Miracle is a funny word. When the subject is the resurrection of
Arkansas football as achieved by coach Houston Nutt Jr.,
Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles gets as wound up as a
preacher in a revival tent. "It has exceeded anything that the
most optimistic Arkansas fan hoped for," Broyles says, slapping
the top of his banker's-sized desk for emphasis. "It's a
storybook. It's not real life."
Last fall, in his first year at the helm, the 41-year-old Nutt
took a team picked to finish last in the SEC West and went 9-3
to end up No. 16 in the final national poll. Nutt so energized
the Hogs' dormant fan base that Broyles saw the need for a
20,000-seat expansion of Razorback Stadium. The $60 million
project is scheduled to begin in July.
Five hours east of Fayetteville, at Arkansas State in Jonesboro,
people are shouting the praises of Houston's 39-year-old brother,
Dickey. The season before he took over the Indians' basketball
team, Arkansas State ranked 269th out of 302 Division I squads in
the power ratings. Four years later, in 1999, with his
36-year-old brother, Dennis, as one of his assistants, Dickey led
the Indians to their first NCAA tournament berth, where they
played second-seeded Utah evenly for more than a half before
losing 80-58 in the first round.
Now, maybe those aren't really miracles, just exciting
turnarounds. But miracle might be the only word to describe the
turnaround executed by another Nutt brother, 38-year-old Danny,
who works as Arkansas's running backs coach. On Dec. 30, he
underwent surgery to stop bleeding in his brain stem. Three
months later, after battling blindness and deafness and then
learning to walk again, Danny returned to his job at the Broyles
Athletic Center. Even his doctor calls that a miracle.
That four brothers grew up to coach at two of the largest
universities in their home state is so corny it could have come
from a John R. Tunis novel. Tunis, who wrote sports fiction in
the postwar era, is a relic of a less cynical time. So, too, are
To truly appreciate the brothers, it helps to start in Fordyce,
Ark., a small town that sits about 200 miles southeast of
Fayetteville. It was there that their father, also named Houston,
grew up hearing impaired in a family of eight. It was there also
that he honed the skills that would make him the answer to a
trivia question--the only person to play basketball for both
Adolph Rupp, at Kentucky, and Henry Iba, at Oklahoma A&M, both
Hall of Fame coaches.
After graduating from A&M and settling down in Little Rock,
Houston joined two of his two brothers on a basketball team that
played deaf teams in the U.S. and around the world. They
represented America in the 1957 Deaf Olympics in Milan and won
the gold medal. In later years they barnstormed to towns such as
Amity and Tuckerman, Sheridan and, as it is now known, a place
called Hope, playing against town teams with a showtime style
that made the Nutts local legends. Before their father and uncles
played, the Nutt Pee Wees--Houston Jr., Dickey, Danny, Dennis and
a cousin or friend--would take the floor. "You got four boys,"
says the elder Houston, who's now 68. "You got to get them to
come up right. This way, you get all the family coming to the
The Nutt Pee Wees often played kids older than they were, but
they rarely lost. Life at home was a series of two-on-two games.
The brothers played basketball in the backyard with an eight-foot
goal and a volleyball, and in the living room with a Nerf ball
and shoe boxes taped over two doorways. When they got on a
regular floor, "we could do amazing things with the ball," Dickey
says. "Houston was a phenomenal ball handler. I was known for
shooting bombs. Danny could get going full speed, slide on his
knees and keep his dribble going."
The elder Houston and his wife, Emogene, taught their boys to
work hard and respect others. It's hardly surprising that Emogene
was named the Arkansas Mother of the Year for 1998 by American
Mothers, Inc. "If we heard it once from my mother," Dickey says,
"we heard it a million times. Treat people the way you want to be
treated." She meant all people, no matter the color and no matter
The Nutt boys grew up six blocks from Little Rock Central High,
a school that became a national symbol for racial intolerance in
1957, when Governor Orval Faubus's efforts to prevent its
integration caused President Eisenhower to order the National
Guard to escort black students into the school. They also grew
up three blocks from the Arkansas School for the Deaf, where
their parents taught for 31 years. Many nights after supper, the
brothers would walk to the deaf school with their dad and play
in the gym while he put in some extra hours. He asked them to
play with only one light on so they would be less likely to draw
the deaf kids out of their dorm and away from their homework.
When the brothers did play with the deaf students, sound was
never an issue. "One thing about the deaf playground," Houston
Jr. says, "there was no, 'Hey, Johnny, throw me the ball, I'm
open.' Nobody is hollering. When I played basketball for Eddie
Sutton at Arkansas, he believed I saw the court better because I
had played with the deaf kids."
In the Nutt home, no one drank alcohol and no one cussed. Every
Sunday morning the family filed into the front pew at Immanuel
Baptist Church. And as the boys got older, they filed into
Central High, even as it became more and more integrated. Many of
the Nutts' white classmates were pulled out of the school and
sent to Catholic High, but the elder Houston held firm. Says
Dickey, "People would call my dad and tell him, 'Better get your
boys out of that neighborhood.' My dad would say, 'You don't
understand. This is where we live. This is their school.'" Adds
Dennis, "We didn't see things as black and white. The deaf
community teaches you that. They're deaf. Black, white, Asian,
The Nutt brothers thrived at Central. From 1974 through '81 the
Tigers quarterback and point guard positions passed from Houston
Jr. to Dickey to Danny to Dennis. All four made all-state in
football and basketball. All four played on a state champion in
one sport or the other. All four earned college athletic
scholarships, though Dennis, the baby, is the one who shone. He
made All-Southwest Conference as a guard on the TCU basketball
team and then spent two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks. "I
don't understand that," Dickey says with mock dismay. "We're
better than he is."
To this day the brothers constantly tease one another, a practice
that started and flourished in the backseat during those Pee Wee
trips. "My daddy's the only man I know who could drive 75 miles
an hour with four boys in the backseat, reach back without
looking and slap the right one every time," Houston Jr. says. The
bonds that formed on those weekend trips now extend across the
state, from Fayetteville to Little Rock--where Houston and Emogene
still live--to Jonesboro. The boys still discuss how their parents
always gave them the gift of time. "It goes back to being in that
car together, playing Pee Wee ball together," Houston Jr. says.
"That feeling has stayed so strong and is such a good support
In a lonely, competitive business, a coach can always use an
assistant he can trust or a brother who knows him as well as he
knows himself. Houston Jr. and Dickey have both. After they put
their kids to bed and have a catch-up conversation with their
spouses, one brother usually phones the other.
Houston Jr. was the first to become a head coach, taking over
the football program at Murray State in 1992. Two years later
Dickey was promoted from assistant to head coach of basketball
at Arkansas State. Brad Hovious, then the Indians' athletic
director, presented Dickey with an NCAA tournament watch that
Hovious had received while working at UTEP. "When you go to the
NCAAs and get you one, you can give this back to me," Hovious
Fat chance. Arkansas State had gone 8-20 in 1994-95, and Hovious
wanted so desperately to fire coach Nelson Catalina that Hovious
agreed to let Catalina take another job at the school while being
paid the head coach's salary. In other words, Dickey took over
the Indians on a one-year trial basis without getting a raise
from his $27,500 salary. Hovious called Houston Jr. and said, "I
just offered your brother the worst job I ever offered."
"Brad, don't you worry about that," Houston Jr. replied. "He
understands that, and he'll work through it."
A year ago, shortly after the Indians had gone 20-9 and shared
the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship, Dickey got a
phone call from Hovious, now an assistant athletic director at
Rice. He was planning to be in Memphis, an hour or so away from
Jonesboro, and wanted to catch up with his old pal. "Dickey drove
over and we met at a barbecue place," Hovious says. "Dickey pulls
out a little ring box. He gave me a Sun Belt Conference
championship ring and said, 'This wouldn't have been possible
without you.' That just floored me. It meant the world to me."
The Nutts never saw hearing impairment as a handicap. Deafness
was a part of their lives and called for no special treatment
beyond learning sign language. "That was one thing my dad
believed with a passion," Dennis says. "Somebody walked into a
McDonald's once when we were in there and handed the person
behind the counter a card that read, 'I'm deaf-mute. Would you
please help me?' My dad really disapproved of people who did
that. He walked up to that guy and signed, 'What's your name and
what are you doing?' The guy was shocked. My dad signed to him,
'Just because you're deaf, don't be in here begging for money.
Go get a job!'"
Dickey and Danny both have significant hearing loss in the left
ear that has worsened with age. Deaf speech pattern, the handicap
that develops when one doesn't hear well, is evident in their
voices. Because Dickey doesn't hear high-pitched sounds, he ranks
the development of the vibrating cellular phone right up there
with the invention of glass backboards. "If my hearing goes
[completely], it would be devastating to my job," he says. "I
lip-read, but I do so much work by phone."
The elder Houston grew up using sign language. Emogene learned it
when she followed him to the deaf school. They taught it to the
boys. To this day the boys converse as easily among themselves
with sign language as they sometimes do with Houston Sr., whose
hearing has deteriorated. Many coaches use signs to call plays,
but Houston Jr. and Dickey use sign language. At Arkansas State,
for instance, two index fingers facing each other is man-to-man.
For zone, Dickey's fingertips and thumbs touch to form a cup.
"Some of the deaf people who watch games on TV get so excited
when they see that," the elder Houston says. "They feel so good
about that." At one of Dickey's first games as coach at Arkansas
State, he looked up and saw his dad signing. The thought that he
and his father could speak across an arena in the middle of a
game warmed him. Then he read his dad's hands.
"Why is number 25 not in?" the father asked.
"Go get a Coke," the son signed back.
At the 1998 Final Four practices in San Antonio that were open to
the public, Dennis struck up a conversation with a couple of guys
he spotted signing to each other in the stands. One of them
turned out to be Jim DeStefano, an associate athletic director at
Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., school for the deaf.
DeStefano ended up sending his hearing-impaired boys, Stephen and
David, to the Arkansas State basketball camp last summer. "They
learned enormously," DeStefano says. "It was very beneficial for
my boys when either Dickey or Dennis signed basketball terms to
them. As for interpreting, Dickey did a great job. He signed for
the guest speakers if the boys needed him to sign. This was a
wonderful opportunity. Not many deaf athletes have this advantage
when they attend camps designed for hearing campers."
One day last November, about the time Arkansas's football team
had arisen from nowhere to win its first eight games, Danny lost
his hearing for three days. "I thought it was sinus trouble," he
says. Around Thanksgiving, the left side of his face went numb.
That lasted a week. In mid-December, he got dizzy and nauseated.
That didn't go away. An MRI revealed the bleeding in his brain
stem. A Swiss neurosurgeon named Gazi Yasargil pioneered the
technique for the surgery needed to correct this condition.
Yasargil lives in Little Rock, lured there by the University of
Arkansas for Medical Sciences department of neurosurgery. On
Dec. 30, two days before the Razorbacks played Michigan in the
Citrus Bowl, Danny underwent surgery to have the bleeding
vessels cauterized. To get to the brain stem, Yasargil had to
lift a small part of Danny's brain. Says Houston Jr., "He told
me, 'You don't want to know what I did to your brother's brain.'"
In many operations, the invaded part of the body swells. In brain
surgery, no one can be sure whether the body's response to the
swelling will be temporary or permanent. The left side of Danny's
face remained paralyzed after the surgery. He couldn't blink his
left eye. Doctors put a patch over it to protect it, but the
patch, unbeknownst to anyone, only scratched the eye. Finally,
Danny had the eye sewn shut so that it would stay moist. His
right eye couldn't focus. "His father would shave him," Emogene
says, "and Danny wouldn't feel the shaving cream running down his
face. It was pitiful. He would smile, and one side of his face
Danny moved into his parents' house in Little Rock. His wife,
Carla, and their four children moved to Little Rock, too, and
stayed with her parents. His brothers called constantly. Houston
Jr. stopped by on recruiting trips. Dickey and Dennis, in the
midst of their basketball season, snuck in for an afternoon once
By February the hearing had returned to Danny's right ear. Then
the nerves in the left side of his face began to awaken. Soon
thereafter he started to try to walk. "That first step is
amazing," Danny says. "You don't know if you're going to fall
down. I pray every day that I can put two feet on the ground. I
didn't know how fast the room would spin, whether I would throw
up." His parents would spend all morning helping him sit up,
stand and walk to the leather recliner in their den. Danny would
spend the day there and then work his way back to bed.
On his first day back in the office, he was supposed to work half
a day. He couldn't bear to leave after seeing the team take the
field for practice and didn't go home until 6 p.m. The third day,
March 24, the hearing in his left ear showed faint signs of
returning. The left side of his face still drooped a little.
"The Citrus Bowl was my first game as a head coach that Danny
wasn't with me," Houston Jr. says. "I looked for him on the
field, and he wasn't there." The Razorbacks lost 45-31, and
getting the right running backs on the field for the right
plays, which had been Danny's responsibility, was a challenge.
"I told the team at the Citrus Bowl," Houston Jr. says, "'I
can't guarantee you tomorrow. I have a brother who could run
sprints with you two weeks ago. I don't have much tolerance for
the guy who lies in bed and misses class. I don't have much
tolerance for the guy whom we ask to run a 20-yard sprint and he
runs 19. I need your best effort. Every day is a gift.' I ask
the players every day, 'Are you giving it?'"
At a checkup with Yasargil in March, Danny mentioned that his
hand shakes a little. "Son," Yasargil said, "some people who come
out of this surgery are in a wheelchair."
Danny sits behind his desk in his office and smiles. "I'm just
thrilled to be here," he says. "I'm a miracle."
blindness and deafness and learn to walk all over again.
Sunday the family filed into the front pew at Immanuel Baptist.
ear that has worsened with age.
only a half day. He stayed until 6 p.m.