SEC: Tough offseason toughens Nutt

HOOVER, ALABAMA — Coach Houston Nutt says Darren McFadden can do anything. He’s the best running back in the country, no question about that, but he might also be the best quarterback on the Arkansas football team as well. He takes his responsibility as a team leader so seriously that he goes to class even when the professor says his GPA is so high that he can take a few days off. He sounds like a once in a lifetime type, a dream come true.

Is there anything he can’t do?

“He can’t say no to people,” said Nutt at SEC Media Days Wednesday afternoon. “He can’t even go home to Little Rock and go to the mall without being bombarded for 2-3 hours by fans wanting his autograph.”

Signing autographs, doing interviews, shaking hands — it’s all part of what McFadden feels is his responsibility.

“It’s like being nice to people,” he said, sounding like he’s genuinely honored that someone would want a few moments of his time. “I’m not going to tell somebody no because they come up asking for an autograph or things like that.”sounding like he’s genuinely honored that someone would want a few moments of his time.

Based on his production on the field, you would have to consider McFadden the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy this year. He is the nation’s most feared running back and he just keeps getting better because of an unparalleled work ethic.

The numbers tell a rather good story — 2,760 yards in two seasons; an average of 6.0 yards every time he carries the ball; 25 touchdowns; an average of 110 yards per game; 25 pass receptions for 201 yards and a touchdown; 8-11 passing for 82 yards and three touchdowns; 22 kickoff returns for 610 yards and a touchdown (27.7 yards per return); 3,571 total yards; 166 points.

But numbers can only tell so much.

Nutt uses superlatives such as “unselfishness” and “character” and “fierce competitor” when he describes McFadden, who has been timed under 4.3 seconds in the 40. Not bad for a 6-3, 220-pounder.

Unselfishness is the word that Nutt keeps coming back to on this afternoon.

“I just love his unselfishness,” says Nutt, who adds that McFadden loves to go to practice, to the weight room and to class. He’s very unselfish.“

And he loves to have fun. On Halloween, he put on a costume and gave out candy.

What kind of costume?

“I was a clown,” he said, grinning shyly.

What kind of clown?

“A big one,” he said. The grin got bigger.

Then there is the side of McFadden that nobody sees. That’s the side that is fiercely loyal. In an offseason of turmoil in which several players who were part of a highly rated recruiting class of 2006 transferred out in a soap opera that played out nationally, Nutt was accused of having an affair with a television anchor from Fort Smith. An Arkansas fan, using the freedom of information act, got Nutt’s phone records and published them on a blog. Nutt denied he was having an affair, claiming that he had a business relationship with the woman. As the months have gone by and more facts have been unveiled, apparently there is far more credibility to Nutt’s explanation than there is to the blogger’s accusations.

“You think because you see two people talking, you think … hmmm,” said Nutt. “This must be a soap opera. Must be something going on when you don’t know.”

Nutt said his wife and family knew him well and they stood by him. He also wasn’t surprised to find Darren McFadden at his side from the moment the first accusation went public. When McFadden first heard of that Nutt was accused of an affair, the star running back went straight to the coach and wanted to hold a press conference. Nutt said that McFadden told him he wanted to tell everyone “you attack Coach Nutt, you’re attacking me.”

Nutt recalled that McFadden asked him, “Coach, can we have a press conference? Can we shoot back? Can we tell them the truth of what’s going on?”

Perhaps the loyalty that Nutt found in McFadden and in other players like running back Felix Jones and wide receiver Marcus Monk had a trickle down effect. Arkansas camps were filled to capacity with more than 1,000 kids showing up this summer and Razorback clubs have been sellouts wherever Nutt has gone to speak.

Nutt says that there’s a reason that the camps are filled and the fire marshals are turning folks away at the Razorback clubs and booster contributions are at an all-time high. He says that it’s because folks know him and “they know the truth. This is my tenth year and there’s mamas still bringing their sons to me to coach and there’s a reason for it.”

Enough mamas have come to him this summer that the Razorbacks have 14 commitments for the recruiting class of 2008 and it’s only July.

Nutt says he’s stronger because of what’s happened in the off-season, says his team is closer, too. Even though he’s taken a personal hit and has been hurt deeply with accusations that he calls “pure lies”, his only real regret is that all the off-season turmoil hastened the retirement of Coach Frank Broyles, the Arkansas athletic director.

There is a certain reverence when Nutt talks about Broyles, who has been at Arkansas for six decades, first as the head football coach, but for five decades also the athletic director.

“What he’s done with our facilities without one state tax dollar, without one student fee … it’s unheard of,” said Nutt. In terms of facilities from top to bottom, the Razorbacks have an athletic complex that is the very best in all of the Southeastern Conference.

Broyles gets well-deserved credit for what he’s done to build the Razorbacks’ sports complex but what goes unnoticed is what he does for former players.

“I can’t tell you how man times players, former players, come back after their pro runs,” said Nutt. “They’ve been carrying that adidas bag on their shoulder all those years trying to make every league from Arena League, to NFL and NBA. They need a degree. What does he do? He goes and finds a way to get them a degree with tuition and fees paid for. He gets them a scholarship. He’s been nothing but a helper.”

Nutt looks up to Broyles. McFadden looks up to Nutt.

“I admire him,” said McFadden. “With all the allegations and things that were going on with him, all the things that he had going on in the offseason, those are the type of things that will make a person break. Coach Nutt stood strong. He came through it.”

Now that he’s through his offseason of turmoil, stronger for what he’s gone through, Nutt can turn his attention to his player that just can’t say no. He would like for McFadden to have the kind of year that is so good that Heisman voters can’t say no.

“I think that would be tremendous for Arkansas to be able to put a Heisman Trophy in the Broyles Complex in Coach Broyles’ last year,” said Nutt. “There would be nothing like it. I mean it would mean so much.

“You know, he [McFadden] will be at the top to start out. He came in second [in 2006]. But as you and I know, it’s about winning, his teammates. I think he’d be the first to tell you ‘I need my teammates. I need everybody on my team.’ Coaches, players need to be at their best and winning solves all. That will put him in the race. Every team will be trying to stop Darren McFadden. You’re in a fast, fast league. It’s a difficult chore, no question.”

Difficult? Yes. But, after the offseason that Nutt has survived, there is no question that he is up for the task.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.