum Parachute.” Need I say more? Ears bleeding yet? I could go on if you'd like. No?
What connects all these sad tales — either by way of their sordid conception or the chatter that kept them alive long enough to germinate and spawn into real news — is that a very good argument can be made that they all came to us via what might best be called the fan-based media: blogs, message boards and sports talk radio. In the last five years, the boards and sports radio have grown faster than the Duggar Clan. Hogville.net, the biggest Razorback-themed message board on the Internet, boasts 28,000 active users. In December 2006, less than four years after it was founded, the site logged 12.6 million hits, with visits by over 100,000 distinct computers a month.
Though the message boards regularly feature fibbing, bullshitting and outright lies that would put a Smackover used car salesman to shame, they're also where nearly every major story in Razorback football last season broke — stories that quickly trickled down to sports radio and (as much as some old school reporters seem to hate it) television and print coverage. Newspapers, which devote the most dollars to reporting, often found themselves dead last, by 24 hours or more, in reporting major news developments.
As for whether those on The Hill at UA are really listening, coaches and administrators talk a good game about ignoring the growing din. That said, if there's one truism about public officials of any stripe — maybe going all the way back to the time when a few of them lost their heads after a certain “Let them eat cake” remark — it's that they tend to keep their ears to the ground when it comes to the grumbling of the peasant class.
Those who like the message boards and radio shows say they give the fans a harmless vent for their frustrations, or even go so far as to say they provide a service by policing the activities of UA athletics in a way the old media was too beholden to the program to do in the past. Critics (and there's pretty much a dark, crater-pocked no-mans-land between the lovers and the haters) call the boards overly negative, too concerned with the private lives of players and coaches, the refuge of bile-spewing loudmouths who hide behind the cloak of Internet anonymity.
There is one thing that unites both camps, however: the knowledge that, for good or ill, technology has managed to amplify what was once the pennywhistle voice of the fans into a foghorn — one that many on both sides suspect started the fatal vibrations that finally toppled Coach Houston Nutt.
Lanny Beavers is the founder and owner of the online message board hogville.net. Though he's a big supporter of the new fan-driven media, he knows better than most about the drawbacks of a technologically emboldened fan base. After Houston Nutt left Arkansas, Beavers received five death threats from irate fans that blamed the boards.
Beavers said that one of the biggest misconceptions about message boards like his — one held by both by lovers and haters — is that they are somehow a news source. Beavers has no such pretensions. With the content on his boards 100 percent reader submitted, Beavers freely admits that for every piece of good information on Hogville, there's a piece of information that might win you points in a creative writing class, but not in Journalism 101.
Beavers said that while there has always been a very vocal fan base in Arkansas, it took technology to finally bring them together. Twenty years ago, three fans might gather in a Stuttgart coffee shop to voice their displeasure about a loss. Today, the same conversation can be read online by 3,000. Even more important, Beavers said, is the way a story can evolve and grow on the message boards, with posters gleaning details from sources the traditional media could never have reached.
“What the Internet has done is put everyone together,” he said. “Now, a coach runs a player off, and boom, it pops up on the Internet. Then a relative of that player or a friend of that player posts on there, saying, ‘This is what the coach is doing.' You never really had that before. The mainstream media, they would have never run that story before because it would have been considered sour grapes. Before, you always got the coaches' side of the story.”
Beavers admits that during the last season, the Hogville faithful were mostly negative about Coach Nutt. Hogville, for instance, was where the idea for the anti-Nutt airplane banners was first hatched, and where many of the lingering scandals that haunted the program first broke. Nonetheless, Beavers doesn't buy the idea that the boards and the radio talk shows they fed into had any bearing on whether Nutt stayed or went, saying that Nutt's release was of his own making. According to Beavers, many of those who blame the boards for Nutt's departure are the same people who — just a few months back — were calling the online community a bunch of ineffective cranks.
“You can't have it both ways,” he said. “A lot of people don't want to acknowledge Hogville.net or any other website because it's not media — and we're not a news source. But if they don't want to acknowledge us having any information that's good, you can't turn around and say it's because of hogville.net that we don't have Coach Nutt anymore … If we weren't strong enough to voice opinion as news, we're not strong enough to run a coach off either.”
Though he has much the same faith in the validity of the boards, woopig.net owner Steve Jackson sees the Internet and talk radio as having had a real impact on the Nutt situation. Of all the people we spoke to, Jackson put it most flatly: without fan discontent and the new outlets that gave them a voice loud enough to be heard in Fayetteville, Nutt would still be at Arkansas.
Though not as big as hogville.net — the site counts around 10,500 active members — Woopig is older, founded in January 2001.
Jackson said that though the coaching scandals helped the boards grow in both size and prominence this year, it's really the availability of information on the Internet that's driving the message board phenomenon. Couple that with posters who spend countless collective man hours scouring the web for details on the Hogs, and you've got both a scandal machine and a real force to be reckoned with when it comes to generating news leads.
“With all the information on the Internet, you can find out information on what's going on anywhere,” Jackson said. “Late on a Saturday night, if you want to go look and see who has gotten booked at the Washington County Detention Center, you can. You might run across a Razorback player. Twenty years ago, I'm sure players were getting into stuff all the time, but nobody ever heard about it. Today, it's hard to sweep stuff under the rug.”
The true impact of the boards, Jackson said, was most fully felt in March, when a Razorback fan got Nutt's cell phone records from the university through the Freedom of Information Act, and discovered that, between November and January 2006, Nutt had made more than a thousand calls and text messages to a Fort Smith news anchor, Donna Bragg (Nutt eventually released a letter to fans saying any allegations of hanky panky between him and Bragg were false). The documents were soon online for all to read.
“The real information was out there for people to look at and formulate their own opinions,” Jackson said. “The traffic on the boards during that time was amazing, because people were either linking to the board where you could read about it, or e-mailing the actual documents … It gave people access to information they couldn't get before. Maybe the paper would have posted parts of it, but here, people got the whole thing.”
While some might consider stories like that a negative for the Razorbacks, Jackson says don't kill the messenger. “If nothing was going on up there for us to talk about, there wouldn't be anything for them to worry about. The message boards didn't make Coach Nutt send all those text messages. The message boards didn't bench Mitch Mustain. The message boards didn't cause Gus Malzahn to make a lateral move to another school. It's all the stuff that's going on.”
While Jackson doubts the boards have any bearing on actual game play on the field, he suggests that constant microscope view of the program might well cause the UA and new coach Bobby Petrino to “play things closer to the vest.”
“As to what information is allowed to get out and what isn't, it's going to be their responsibility that the people who get information can be trusted,” Jackson said. “If you do that, and you don't allow yourself to get nitpicked on things you say and do, I think it's better for the program … If you scale back your accessibility, you don't have to worry as much.”
As for the powers that be at the university, the only one who returned our phone calls admits that the displeasure of the fans did have an impact. Reached soon after the Jan. 9 announcement that he was resigning as UA chancellor, John White said, “Publicity had a big influence on Houston Nutt's decision to leave Arkansas.” As for himself, White said that during the search for a new football coach, he deleted without reading more than a thousand e-mails related to the football team.
“Does that mean I'm indifferent? No, I've hired someone whose job it is to make a recommendation,” White said. “I never looked at any blogs, I don't listen to the talk shows. My job, I believe, is to make sure I'm hiring people who are highly qualified to run their organizations. My job was never to be athletic director.”
As co-host of one of the most widely listened-to sports call-in shows in Central Arkansas — KABZ 103.7's “Drivetime Sports” with Randy Rainwater — Rick Schaeffer has often been on the receiving end of what he calls the unrelenting negativity of the message boards. In sports radio or publicity at the University of Arkansas since 1978, Schaeffer said that the mediums — and the fans — have changed drastically over the years.
“When I first started, [fans] would listen to rational answers, and their opinions weren't pre-made so much they couldn't be changed,” he said. “You could explain why something happened. Now, I think people pretty much make up their minds before they call you. They're just going to say: here's what I think about this.”
While Schaeffer said he respects the callers and their often encyclopedic knowledge of Razorback trivia, the “get a life” moments are when fans become so obsessed with the game that they become miserable. An average football game lasts about three hours, he said, amounting to less than 45 hours of actual game play this season, he said. “And we're talking about it for 360 days!” Schaeffer said. “It's incredible. I think when you place so much importance on it that it determines whether you're happy or not, then I think that's too far. It's a game. Have fun and enjoy it.”
One thing that's definitely not a happy place for Schaeffer is the subject of the message boards. Schaeffer said that while he doesn't read the boards anymore, his distrust of the medium goes back to an incident when “they took something I said and didn't portray it accurately and portrayed me in a light that wasn't true, and it had to be resolved in my day job.” That, and the anonymity of posters, which Schaeffer said allows them to cross the line into slander and outright cruelty. While radio callers can say they're Bob in Stuttgart when they're really Sam in Siloam Springs, Schaeffer said that callers realize that someone, somewhere will recognize that voice and pull their punches accordingly.
“With the message boards, you've got total anonymity,” he said. “That's where you go over the line.”
Also over the line, he said, is the boards' hunger for private details about coaches and players. No matter how much inside information a poster might think they have on a situation, Schaeffer said, they'll never be able to get both sides of the story. “When you start getting into their phone calls, e-mails [and] personal lives,” he said, “I think you've gone way too far. People call us and say, ‘Well, shouldn't they be accountable?' Yes, they should be. They're accountable to their employers. They shouldn't be accountable to an insurance salesman in West Memphis … he's not the guy who hired the coach.”
Love them or hate them, Schaeffer said that one thing the message boards have done is put immense pressure on traditional print and television sports journalists to break stories quicker, before they've completely verified the facts and sources. “When all this stuff's out there, it forces them to look into things and sometimes they'll break stories too quickly… because you're saying, ‘it's on the message boards. We've got to go with it.' That's one thing credible journalists can do — they can at least go check things out. With the message boards, it's ‘I heard this from somebody who knows him, so it's got to be true.' ”
Kevin Ray is a Razorback fan from Searcy, and was once a frequent listener of Drivetime Sports. One of the true faithful, Ray's sure enough of his long-term commitment to the Razorbacks that he had a symbol of his love tattooed on his shoulder: an angry hog ripping through the skin.
“Sports is a big part of my life,” Ray said. “I watch it, I go to every game I possibly can. I'm still a kid at heart when it comes to sports. I wish I was still out there playing.”
Though Ray said he used to listen to sports talk radio and visit the message boards much more than he does now, he's since sworn off the boards and cut way back on his radio listening time. Though he still bleeds Razorback red, he said he was turned off by all the negativity shown by fans last season.
“I got tired of the bull crap,” he said. “Everybody bashing each other. I still listen to it some at work, but not much anymore. I used to listen a lot.”
A supporter of Coach Nutt, Ray said that if those going at each other on the talk shows and message boards are true fans who want the Razorbacks to win, they would have at least waited until the season was over to dredge up scandals and calls for Nutt's head.
“My thing is, during the season, support your team 100 percent,” he said, “Then, go at it at the end of the year if you have to. If you want to fire him, wait until the end of the year and get it over with. That's what happened with the [Cotton Bowl] game. They weren't into it.”
Steve Sullivan is one of the “traditional journalists” that a lot of new media guys seem to want to count out. As sports director for KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock, Sullivan said the message boards and the sports shows have definitely changed the way he operates, allowing him to take the hour-by-hour temperature of the fan base. He said he starts every day by checking the boards. While the information posted there has to be checked upside down and inside out before it can even go near the public airwaves, Sullivan said it can provide good source material for a story. He said the Internet has changed life for everyone involved in sports: reporters, fans, players and coaches.
“Ten years ago, you just wouldn't have had access,” he said. “Now, if you want documents, you can get them e-mailed to you. It's created a different dynamic for coaches, and they'll tell you that — what they're dealing with. Other schools are going on message boards and finding negative stuff and trying to use it against you in recruiting.” It has lead to a situation, he said, where virtually every move is public. Being under a microscope like that, Sullivan said, is both a positive and a negative for the program.
“If you go back, some of the stuff that happened in programs 20 or 30 years ago, there'd be scandals all over the place if there had been an Internet,” he said. “In a way, it's good and it's bad…. They're going to police programs.”
While Houston Nutt obviously didn't benefit from the negative publicity, Sullivan said, he doesn't blame the boards for Nutt's downfall. Though he believes more coaches and administrators read the boards than will admit it, Sullivan said that Nutt's departure was more about his lack of creativity, recruiting issues and failure to develop a passing game.
“A lot of his problems off the field were created by the Internet,” he said. “But the things on the field … it all added up.”
Just a half-turn up the dial from Drivetime Sports, Shawn Arnell is the host of Sports Rap, the afternoon sports talk show on KARN 102.9, which includes Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports editor Wally Hall and Jim Harris of Arkansas Sports 360. A long time Hog fan, Arnell admits that he's a “sucker” for the message boards. He says that whether you like them or not, the boards are here to stay. While he said the boards can be full of outright lies and are often overly negative — he especially hates it, he said, when posters pile on a particular player — they're still an important new vent for an increasingly educated fan base.
“Overall the Razorback fans are a very loyal, unified fan base and they just want to win,” Arnell said. “If they're not winning, they want to know why. What are they supposed to do? Call up the university and ask the coach what's going on? He's not going to talk to them. So, they've got to have an outlet. The technology is there, so why not give them that outlet — talk radio or a message board.”
Arnell said that the fan hunger for every tidbit about the Razorback program — personal or not — is at least somewhat an outgrowth of the way Coach Nutt farmed out information to the traditional media over the last decade. Nutt was prone to give preferential treatment to some sources, Arnell said, with those sources often helping spin negative stories or dropping them altogether, leaving the fans feeling left out of the loop. “I think that alone caused more division than the previous coaching staff ever realized,” he said. “They would blame certain media guys for talking bad about them, and yet they'd go give information to a select few.”
While it seems like keeping a tighter reign on information might help stem the tide of scandal, Arnell suggests that strategy might well backfire. He said that while coaches across the country routinely blame message boards for bad press, sports reporters he's talked to are more likely to blame closed practices and coaches who limit media access to players. If sports writers are unable to do their jobs by the front door, Arnell said, they seek out back channels to get the story.
“They've got to write something, so they start snooping around more,” he said. “They start asking more questions. If you've got the player there to ask him about his right ankle, the story about his ankle gets written and it's over. If you have to take the backdoor way about it, you might find something the university doesn't want you to.”
Arnell said the boards and sports radio are a positive for the fan base overall. He discounts the idea that fan opinion can dictate anything that happens in Fayetteville. If he was a coach, Arnell said, he would never listen to talk radio or visit the boards — even though he suspects many coaches do.
“It's not for them. It's not for players, it's not for coaches, it's not for (athletic directors). It's for the fans,” he said. “Obviously you've had some situations come up where coaches get put under the microscope, but them paying attention to anything we say on the air? I hope not.”
A former Razorback team captain, David Bazzel is the co-host of Tommy Smith's morning radio show on 103.7 The Buzz, and a frequent guest on local sports talk radio. As a young anchor on KARK Channel 4, Bazzel managed to break one of the earliest online sports scoops when he posted on the KARK website that Houston Nutt was coming from Houston to be the head coach at Arkansas.
These days, Bazzel talks like a man who knows he helped create a monster. Calling them ugly, negative and detrimental to the standards of traditional media, he says that without the message boards, we'd more than likely be looking at another season with Coach Nutt. The boards, he said, “lit the match.”
Bazzel said that during his days as a Razorback, his coaches routinely did and said things that would have been as big a scandal as anything today had the Internet been around. Because players are more Internet savvy, he said, what would have been locker room scuttlebutt 20 years ago gets blown up into front-page news.
“These days, all it takes is one kid tells his mom,” he said. “His mom tells her best friend down the street. She mails it to somebody who's got a blog somewhere and suddenly it's everywhere.”
“Everywhere,” Bazzel said, often includes the mainstream press.
“For the first time, you've got traditional media that will run (things from the message boards) in an effort to try and scoop the story — will believe and print anything based on what they see online. It has made the media look bad. It has made the media look silly.”
Bazzel said that with their ability to shield a poster's identity, it's no wonder the message boards are full of misinformation. Last spring, while visiting Oaklawn, Bazzel said his phone rang constantly with calls from people saying Houston Nutt had resigned — news the message board poster said came from the father of a player who was present during Nutt's wholly-concocted swan song.
“To me, I can just imagine I can just imagine some guy sitting in his home somewhere and saying, ‘Let's create this rumor and watch it flow and a bunch of gullible suckers will eat it up,” Bazzel said. “That thing had people calling everybody — out of state, in state — and it was a complete lie.”
Bazzel said that while the message boards do give the average fan a place to voice their opinions, they have been mostly taken over by negative posters. He said that because the traditional media is reading and running with some of the things they say, the negative posters have become emboldened, empowered and arrogant, creating a much more negative atmosphere.
“Coach Broyles put it perfectly,” Bazzel said. “He said, used to be, it would take a lot of effort to be heard. You had to write a letter [and] put it in the mail. Now, you click one button and you can be heard by hundreds of thousands of people. I think that ability to have mass exposure has helped things become more negative … The minute you click on a message board and see 5,000 posts that are negative, it creates a bigger effect. You could have had that same kind of discontent 10 years ago, but it didn't have the channels to be heard. Again, is that a bad thing or a good thing? I don't know.”