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UA: Football school

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When I was a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville I had fun going to see basketball and football games. It was 1947, and I was with a lot of older guys who went to college after fighting in World War II. Most of the students (slightly less than 5,000) weren’t really mad when the Razorbacks didn’t win. They thought other things were more important, and the people running the university seemed to believe it, too.

Football started at the UA in 1894 coached by a Latin teacher. Many coaches came over the years, but Razorback football didn’t really become somewhat serious until 1929, when a coach named Fred Thomsen, a Nebraskan, made football fun, not pivotal. His teams won many games, and from his players came Arkansas’ first All-American football players — Wear Schoonover, a law student from Pocahontas, and Jim Benton from Fordyce.

After the war was over, John Barnhill, an old Tennessee lineman, became Arkansas’s athletic director and head coach. I had just finished high school, enrolled at Fayetteville and was a reporter on the Arkansas Traveler, the college newspaper. One day the newspaper’s editor, Bob “Dusty” Rhodes, heard that Barnhill had ruled that neither the field house nor the tennis courts could be used any more for dances in the spring at Gaebale, an annual event whose name was invented by using the first letter of each school on the campus. Rhodes told me to call Barnhill and check it out.

I finally got him on the phone and asked him if the rumor was true. Barnhill said, “Just who are you?” I told him I worked on the college newspaper, and I explained that Gaebale was the most popular event on the campus. Barnhill said nothing for almost a minute. Then in loud, slow words he said: “There will never be any more dancing in the field house or on the tennis courts BECAUSE IT RUINS THEM!” Then he hung up.

A few weeks later I learned he won when the great drummer Gene Krupa, who had signed months before to bring his fine band to play at a dance at the University, suddenly was told he had to play outdoors at the Chi Omega Greek Theatre where you can only sit, not dance.

So I have always believed that it was Barnhill’s first orders that made athletics more important than any other thing at the University of Arkansas.

Think of what we’ve been hearing. Houston Nutt, the football coach, receives $1,039,644 a year, more than any other state employee. All the coaches get more money than any professor except one. B. Alan Sugg, who is the president of the University of Arkansas system, gets $275,000, and the chancellor of the Fayetteville campus, John White, gets $265,000.

Last year, Chancellor White tried to retire Frank Broyles, the head of athletics who has spent 50 years at the UA. He also wanted to get rid of Nutt and get a new football coach. But White was defeated and embarrassed by a majority of the members of the Board of Trustees of the university who put on their Razorback hats, called a special session and told Chancellor White he couldn’t do such things. So Nutt stayed on, and Broyles, who is 83, was allowed to stay until the end of 2007.

Recently a serious fan discovered that Nutt has the habit of spending much time on his cell phone calling a female who works at a Fort Smith TV station. He text-messaged her 1,063 times from Nov. 30 to Jan. 11. One call was 27 minutes before his Razorbacks played Wisconsin, and Wisconsin won, 17 to 14.

Others filed a lawsuit (dismissed this week) over the circumstances that led a great first-year quarterback to leave the Razorbacks for Southern California. Nutt has hired a lawyer because of the fan’s investigations into his cell phone calls and the coach’s involvement in critical e-mail a Nutt friend sent to the quarterback.

Not long ago, Broyles fired Stan Heath, a smart, black basketball coach who many wanted to stay. Broyles then replaced him with Dana Altman, a coach at Creighton, a little college in Omaha. Altman and his wife came to Fayetteville, looked around and in 24 hours went back to Omaha. It’s said he didn’t like the way athletics were handled at the UA and that some Arkansas basketball players were using drugs.

Broyles quickly paid Parker Executive Search of Atlanta $90,000 (plus expenses) to turn up another coach for Arkansas. John Pelphrey was hired from South Alabama University in Mobile, a school about half the size of UAF.

It certainly didn’t help Arkansas Sunday when the New York Times had a long story on the first sports page about Nutt. Earlier, on May 29, USA Today had a long story under a headline on its front page that said, “At Arkansas, turmoil becomes norm.”

I have talked to two of the University of Arkansas trustees about all this. They wouldn’t let me use their names, but they said the antics of coaches are not as bad as the press says and that most of the athletic fanatics have now served out their terms on the board. And they didn’t learn what was going on in athletics until they saw it in the newspapers.

In 1972, Robert A Leflar, an admired teacher of law at the University of Arkansas, wrote a fine history of the university. He was certainly right when he wrote “the university was beginning to be a football school.”

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