Much Ado About Nuttin'
April 26, 2013 2:19 PM   Subscribe

In 2005, he was considered the finest high school football player in the country. Heavily recruited, the quarterback was sought after by Notre Dame, Alabama, and the school just down the road from home, Arkansas. Many believed that he was a better player than another promising high school quarterback, Tim Tebow. In 2013, Mitch Mustain is the back up quarterback to the San Jose SaberCats, an arena football league team. The documentary,The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain, seeks to understand what happened.* *Trailer for documentary.

The documentary defines itself as:
In 2005, Mitch Mustain was the most decorated high school football player in all of America. Named the first ever consensus Gatorade, Parade, and USA Today Player of the Year, Mustain grabbed the spotlight from future NFL players such as Tim Tebow and Matthew Stafford. At the age of seventeen, USA Today ordained Mustain as “Football’s Future”. He was destined to become a game-changing college and pro quarterback. Unfortunately, football was not the only thing Mitch saw in his future, and while the game came easy to Mitch, finding joy in the game eventually became a job. The film, narrated by Nolan Richardson, follows Mitch’s present-day struggle to find balance between who he once was, and who he now wants to be.
Mitch Mustain was a leading member of the Springdale (Arkansas) High School champion football team and part of the affably labeled "Springdale Five," five players from the team who all received Division I football scholarships.

The five were:
  1. Mitch Mustain
  2. Damian Williams
  3. Ben Cleveland
  4. Bartley Webb
  5. Andrew Norman
The head coach of the Springdale team was Gus Malzahn.

The rise of Springdale coincided with a rocky time for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks football team. The folksy head coach, nicknamed the Right Reverend, Houston Nutt, had suffered two losing seasons in a row, going 5-6 in 2004, and 4-7 in 2005 (including an historic and humiliating defeat at the hands of the University of Southern California, 17 - 70). In the high pressure atmosphere of the Southeastern Conference, expectations were high that Nutt had to turn around the program or face termination.

Springdale's success, only minutes away from Razorback Stadium, placed a spotlight on the Springdale Five and on their coach. Many believed that the answer to the school's football woes lay just down the road and it would be virtually a disaster if Arkansas could not bring home it's talented natives. A Grantland article (cached) on Gus Malzahn covered the moment:
Arkansas doesn’t have a surplus of four- and five-star recruits, so the Springdale Five became intense objects of desire for University of Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. “We’re going to protect what’s ours, first and foremost,” Nutt told

How do you keep great players in Arkansas? You pull the old AAU trick and hire their coach. That December, Nutt made Malzahn his offensive coordinator. Which isn’t to say Malzahn didn’t have credentials. He’d won state titles at two schools. He’d published a book outlining his offensive philosophy. But his hiring clearly had a transactional element. In February 2006, four of the Springdale Five committed to Arkansas. "I'm going to let Gus go," Nutt said of his new offensive guru. "I'm going to turn him loose.”
Nutt turned Malzahn loose for one game and then reverted back to his own play calling after a season opener re-match against USC that resulted in another lopsided defeat. Out of the disaster of the first game, Mustain's star began to shine. Jumping in to replace an injured Casey Dick, Mustain lead the team to a quick touch down, and in the next eight games, started and won every match up, helping the team to rise to 12th in the nation; all as a true freshman.

Not all was well during this successful and successive streak. A book about the Springdale High championship team and its coach quoted a pre-Arkansas Mustain calling his new coach a "dork" and insulted Nutt's "boring offense." In turn, Teresa Prewitt, a close friend of the coach who often was allowed on the sideline at games, fired off a rage-filled e-mail to the freshman quarterback. Addressed to "Hello Mr. Interception King," the letter dismissed Mustain's talents, accused him of arrogance, and was riddled with insults.(For the actual e-mail, just check out the link at the bottom). At the same time, the parents of the Springdale Five were alleged to have complained to the school's athletic director about the treatment of their sons, with Mustain's mother, incensed by her son's treatment, front and center.

After an interception in the first half of Mustain's eighth game starting, Nutt pulled him and sent in the sophomore, Casey Dick. Mustain never played again. In the turmoil of the off season, Malzahn left Arkansas for the University of Tulsa, where his offenses broke records in points and yardage. Of the Springdale Five who signed on for Arkansas, all but Ben Cleveland, transferred out, with both Mustain and Damian Williams going to USC under Pete Carrol (where Williams became a star receiver and Mustain a perennial back up to a line up of top drafted quarterbacks). At the end of his college career, Mustain reflected in a USA Today article about what happened at USC and his hope to still find a path in professional football.

Houston Nutt, however, took the team to the Citrus Bowl, where he lost to present day Arkansas head coach, Brett Bielema, a first year coach at Wisconsin. In 2007, his successful team stumbled and finished with a winning, but worse record than the year before.

The losses of 2007 helped break open the possibility of Nutt being terminated, a cause promoted by a small but loud minority. A major player in the process was Thomas McAfee, who filed a FOIA request which unleashed rumors of adultery with a local news anchorwoman (an affair of thousands of text messages) among other allegations. In the end, after an upset win over the expected winner, Louisiana State University, Nutt ceremoniously resigned from the team, only to sign with Ole Miss four days later. For the deeply interested, here's a comprehensive 46 page reconciliation of the events surrounding Houston Nutt.
posted by Atreides (23 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Wow some posts are just collections of great links and some posts are excellent longform journo-filter in their own right. This is an incredible story, and beautifully rendered here Atreides. Thank you for bringing it out, and man, my heart goes out to Mitch.
posted by salishsea at 2:48 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh man, this is a great FPP, Atreides. I live in the Midwest where Razorback football is a HUGE thing so even though I'm not a football junkie I still find this insanely interesting. Even better, my 8 year old son (who is obsessed with Razorback ball thanks to his dad), actually just scooted me out of the way to read this whole thing. I'll let him fill me in on the details of that 46 page reconciliation when he's finished it :).

Mustain applied to Marine Officer Candidates School last summer. Now, he is working at a friend's car dealership in Bentonville, Ark., easing into life after football.

Damn. What a shame.
posted by youandiandaflame at 3:13 PM on April 26, 2013

Wow... who needs Game of Thrones when we've got SEC football?
posted by spicynuts at 3:47 PM on April 26, 2013

Oh man I remember watching Mustain in that freshman season and thinking Arkansas was about to be the next SEC dynasty. This is a side of sports you don't normally read about, when it all falls apart. Great post.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:07 PM on April 26, 2013

Oh, I highly highly suggest a scroll through the Every Day Should Be Saturday archives during the whole Nutt being forced out time period. just some amazing stuff.

The coach who replaced Nutt, Bobby Petrino, also lost his job due to Adultery.
posted by JPD at 4:08 PM on April 26, 2013

Yeah, I just wanted to say that I really do not care one whit about any of this, but this is one bang-up fantiastic FPP. Well done. Thank you, really. I'm going to read the fuck out of all your links now....
posted by nevercalm at 4:43 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Houston Nutt

posted by downing street memo at 4:51 PM on April 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

(but seriously, great post)
posted by downing street memo at 4:51 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Heres the problem with high school. You go back there and re-status your self but to who? If you're a guy the chicks are mostly not as fine as you remember them. The hot ones you dont recognize because they were not attractive in the day and got better later. High school is a waste of time except it sets the table for the rest of your life.
This Mustardstain kid, it should be no surprise that he didnt make the league if you pay attention! There are hundreds of GREAT high school football players each year that dont even go on to play college football. You could make a case (and a documentary) for most of them about how crazy the goddess of fortune is they arent on a full ride at Alabama. GUESS WHAT FOOTBALL IS A MANS GAME AND THERE ARE NO MEN IN HIGH SCHOOL
posted by Colonel Panic at 5:00 PM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:02 PM on April 26, 2013 [28 favorites]

I went to the U of A and was a fair-weather football fan then but haven't paid attention to Razorback sports since I left Arkansas in the late 90s. Of course, my family and friends back there are still rabid fans--they'll like this post, thanks.

Amusing that Nolan Richardson, former head coach/demigod of Razorback basketball is doing the narration for this football documentary.
posted by zardoz at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2013

Arsenio hall and warren oates?

posted by Colonel Panic at 5:08 PM on April 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nolan Richardson understandably has little love left for the University of Arkansas given the way he was treated, especially compared to the way Houston Nutt was treated.

I work at the University of Arkansas and the sports boosters here are ... intense. This is an amazing post that may give some a sense of what things are like here in NW Arkansas.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to try to hang the nickname the Texas Testicle on Houston Nutt. The name never took while Nutt was working here, but maybe I just never had the right forum.
posted by anaphoric at 5:17 PM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not a football fan or a college sports fan, but I never in my life saw fans turn on a college player they way people I worked with did on Mustain. Beginning of the season, he was Jesus Jumped-Up Christ. In a matter of weeks, he was poison.

I never saw a game that season, but I heard the fans in the office every Monday, and all I remember thinking was "That poor kid. Bunch of people in their forties spitting on him for not having the youth they never could."
posted by middleclasstool at 6:03 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the comments, folks. I was at Arkansas through the entirety of the time period and I really had to figure out what to include, or rather, what to exclude for there was just so much going on, on multiple levels. There were fans who adored Houston Nutt with a passion and others who cursed and spit at every mention of it. Mentioned briefly in the McAfee link is, which was one of the hubs of anti-Nutt spirit. It was there that fans contributed money to fly banners over the stadium before games, clamoring for him to be fired, or organized "black outs" where fans wore black shirts to the games. It was a whole other aspect to the events going on, and paranoia flowed liberally on both sides - be it the harassment of Nutt or the harassment of Mustain (and Gus Malzahn).

That which I forgot to mention was that Malzahn left Tulsa after a couple years to become the offensive coordinator for Auburn, and was in that position when they won their recent national championship, and was just hired during the off season to be the head coach of Auburn. Thus, in seven years, from champion high school football coach to head coach of an Alabama SEC team. Not bad!

At risk of going on, and it's easy to do so on this topic, I'm going to link to a summation of Houston Nutt's play that a local reporter wrote recently which offers a perspective on Nutt's strategy at the time. The reporter is Mike Irwin of the NBC affiliate and wrote regarding Nolan Richardson's involvement:
As far his his interest in Mitch's situation that goes all the way back to 2006 when it had become obvious that Mitch had been benched by Nutt and would stay benched.

I ran into Nolan before the SEC championship game and he asked me what was going on with Mitch. I told him what I knew. He said to me (paraphrasing because it's been a while), I didn't think anything about the kid getting benched at first because I did that all the time with rookies. Sometimes they just need to sit a while and watch. But at some point you have to put them back in. If you don't you'll destroy whatever confidence they have left.

Nolan went on to say that when Mitch stayed on the bench he knew that it was not a football issue but something personal with Nutt toward Mustain.

Bottom line, he thinks the kid got screwed because of Nutt's massive ego.

My own view, based on conversations I've had in the last few months with some of Frank's closest supporters, is that there was a belief by them that Frank needed to retire. White was after him and they knew it was only a matter of time until he got Frank.
The man was in his early 80's. He did not wield the power he once had and his decision making had dropped off.

The plan was to hire Gus, win the SEC two or three years down the road, convince Nutt to take Frank's job for the good of the program, and make Gus the head coach.

Nutt was well aware of this plan. He hated the idea. His goal in 2006 was to win enough games to avoid getting fired and then figure out a way to demote Gus and either take over the play calling again or hire somebody for that job that he could control.

Guess what? His plan worked perfectly.

My issue with Nutt is, he should have told the boosters pushing Gus to buzz off. If you don't like my staff fire me but you're not telling me who to hire.

Instead he did what they asked and in the process of getting rid of Malzahn he and his supporters blamed the whole mess on Mustain and his mother.

They were both easy targets.

Mitch is an introvert who doesn't live, eat and breathe football. Off the field he tends to go his own way. It was easy to turn that into, he's a self centered jerk who wants his own way.

Beck Campbell is actually a fairly low key person but if she thinks you're trying to mess with her or her kids she will get nasty in a heartbeat. She had that reputation in Springdale. Those that know her will tell you that raising her kids as a divorced mom she felt she had to be the mom and the dad of the family. At times the "dad" had to get into people's faces.

Stories were being spread about her when Mitch was a junior in high school. I know. I heard these stories from Nutt's supporters.

The main rumor was very clear. Wherever Mitch played his mom was going to be there controlling things.


Then how is it that he went to USC and she continued to live in Arkansas? How is it that the entire time he was a USC she had one conversation with Pete Carroll?

Ask any of them if Beck Campbell tried to run the team?

In a nutshell (pardon the pun) Nutt and Gus were involved in a power struggle. Mitch Mustain and Ben Cleveland (who also got caught up in this mess) paid the price for that struggle.

Seven years after the fact that stuff is still outrageous.
posted by Atreides at 6:16 PM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

So, yeah, I'm excited to see how the documentary presents the events that unfolded.

And for those who want to know what happened to Houston Nutt after Arkansas, he went to Ole Miss, immediately had two incredible seasons with back to back Cotton Bowl visits (the seasons included beating Arkansas both times - here's a not so great photo of Nutt when he came back to Arkansas as the head coach of the visiting team). Nutt's team then spiraled out of control and went from a bad losing season to an outright disaster which resulted in a conference record of longest running conference losing streak. He ultimately was fired, as was the Athletic Director who hired him. At the time of hiring him, it was considered a great catch.

Right. I'm going to sit on my hands now.

posted by Atreides at 6:23 PM on April 26, 2013

Reminds me of a few ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, which I am addicted to. Todd Marinovich kinda comes to mind from this series. In our culture to not want to be a star quarterback is just shocking to many people. Looking forward to seeing this one!
posted by PHINC at 6:29 PM on April 26, 2013

As an LSU fan, I always hate it when we play Arkansas. It sure feels like they beat us about 10 seasons running to knock us out of the race for the SEC West. But this is a GREAT post!
posted by wintermind at 6:30 PM on April 26, 2013

I was a senior and the drum major of the marching band at Springdale High School when Mustain was a sophomore. I'd been in the band all through high school (which is only grades 10-12 in Springdale), so I saw how the football culture of the school--which was already depressingly Friday-Night-Lights-Season-1-esque--become even more intense. We got to the state championship in Little Rock that year and lost, but I remember the attitude that everyone at school seemed to have was that the next two years were going to be state championship years for sure, as both Mustain and Williams still had that much time to mature and improve. I never met either of them, though my younger brother later had a class with Mustain and said he was a nice guy, but I see them and so many others as victim of the culture that school and so many others like it create. Kids who got athletic scholarships had these entire signing ceremonies that were like individualized pep rallies with local reporters there to photograph and film the whole thing. I don't know if that's normal in high school or not, but all of our students with athletic scholarships got them, even for sports like golf. Athletes were rock stars, but especially the football players. It almost felt like high school existed to create this revenue-generating machine in football, and oh yeah, there are also classes. When I was in junior high (which included 9th grade), I played girls' volleyball, and I distinctly remember the entire girls' volleyball team being brought in for a "random" drug screening. The rumor was (and I don't know how to check if this was/is true or not) that a certain percentage of the school athletes needed to be randomly drug tested, and my assumption has always been that the administration intentionally and non-randomly avoided testing the football players for fear of someone testing positive and being forced off of the team. I hope I'm wrong about that.

I went on to the U of A, too, but didn't do band anymore, and had lost my taste for football culture anyway. I was only somewhat aware that Mustain had joined the team, but wasn't really playing, which seemed weird to me, but I didn't really pretend to understand football. Going through this post, it just keeps hitting me that there is something deeply, deeply wrong with the football culture not just at the U of A, but at the high school and junior high level too, at least in my part of Arkansas.

I'm now doing graduate work at Penn State, and I have watched the events of the last 2 years unfold with increasing horror. I went to the Penn State Creamery today and saw that Peachy Paterno ice cream is still on the menu. And cardboard cutouts of Paterno still decorate the front windows of the student bookstores downtown. I don't think I will ever get any enjoyment out of college sports after all of this, nor can I understand how anyone could. Not after I've seen how deeply insidious football culture can be, and how far-reaching the effects of that festering infection can go. I don't know how to fix it, especially given the financial predicament public education is in, and how much state schools rely on football money for funds. But these problems are more pervasive than many people want to believe, and it's the students who are most affected.

In spite of all of this, I think I received a really great education in my junior high, high school, undergrad, and grad school. But I will do my best to ensure that, if I have any children, they will never attend any of these schools or other schools like them.
posted by joan cusack the second at 7:35 PM on April 26, 2013 [14 favorites]

Awesome post. I grew up in Arkansas and still root for the Hogs. The Nolan Richardson aspect is a whole other story. But I did want to add this link to an interview of Malzahn's wife by a megachurch pastor.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:49 PM on April 26, 2013

Atreides: "In a nutshell (pardon the pun) Nutt and Gus were involved in a power struggle."

The worst part as you (and Irwin) know is that by that point Nutt was perfectly content with mediocrity and it was seriously hurting recruiting. Nutt wasn't completely in the wrong, though, Malzahn clearly was not ready to be the sole playcaller. He was thrust into the position before the team was really ready for him. And, of course, Nutt was happy to let Malzahn hang.

Well, that's actually the second worst part. The worst part is that Mustain's talent was completely wasted. As long as Nutt was calling the plays, there was no place for a QB like Mustain. So much effing drama. I had a friend who was active on Hogville at the time and he was about as anti-Nutt as you can get. My only problem with him was what I mentioned in my first sentence. He was content to be a mediocre coach of mediocre teams. Sometimes the kids had other ideas, but it wasn't really his doing.
posted by wierdo at 8:53 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mitch Mustain, Casey Dick and Houston Nutt? Oh reality--why are you so inherently implausible?
posted by yoink at 7:39 AM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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