Feb. 1, 2007
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A year ago, this story seemed like a fairy tale.
Mitch Mustain was headed to Arkansas along with three of his high school teammates - and their coach had been hired as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Mustain was the quarterback of the future, Gus Malzahn the offensive innovator moving up to the college level.
Together, this group from Arkansas' Springdale High School was going to accomplish great things for the Razorbacks.
Now that dream is over.
Arkansas went 10-4 this season, won the SEC West and finished with a No. 15 ranking. Running back Darren McFadden was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Athletic director Frank Broyles says he's still "celebrating" the season, in which Arkansas won seven Southeastern Conference games for the first time.
But not everyone is celebrating after a January with enough drama to fill an afternoon soap opera. First, Malzahn left to join the coaching staff at Tulsa. Then Mustain asked for and received his release to transfer.
That followed the December departure of Damian Williams, a promising receiver out of Springdale. Only two freshmen from that high school are still with Arkansas - tight end Ben Cleveland and receiver Andrew Norman.
"It's shocked the state," said Kevin Johnson, Springdale's current coach. "And it's really affected the community here in Springdale."
Actually, the saga has done more than that. It has inflamed a divide in the Arkansas fan base regarding coach Houston Nutt.
It also has raised some questions about recruiting: What was the Springdale group told? What did the freshmen have a right to expect? What if a coach says one thing during recruiting, then changes plans after watching his team in action? Is he a liar, or is he just giving his team the best chance to win?
There are still more questions than answers - the protagonists have said little lately.
As Wednesday's national signing day approaches, Nutt wants to focus on the future. Neither of the state's two Parade All-Americans are expected to sign with Arkansas, but Nutt said the recent turmoil hasn't negatively affected recruiting.
"It's been tough at times," Nutt said. "But it all comes back to our integrity and our character and that's what wins out."
Mustain and his mother, Beck Campbell, are staying out of the spotlight. The quarterback has re-enrolled at Arkansas, but not necessarily because of second thoughts - he has to maintain academic progress to remain eligible wherever he ends up.
Campbell and the parents of Cleveland and Williams met with Broyles in December to discuss various concerns.
Mustain was Parade's prep player of the year for 2005 after Springdale dominated Arkansas football. He initially said he would attend Arkansas, reopened his recruitment, then eventually signed after Nutt hired Malzahn to help turn around a program that went 4-7 in 2005. Williams and Cleveland switched from Florida to Arkansas.
Malzahn used a spread, no-huddle offense at Springdale and said he would incorporate some of that with the Razorbacks. But during 2006, the no-huddle never gained a foothold.
Johnson says he kept in touch with Malzahn.
"He did what your head coach wants you to do," Johnson said. "I know that he wanted to do more."
Coaches - Malzahn included - said things were fine, and Arkansas won 10 straight behind McFadden and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Felix Jones. The Razorbacks lost their last three games, but the future appeared bright. McFadden and Jones are sophomores, and the passing game figured to improve with Mustain around.
Nutt talked openly about a contract extension for Malzahn as the team prepared for the Capital One Bowl. Now, Malzahn and two of last year's top recruits are gone.
Kurt Voigt, prep sports editor at The Morning News in Springdale, wrote a book about Springdale's 2005 season. He says these departures didn't come out of the blue.
"I think it would be crazy to sit here and say back a year ago you couldn't have foreseen this coming," Voigt said.
While being recruited, Mustain was concerned about the Hogs' offense, according to Voigt's book. After Nutt took credit for a play call following an Arkansas win, Mustain said the Razorbacks "would have a better chance of getting me" if Nutt were fired.
Mustain talked of redshirting in 2006, but played late in a season-opening 50-14 loss to Southern California. Mustain then started eight straight games - all wins. His passing stats were pedestrian and he eventually was benched for Casey Dick. Both played in the bowl loss to Wisconsin.
Then Malzahn left to become assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa. Mustain was gone a short while later.
Amid the upheaval, the Razorbacks' polarized fan base has been making noise. The week Malzahn and Mustain left the team, an ad appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette calling for Nutt and Broyles to resign. A few days later, another ad appeared - supporting Nutt and congratulating the players on a good season.
Players held a news conference and insisted the team was not in disarray; a week later 50 people showed up outside the stadium to demonstrate their displeasure. And somewhere in the middle of all that, Arkansas hired David Lee as its new offensive coordinator.
Springdale, just north of the university's Fayetteville campus, has been shaken as the Razorbacks' world turns.
"Any time it's only 10 minutes away ... you know that there's animosity there. Whatever happened as far as whose fault it was, the community's close knit and they want to protect their own," Johnson said. "It'll all heal over in time."
Johnson said he understands why Malzahn, Mustain and Williams would leave if they felt the program wasn't a good fit. On the other hand, he also realizes why Nutt coached the way he did.
"Coach Nutt did what he felt like he had to do to win," Johnson said.
Broyles, a former coach at Arkansas, has supported Nutt. After Malzahn left, Broyles said he didn't believe Malzahn's offense would work in the SEC without a quarterback who could run the ball.
He also points out that transfers aren't unique to Arkansas.
"Freshmen from time to time from all universities leave," the 82-year-old Broyles said. "You see a lot of times they transfer."
Voigt likens Malzahn to former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who made the school fashionable by promoting a certain style of play.
"Forty Minutes of Hell with Nolan was an identity that Nolan was able to go out to kids and sell," Voigt said. "Gus was the same way. His belief was, 'I'm going to sell this program and this kind of offense."'
With Malzahn at Tulsa, Williams now at Southern California and Mustain in limbo, Nutt will try to move on from this turbulent offseason and produce a successful 2007 in Fayetteville.
"We are coming off a January 1 bowl game and we won 10 games. I feel good about where we are," Nutt said. "The players are here that want to be here. That's what you feel good about."