Sunday, January 21, 2007

My Sunday Feeling

The link above is to a story that ran in yesterday's New York Times about the ongoing soap opera that is the Arkansas Razorback football program. In case you have no idea about which I speak, I shall attempt to summarize the current imbroglio in brief. Where to begin?

About this time last year Arkansas, like all other colleges, was out on the recruiting trail. The current occupant of the chair of football there, Little Rock's own Houston Dale Nutt, was feeling the heat from virtually all corners after 2 back-to-back losing seasons. He was also under some considerable pressure to get 3 or 4 kids from Springdale High School down the road from Fayetteville to become Razorbacks. Springdale had just completed an undefeated season and was widely considered to be one, if not the, best high school football team in the history of the state. Springdale had about 8 or 9 Division I players, including quarterback Mitch Mustain, the Gatorade Player of the Year. Springdale was coached by Gus Malzahn who enjoyed a considerable reputation as an offensive football coach even among the college ranks.

Things were not going well in Nutt's courtship of the Springdale Bulldogs. Their big offensive tackle committed early to Notre Dame. Wide receiver Damien Williams pledged his troth with Florida. And Mustain had withdrawn his oral commitment to Arkansas and was said to be considering following Williams to the Gators.

In the preceding two seasons, Nutt had come under withering criticism for running what was perceived by the armchair experts that make up much of the Razorback constituency of running an unimaginative offense. He was said to under pressure from Athletic Director for Life Frank Broyles to hire an Offensive Coordinator. So, Nutt evidently decided to kill two birds with one stone. He hired Gus Malzahn from the high school ranks to be the coordinator, in a move that was calculated to get Frank off his ass and maybe lure the Springdale kids to campus.

It worked on one respect in that 3 of the most coveted players came to Arkansas: Mustain, tight end Ben Cleveland and Williams who, in what was not recognized at the time as dramatic foreshadowing, welshed on his commitment to the Gators. However, the decision to hire a high school coach to run the offense at an SEC school was met with widened eyebrows in many corners including this one. Indeed, in a post dated December 11, 2005 I wrote that "[t]he potential for disaster cannot be discounted." It turns out that I was correct. I was just wrong in limiting the scope of my prediction to events on the field.

Fast forward: The 2006 Razorbacks were pretty damned good. They won 10 games, utilizing 2 running backs that ran roughshod over the SEC. One of them, Darren McFadden came in second in the Heisman balloting in the process. However, despite the stable of running backs, the offense sputtered at times, particularly in the final 3 games all of which the Razorbacks lost. The passing game got worse with time. Mustain got benched after leading the Hogs to 8 straight wins. His replacement, Casey Dick, didn't improve things much if any. And all of this time, a considerable faction of the Razorback Nation felt the fingerprints of Houston Nutt all over the offense despite the hiring of Malzahn to allegedly call the plays.

It was just before the bowl game with Wisconsin that things got interesting. The parents of the Springdale kids asked for a meeting with Broyles because they are "concerned about the direction the offense is taking." Amazingly enough, Broyles gives it to them. They play the Wisconsin game. They lose. A week later Damien Williams asks for his release and transfers to Southern California who had clobbered Arkansas in the opener for the second year in a row. A week or so ago, Malzahn resigns to take a co-coordinator position with Tulsa in weak-sister Conference USA, home of the Tulane Green Wave among other stalwarts of the game. It seems he found out that he was going to be pushed aside for another coach who was being imported from the Dallas Cowboys. And last week Mustain asked for his release. He is still in school at his own expense and is said to be considering his options for transferring somewhere else.

This is high drama even by SEC standards. And nobody connected to this story, with the possible exception of Malzahn and Ben Cleveland who has basically kept his mouth shut and played ball, has exactly covered themselves up with glory.

The parents of the players involved, especially Beck Campbell, Mustain's mother and Rick Cleveland who played in the NFL ,which makes him the world's biggest fucking expert on football, come across as stage parents from hell. Broyles merely heightened his considerable reputation for meddling by meeting with them. Somewhere Kenny Hatfield is making the Sign of the Cross. And he is Baptist. Nutt, who makes much of his Christian faith, comes across as paranoid and deceitful after pretty much being exposed as having lied to Malzahn in order to get him to come to Arkansas in hopes that his players would follow.

So what are the lessons we can take away from this little psychodrama? The first one is simple. Big time college sports is all about money and power and is largely irrelevant to the higher academic mission of the universities to which they are marginally attached. The corollary to that is that these young men-and you don't get this with the female athletes outside of tennis-that are elite athletes arrive at college with an expectation of entitlement and celebrity. This sort of thing used to be almost the exclusive province of basketball. But now you see young kids trying to hijack football programs as well.

Another lesson insinuated in the article above that is stated outright by my friend Phil Martin in today's column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is that there's a whole lot of folks around here that have way too much time on their hands. This mess is all we have heard about the last 4 weeks in the newspaper, on the message boards and on the call-in shows on the radio. Some guys even sprung for a half-page ad in which they called for the resignations of Broyles and Nutt. Cost 'em 5 grand. Surely that money could have been put to better use somewhere else. Like at Oaklawn.

The final lesson is this: It is never good when a parent lives vicariously through their kids. One of the theories being bruited about is the reason Mustain didn't immediately land somewhere else despite his allegedly all-world talent is that he is regarded in the coaching fraternity as a bad head with a pain-in-the-ass high maintenance Mom. Maybe so. I don't know.

But I know that I wonder "Where is the Dad?" I mean, I know his parents are divorced. But it seems to me that the one thing this young man needed more than anything was for someone-his Dad, a step dad, an Uncle, somebody, to put an arm around him and say, "Mitchell, you need to shut up and work harder. Nobody is going to give you anything. Talent only goes so far. The world does not need another Chris Simms and that is where you are heading if you aren't careful."

Defensive tackle Keith Jackson Jr. is quoted in the Times article as saying something along the lines of, " The problem with Mitch is that he wanted everything his way."

Who can blame him? It's all he's ever known. And that may be the only aspect of this story that approaches tragedy. No matter what else you read on the message boards or hear on the radio.

A program note: The world will not grieve at this announcement, but circumstances will force me to take a break from this corner of the blogosphere for awhile. Between the day job, a project I am doing for a non-profit organization I am affiliated with, and working on my house, I am pretty much swamped. Things will be better by the first of next month. But for now I need to focus elsewhere. See you in February and Go Saints!

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