Hank Iba called Houston Nutt, Sr. “a black man in a white man’s body.”

At least four Arkansans have played basketball at the University of Kentucky. I’ve already written about three of them—Bob Burrow, Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk— though just briefly touched on the first: Houston Nutt, Sr. While question marks hang over how well Monk and Goodwin will be able to reintegrate themselves into Arkansas after having turned down the Razorbacks in favor of the Wildcats, no such question marks hung over Nutt, Sr. after he came home from college to establish life in Little Rock.

Relatively speaking, he had been every bit the high school phenom Monk and Goodwin were, and yet apparently the Razorbacks of the early 1950s were not in contention for his services when the likes of Kentucky—then a powerhouse under coach Adolph Rupp just as it is now under John Calipari—came calling. (The big difference was that in that era Rupp got the majority of his players from inside Kentucky.)

So, how good was the 6-feet-2 Nutt Sr. as a basketball prodigy?

Let’s let Jim Bailey, the longtime Arkansas Gazette (and then Democrat-Gazette) sportswriter, explain: “Quite simply, Houston was several basketball generations ahead of his competitive time,” he wrote in a 2008 letter to Emogene Nutt quoted in You’re the Best: Reflections on the Life of Houston Nutt. “A tall guard, he amounted to what coaches called the ‘The Total Package,’ handling the ball, shooting from outside, driving for the basket, rebounding and, above all, doing everything with intensity, flair and enthusiasm. He often scored 30 to 40 points, and this was in a period of time when 40-50 was a fairly typical high school basketball score.”

In terms of quickness and leaping ability, Nutt, Sr. was no Archie Goodwin—and definitely no Malik Monk. But he was far from shabby, too, according to Hank Iba, the legendary Oklahoma State basketball coach who coached both Nutt, Sr. after a transfer from Kentucky. Decades later, Iba also coached Nutt Sr.’s son Dickey Nutt. “I will never forget him saying, ‘Your dad was a black man in a white man’s body,’ referring to his athleticism,” Dickey Nutt recalled in You’re the Best, a biography of Houston Nutt Sr. written by his widow Emogene Nutt.

This book is a must read and treasure trove of Arkansas history trivia. Here are some other highlights from its first quarter:

A Family Home Built on Sandwiches?

When Nutt Sr. was a child, he banked mad money off the side hustle of selling chicken sandwiches drizzled with Heinz 57. His mom, May, made the sandwiches and then Nutt Sr. sold them at 25 cents apiece at the bus station and train depot. “Houston could sell the sandwiches literally faster than his mother could prepare them,” the story according to Emogene Nutt goes. “I’ve heard that the money was used to help buy the land on Moro Street in Fordyce where the family home is today.”

A Tennis Ball and Coffee Can

Houston Nutt Sr.
Fay, Houston and Clyde (circa 1950)

Houston was born in 1930 and had two older brothers: Fred, born 1922, and Clyde, born 1928. His youngest brother Fay was born in 1932. All four brothers loved to play basketball but in the Great Depression had trouble finding an actual basketball to do so with. So they used an old tennis ball instead. Their basketball goal “was a coffee can with both ends cut out and nailed to the wall,” Emogene Nutt wrote after Nutt Sr.’s passing in 2005.

According to her book, Fred Nutt went on to play on undefeated basketball teams at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Clyde Nutt played for the same school and made All-State in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In 1949, the brothers led the deaf school to its first state basketball title. Fay, meanwhile, played with Houston on the Fordyce Redbugs team.

A Strong Pryor-Nutt connection

David Pryor Houston Nutt
David Pryor, Dennis Nutt and Houston Nutt    Sr. at War Memorial Stadium in 1986

In the 1940s former Arkansas governor David Pryor starred for the Camden Panthers, a rival to the Redbugs which Nutt Sr. quarterbacked. The two competitors became good friends over the years and when Pryor was elected as a U.S. senator and moved to Washington D.C., his son Mark Pryor lived with the Nutts while he finished out his semester at Little Rock Central High School. Nutt Sr. and Pryor even had major heart attacks on the same day—Houston in Little Rock and David in Washington D.C., Emogene Nutt recalled. During their recovery, they jokingly blamed the delicious hamburgers of the Redbug Cafe in Fordyce and Duck Inn Cafe in Camden for the heart attacks.

Ex Governor David Pryor Condemns Hogs’ “Nuclear Arms Race” Mentality

On September 8th, University of Arkansas trustee David Pryor cast a “no” vote for the bond issue behind the largest stadium construction project in state history. Below is a detailed explanation of the former governor’s reasoning, as laid out in a letter earlier in the summer.

Ultimately, Pryor’s veto was in vain.  By a vote of 6-2, the UA board of trustees approved the final step needed to launch the Razorback Stadium north end expansion. The other “no” vote belonged to Monticello lawyer Cliff Gibson. I got Gibson’s take on the issue here.


June 15, 2016

Dear Trustee:

For our Thursday morning meeting, I have requested the opportunity to discuss my reasons for opposing the North End Stadium project for the Fayetteville campus.  I write this letter to you and my other colleagues on the Board as time may not allow me to cover the salient points of my argument during the oral presentation before the full Board.  I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read these thoughts and certainly hope you realize that my position is being taken after much thought, discussion and input.  This is not an attempt to “lobby” you for your vote, but to simply share one Trustee’s belief as to the wrongness of going forward with the North End project.

Whatever the outcome of this important decision by the Board, I will honor your position and the reasons for your vote – regardless of whether you vote to approve or disapprove this enormous commitment for the State of Arkansas.

Some months ago, I proposed that we adopt the “cost/benefit test” as we proceeded to decide this project.  As you know, the stadium expansion will be the largest bond issue in the history of higher education for the State of Arkansas.  It is a monumental commitment of resources, and to some extent, our Board will be establishing by our support that a few luxury boxes and special seats in a football stadium used some six times a year is the highest priority for the institution we all revere and serve.  I personally do not believe this project is the highest priority for the University of Arkansas.

There is a great applause line we all hear and sometimes ourselves repeat:  “We must always put students first.”

The stadium expansion does not put students first.  In fact, the some 26,000 students on the Fayetteville campus will not benefit one iota.  There are no extra student seats added.  In fact, there are no general admission seats added – but only some 3,000 “special seats” for those fans in the upper income levels.

Not one student has contacted me to express support for this project.  To the best of my knowledge, not one student organization, alumni group or chapter, or booster club has voiced their support for the North End expansion.  To the best of my knowledge, not one sports writer or newspaper has endorsed this expansion.  In fact, I have received several hundred e-mails, phone calls and citizen expressions of opposition to this mammoth bond issue which obligates the entire State of Arkansas to support a “chosen few” fans to enjoy an “enhanced game day experience.”

Between 2009 and 2013, our Board chose to support several athletic program projects, establishing a deeper footprint in the Southwestern quadrant of our campus.  In 2013, we voted on the concept of enlarging and improving the North End.  At that time, the estimated cost was not the $160 million price tag of today’s proposal, but $78 to $95 million.  I have yet to see how this enormous cost escalation has occurred in such a short time.  There has been no explanation.

It is now estimated that “only” $120 million will be required of bonded indebtedness, given that $40 million of private funds can be applied to the expansion.  Assuming a bond issue of $120 million, the 20-year cost of principal, interest, and servicing fees, we are facing an obligation of approximately $186 million dollars!

We will not just be endorsing a project costing $160 million but $186 million.

We have just raised tuition, thus adding to the backbreaking debt load our students and their families bear.  With state funding for higher education stagnant, where do we get the dollars for future classrooms for the fast growing student population?  How do we equip our labs and find scholarship support?  Can we continue being in last place in faculty salaries, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (16 southern states).  Are we to accept as a given fact that we are 45th in the nation of those states with the lowest percentage of college degrees?  And, is our answer to these and many other questions going to be, “Let’s use our resources to add 3,000 luxury boxes and high end seats for our football stadium?”

Some have recently said that this addition will help with “recruitment” in enticing prospective Razorbacks to Fayetteville.  Do any of us actually believe that an 18-year-old potential from Conway, Judsonia or Smackover really cares or is impressed by the fact that we have 75,000 stadium seats rather than 72,000?

The Athletic Department states that the expenditure of $160 million on the stadium’s north end will enhance the “game day experience” for Razorback fans.  Will two new elevators, a new Broyles Center, a multi-million video board in the south end, adding some 3,000 new luxury seats truly add any benefit except for a privileged few?

Should we ever decide to issue bonds for classrooms, labs, scholarships, tuition or faculty salaries, count me as a supporter.

A South Arkansas banker e-mailed me that this project is “ill advised.”  Another wrote:  How many student scholarships could we provide with these millions of dollars?  Several former University Trustees have recently stated their opposition to the North end expansion.

In some 8 ½ years as a Trustee, I have voted for many bond issues, every tuition increase and all athletic facilities proposed by the Athletic Department.

I cannot support this proposal.  It makes no sense.  In fact, it defies common sense and fairness that has always been a part of the Arkansas character.  Well known and respected sports writer Nate Allen recently added some true wisdom to this discussion:   “Reserve the Razorbacks just for the rich and they become a brand who fewer can afford and for which they will lose their passion.”

In America, college football has become a nuclear arms race.  Yes, it is BIG BUSINESS.  Fancy stadiums, outlandish salaries, luxury amenities.  We all know that.  On this vote, we now have a rare chance to become the school that takes the bold step of stating what our priorities are really all about.

I look forward to our Thursday discussion of the stadium issue.  You have been kind to read these comments, and to hear me out — and I am grateful.

Respectfully,

David Pryor