A REAL NUTT JOB
Coach Houston Nutt has revived Arkansas to the tune of 8-0
This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue
First-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has a simple message for
the Razorbacks' players and faithful: Believe. Believe in him.
Believe in the Hogs. Nutt, who grew up in Little Rock, came home
from Boise State last December and took over a 4-7 team
dispirited by losing and by the rigid discipline of fired coach
Danny Ford. Nutt tapped into the reserve of Razorbacks pride
that lay in his heart and in the heart of Arkansas fans.
"I remember seeing people outside the stadium holding up two
fingers and three fingers, and I would ask my dad what they were
doing," Nutt says, referring to the universal sign for, I need
two (or three) tickets. "My goal this year was to have people
holding up fingers after two games."
He has met that goal. In a cold downpour last Saturday, a
sellout crowd of 49,115 at Razorback Stadium saw more than it
had dared hope to see. With a stunningly easy 34-0 wipeout of
Ole Miss, Arkansas raised its record to 8-0 and its ranking to
No. 10 heading into its SEC showdown against No. 1 Tennessee.
Picked to finish last in the SEC West, the Razorbacks have a
two-game lead in the division.
"Last year if we'd get down in a game by seven, you'd look at
the sideline, and there would be the coach with his head down,"
says guard Brandon Burlsworth. "His shoulders were slumped. That
filtered down to the players. A week ago Auburn scored two quick
touchdowns and went ahead 21-17 in the third quarter. Coach Nutt
is standing there erect. You can see in his face he has no doubt
we're going to win. That's one thing about this team. We believe."
Nutt, 41, and his nine assistants--seven of whom grew up in
Arkansas or played for the Razorbacks--turned attitudes around
by injecting themselves into the players' lives, often dropping
by their dorm rooms and apartments. Nutt, who lettered in
football and basketball at Arkansas and Oklahoma State, had a
basketball hoop installed inside a football practice facility
and quickly got an inkling of what he was up against when he and
his staff went undefeated in three-on-three games against
players last spring and summer. "That wasn't a very good sign,"
he says. "I thought, How are we going to win football games in
In the last session of two-a-days, with a scrimmage on the
schedule, Nutt brought the players together and announced, "When
I blow this whistle, I want everyone to go...swimming!" Once
they arrived at the campus indoor pool, the Hogs showed their
appreciation by throwing every coach, plus trainer Dean Weber,
into the water.
Nutt took special interest in senior defensive end C.J. McLain,
whom Ford kicked off the team with two games left last season for
testing positive for marijuana. "I come to tears every time I
think about how much Coach Nutt's reaching out meant to me," says
McLain, who got his team-leading fifth sack against the Rebels.
At Nutt's behest McLain had extra meetings with the coaches and
underwent extra drug tests. He did what Nutt asked of him. "So
many things could have gone another way," McLain says. "I love
being a Razorback. I love working hard for Coach Nutt."
A year ago Arkansas removed 1,200 seldom-sold seats from the
south end zone at Razorback Stadium and planted grass in their
place. Last Friday the board of trustees approved the hiring of
an architect to design a $60 million, 20,000-seat expansion of
the stadium. The way Nutt's team is going, even then the fans
may be holding up fingers.
ANOTHER CHANGE AT AUBURN
On Nov. 1, nine days after Auburn coach Terry Bowden had
resigned under pressure, interim coach and defensive coordinator
Bill Oliver fired offensive coordinator Rodney Allison. That has
given Tigers players about all the excitement they can stand for
one season. Freshman tailback Michael Burks says he will discuss
with his mother whether to transfer. "You trust the head coach
with your four years, and he's fired," Burks says. "Then you
turn around and your position coach is fired. You don't know
what to expect."
Allison and Bowden are close. When Bowden explained his
departure in an emotional speech to the Tigers on Oct. 23,
Allison left the room in tears. That didn't sit well with
Oliver, who already had decided to take play-calling duties away
from Allison and give them to quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher.
Before the Louisiana Tech game the next day, Allison learned he
would no longer call plays. He put his house up for sale. Six
days later, on the morning after Auburn's 24-21 loss to
Arkansas, Oliver told Allison to leave. "We all need to be
pulling on the rope in the same direction," Oliver told the
media after canning Allison.
Oliver, who is 2-1 after the Tigers' 10-6 victory over Central
Florida last Saturday, will most likely have his interim status
lifted at the end of the season. If he's not pulling on the rope
next year, the Tigers will be at the end of theirs. "I think if
they bring in somebody other than Coach Oliver, the players
aren't going to play up to their potential," says senior
nosetackle Charles Dorsey.
MORE THAN MERELY MOSS
When a sophomore quarterback leads the nation with 39 touchdown
passes, has a higher pass-efficiency rating than Peyton Manning
and throws for a conference-record 3,480 yards, as Marshall's
Chad Pennington did in the Mid-American Conference in 1997, he's
usually the team's focal point. But another player in Huntington,
W.Va., grabbed the spotlight last year--a guy by the name of Randy
Moss, who was on the receiving end of 25 of Pennington's TD
Now that Moss plays for the Minnesota Vikings, Pennington has
shown that the Thundering Herd had a pretty good quarterback to
go with its All-America receiver. This season, without a deep
threat, Pennington has completed passes to 17 teammates while
connecting on 65.5% of his throws, for 2,848 yards and 21
touchdowns. As a result Marshall is 9-1 and headed to its second
straight MAC championship game. Pennington holds the Thundering
Herd's record for career TD passes (78) and needs 301 yards to
become its alltime leading passer. "Chad's a hell of a player,"
says Moss. "I think we made each other look good."
The picture wasn't always so rosy for Pennington. Though he
passed for 2,445 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading Marshall
to the Division I-AA championship game as a freshman in 1995, he
was redshirted the following season after Eric Kresser, a senior
transfer from Florida, narrowly won the starting job. The knocks
against Pennington were his slight 6'3", 195-pound build and his
lack of arm strength.
"In retrospect I'm glad the coaches did it, because it was the
best football decision that was ever made for me," Pennington
says. "But on game day I was a wreck. All I could do was stand
on the sideline and watch. The day we won the I-AA national
championship in 1996 was the best day of the year for me, not
only because we finished 15-0 but also because it marked the
beginning of the '97 season."
A broadcast-journalism major, Pennington carries a 3.75 GPA. His
dream is to play in the NFL, and having grown an inch and added
25 pounds since his freshman year, he has persuaded at least one
knowledgeable supporter. "I've seen NFL quarterbacks," says
Moss, "and I think he can come in and play on this level right
now." --B.J. Schecter
Wake up, Beavers!
EARLY REVEILLE AT OREGON STATE
Mike Riley is willing to try almost anything to end Oregon
State's streak of 27 years without a winning season, the longest
drought in the nation. So this year he broke with college
football custom and implemented morning practices. "We're going
out on a limb," says Riley, who's in his second year with the
Beavers, "but I think it makes sense."
While other teams begin their workouts in the afternoon, when
classes are over, the Beavers take the field from 8 to 10 a.m.
and then hit the classroom. They return for film sessions and
meetings in the early evening.
"Once we get the players awake, which takes about 20 minutes, we
find they've got more energy in the morning," says Riley. "It
also breaks up the day for them. It's not four straight hours of
football, so you get better concentration."
Riley, 45, who served as an assistant at Southern Cal from 1992
to '96, says he got the idea from former Trojans basketball coach
George Raveling, who borrowed it from his opposite number at
Temple, John Chaney. In addition to taking advantage of the
players' higher energy level, Riley says, morning practices help
ensure that they eat a decent breakfast--nobody wants to run two
hours of drills on an empty stomach--and make it to morning
classes. Coaches like the schedule because they can break down
tape in the afternoon, leaving evenings free to make recruiting
calls. "The only problem is that the grass is always wet first
thing in the morning," Riley says.
Before making the switch, Riley checked with Oregon State's
academic services staff to make sure his players' class
schedules could be adjusted to accommodate the practices. Then
he had to sell his none-too-eager Beavers on the idea. "At first
they hated getting up," Riley says, "but almost to a man,
they've told me, 'Once you get going, it's great.'"
Riley says the morning workouts are an experiment that he'll
evaluate after the season. The early practices weren't enough to
break Oregon State's streak. After winning four of their first
six games, the Beavers have lost four straight, including a
41-34 heartbreaker to UCLA last Saturday, to drop their record
to 4-6 with one game left. --Marty Burns
TREE HUGGERS VS. TREE MUGGERS
This caper is equal parts surreal and arboreal: the case of the
kidnapped Stanford Tree.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 17, someone broke into the
Stanford Band Shak, the storage facility for the Cardinal
marching band, and made off with the 10-foot-tall, 45-pound
costume of the school mascot. Almost immediately campus police
ruled out the Symbionese Liberation Army. Instead they looked
across San Francisco Bay to Berkeley and hated Pac-10 rival Cal.
"There is nothing about this that's a joke," said Stanford
police captain Raoul Niemeyer, who was treating the prank as a
felony. "You do the crime, you do the time."
Six days passed without a lead. Or a leaf. Law enforcement
officials at both schools were stumped. Stanford Business School
graduate Tim Harrington offered to pay a $5,000 "reward" to a
local charity. Junior Chris Henderson, the debarked mascot,
showed symptoms of an identity crisis by issuing a press release
that stated, in part, "I am the Tree. Me." Cal chancellor Robert
Berdahl set a midnight Oct. 28 deadline for the Tree's return,
no questions asked; after that he would put Oski the Bear, the
Cal mascot, under lair arrest as an act of good faith.
On Oct. 23 the costume's captors, using the name the Phoenix
Five, delivered a letter to the Cal student newspaper, The Daily
Californian, in which they promised to return the Tree unharmed
before the 101st Big Game between the Cardinal and the Golden
Bears, in Berkeley on Nov. 21. Enclosed with the letter was a
photo of their uprooted hostage, blindfolded but unharmed.
A week later the group delivered the costume to Berdahl's office
in exchange for amnesty. The Tree was returned to Palo Alto
undamaged, but last Saturday during halftime of the Stanford-USC
game, the Cardinal band used a tree shredder to destroy the
stolen mascot because it had been "contaminated." A new Tree was
unveiled, but it will have to watch its bark when it visits
Berkeley. The last time the Big Game was played at Memorial
Stadium, in 1996, Cal students stormed the field and literally
tore the Tree costume limb from limb. --John Walters
BIG MAN IN THE BIG EASY
The success of coach Tommy Bowden, who has guided Tulane to an
8-0 mark and a No. 14 ranking, bolsters the school's stature as
the new cradle of coaches. Two other men who once led the Green
Wave are coaching Top 25 teams. Larry Smith, who went 18-27 at
Tulane from 1976 to '79, is 7-2 with 13th-ranked Missouri. Mack
Brown, who had an 11-23 record in New Orleans from 1985 to '87,
is 7-2 with 18th-ranked Texas....
The eight schools who will desert the WAC to form the Mountain
West Conference (SI, Nov. 9) are 18-8 against the schools they
will be leaving behind.
The granddaddy of them all is virtually assured the Big Ten
champ now that Ohio State has lost. Dilemma: Invite Arizona as
the opponent and keep the Pac-10 happy, or ask Notre Dame and
score in the ratings?
Michigan State Injuries
Cornerback Amp Campbell's neck injury inspired a rout of Notre
Dame. Defensive end Robaire Smith's broken leg inspired an upset
of Ohio State. Will the Spartans run out of players before they
run out of magic?
Los Alamitos High
Griffins alum Brad Melsby caught the 61-yard touchdown pass with
21 seconds left that gave UCLA its 41-34 win at Oregon State.
Tony Hartley of Oregon, Melsby's teammate at the L.A.-area
school, had 242 receiving yards and two TDs as the Ducks beat
Once known as just another military school option whiz, the Air
Force quarterback threw first-half touchdowns of 54 and 74 yards
to Dylan Newman in the Falcons' 35-7 victory at Army.
After being shut out by Penn State in his '98 debut, Illinois's
third starting quarterback of the season completed 20 of 27
passes in the Illini's 31-16 upset of Indiana.
TOP 10 Two-Sport Players
JOE BORCHARD, STANFORD The outfielder-DH hit .330 with 10 homers
and 55 RBIs and made the All-West Regional team in '98; as a
sophomore backup quarterback he's 12 of 26 for 146 yards and two
REAGAN BOWNDS, TEXAS TECH Though he has 64 tackles, two
interceptions and a sack for the Red Raiders, the 5'10",
190-pound junior linebacker is better known as the 1996 world
JOHN CAPEL, FLORIDA Winner of the 100 and 200 meters at the 1997
national scholastic track and field championships, the freshman
speedster has eight carries for 65 yards and a touchdown and has
returned eight punts for 77 yards for the Gators.
RONALD CURRY, NORTH CAROLINA The 6'2", 200-pound freshman
quarterback, a high school All-America in football and
basketball, has thrown for 913 yards and six touchdowns. He will
join the Tar Heels' basketball team after the football season.
DANNY FARMER, UCLA The Bruins' No. 1 receiver, a 6'4", 210-pound
junior, has 38 catches for 772 yards and six touchdowns. He was
also a key reserve on the Bruins' 1998 national championship
DREW HENSON, MICHIGAN The freshman, a highly prized recruit (SI,
Aug. 3, 1998), has passed for three TDs as the Wolverines'
backup quarterback. He was a third-round pick of the Yankees
JA'WARREN HOOKER, WASHINGTON Expected to be one of the Huskies'
prime receivers this season, the 1998 NCAA indoor 55-meter track
champ has missed three games with a shoulder injury and has
seven catches for 59 yards.
ROYCE HUFFMAN, TCU The Horned Frogs' junior punter-punt
returner-wide receiver is also an All-America third baseman.
HUBERT LOUDERMILK, ARKANSAS The junior wide receiver was a
member of the distance-medley relay team that won in the SEC
indoor track championships in 1997. He has two touchdown catches.
ANTWAAN RANDLE EL, INDIANA A breakout player for the improving
Hoosiers, the 5'10", 177-pound sophomore (above) has passed for
1,615 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 817 yards and
eight TDs. This winter he'll play point guard for Bob Knight.
--Wisconsin (9-0) at Michigan (7-2)
The winner clinches a share of the Big Ten title and, in the
case of the eighth-ranked Badgers, the trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Better Business Bureau already is adding phone lines: Five
years ago, when the Badgers last won the conference, travel
agents sold Wisconsin fans more trips to Pasadena than they had
tickets to the game, which caused such a fracas that the
California assembly held hearings on the matter.
Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in rushing defense. However,
only one of the six Big Ten teams it has beaten ranks in the top
50 in rushing. Michigan, ranked 70th, has mastered only half of
the traditional Big Ten running game: the cloud of dust. Still,
the Wolverines will take advantage of playing at home and
win--if only because a victory would take them one step closer
to tormenting Ohio State again.
--Nebraska (8-2) at Kansas State (9-0)
Fans of the No. 2 Wildcats have been heard taking victory over
the Huskers for granted and warning that Kansas State's toughest
test will be at Missouri the following week. The devil must be
wearing long underwear, because hell surely has frozen over.
Dress warmly and go with Kansas State.
--Air Force (8-1) at Wyoming (8-1)
It's a shame the WAC's two best teams are in the Mountain
Division, making this the true conference championship game.
Ride 'em, Cowboys D.
--North Carolina (4-4) at Virginia (7-2)
Tar Heels freshman quarterback Ronald Curry returns home to the
school and the state he spurned. (Curry verbally committed to the
Cavaliers, only to change his mind and sign with North Carolina.)
The Cavs' victory should salve those hurt feelings.
--Williams (7-0) at Amherst (5-2)
It's the 113th installment of the rivalry, and for the fifth
straight year at least one of the two participants is
undefeated. Amherst hasn't won in the past 11 tries. Make it 12.
Read more from Ivan Maisel, and cast your vote in our Top 25
fans' poll at www.cnnsi.com.