Most college football fans have perused their school’s fan message boards. Twitter, blogs, Reddit, Facebook, and other modern tools have taken some of the oomph out of message board culture, but they are still more a part of college football than of any other sport.
And college football’s internet culture, including the amateur detective work that ranges from plane-tracking to social media decrypting, sprang from message boards.
There’s no greater example of that than at Arkansas. Thanks, at first, to a fan named Thomas McAfee, former head coach Houston Nutt was undone by fans signing on to chat about his program.
Then 10 years later, this whole saga came full circle, when Nutt used somewhat similar methods to oust his Ole Miss predecessor, Hugh Freeze. And yes, a message board was again involved.
This whole mess started in 2006.
Shortly after Arkansas fell short in the SEC Championship and a few days before Darren McFadden would come in second in the Heisman race, a woman named Teresa Prewett sent two emails. One was to freshman QB Mitch Mustain, who would transfer to USC.
Mustain was a five-star, in-state prospect who played much of 2006 before being benched in favor of Casey Dick.
Mustain and his family reportedly met with Arkansas' then AD, Frank Broyles, about the way OC Gus Malzahn ran Arkansas’ offense. Amid transfer rumors, Prewett sent a scathing email to Mustain, using a homophobic slur.
Prewett also sent an email to Broyles, among others, with disparaging comments about Springdale (where Mustain and Malzahn came from) and Malzahn.
The problem was that Prewett was a family friend of Nutt and his brother Danny.
One of the emails was sent to Danny’s wife, Carla, and Houston’s wife, Diana.
Houston reprimanded Prewett and banned her from the sidelines. A lawsuit would be filed against the school over the email scandal, but was thrown out twice. Then there was the question of what Nutt knew about the emails and when he knew it.
The Democrat-Gazette obtained university documents related to the e-mails. Diana Nutt forwarded the one sent to Hall to a Springdale business with her own note that said parts of the e-mail about Springdale and Malzahn were "quite funny."
He claims he didn’t see the emails when they were sent, but many didn’t believe that. Prewett didn’t exactly show contrition for her words.
"'I do regret (sending the email) but I don't want to hear he was an 18-year-old,'" said Prewett. "'We've got 18-year-olds in Iraq who would rather be playing college football than (be) holding a gun and people shooting at them.'"
All of that got one fan incensed enough to file a public records request for Nutt’s phone records.
What McAfee got was a trove of Nutt’s correspondence.
As he sifted through four months of records, McAfee counted 2,104 texts exchanged between Nutt and one number, including: 56 on one day, 32 between midnight and 2 a.m.; 16 on Thanksgiving Day; 50 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; and one sent just 19 minutes before the Capital One Bowl. It had to be Prewett, McAfee thought. When he called the number, he got the voice mail of … Donna Bragg? The local news anchor? Why was Nutt calling her?
Nutt’s legal team would meet with McAfee’s by early May, and rumors raged that Nutt was having an affair. Nutt’s wife came to his defense in a blog post, and Nutt promised the correspondence was professional in nature.
SB Nation reached out to McAfee for comment, but our request was unreturned.
Fans mobilized to get Nutt out of the paint.
In May of 2007, Dana Altman accepted the basketball coaching job. He stayed for one day before citing a change of heart and returning to Omaha. But in that short time, even Altman was swept up.
The university has received so many FOI requests in recent months, White says, it has had to hire an additional attorney. Even Altman's cellphone records were requested, athletics department spokesman Kevin Trainor says. But, given Altman's brief stay, Trainor says, that phone was never taken out of the box.
Fans and reporters are not the only ones requesting information. Mustain also submitted an FOI request, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. The quarterback asked for phone records for Houston Nutt; Danny Nutt, the running backs coach and head coach's brother; and Broyles.
By November, the football Hogs were sputtering to a 4-4 finish in conference play, and rumors swirled that Nutt was on the way out. It was a topic at a board of directors meeting in November.
And in the most 2007 development possible, the Razorbacks went into Death Valley days later and beat No. 1 LSU in a three-overtime epic.
Nutt and McFadden would deliver an electric postgame interview that still resonates.
But those good times did not last long.
McAfee dealt with death threats, but it doesn’t appear he was ever sued by Nutt. He took some time off of the message board life.
The spirit of vigilante journalism remains strong among college football fans.
In college, while covering the University of Florida, I was in class in Dec. 2014 when I received an email. It was from a fan who sent me the tail number of a plane belonging to a prominent booster. He claimed the plane had been to Colorado, where Jim McElwain lived.
This person tracked the plane with FlightAware.com, a trove of information about the history of any plane whose number can be tracked publicly. Florida’s athletic department would later block its plane, nut not before this wink at the CFB Twitterverse.
It was a fan taking sports journalism into his own hands. It was more than just a tip. It was legwork done with available tools, and people still fire it up whenever there’s a coaching search.
For Nutt, things didn’t exactly clear up.
His Rebels bottomed out with a 2-10 2011. Nutt was fired but, 10 years later, is suing Ole Miss, in regards to the school’s response to NCAA allegations.
And in the process, he brought down his successor at Ole Miss. Freeze replaced Nutt in Oxford and took the program to heights not seen in decades. The Rebels beat Alabama twice, went to two New Year's Six bowl games, and signed an elite recruiting class.
But Freeze resigned in 2017 when it came to light that he had been using an Ole Miss phone to call an escort service. It came to light because Nutt's camp found the information via public records while snooping for something else, the exact same way Nutt had gotten fired a decade earlier (minus the escort service news).
Nutt's lawyer, Thomas Mars, filed the suit the day before Freeze stepped to the podium at SEC Media Days. The next day, Mars called Ole Miss' general council to let the school know about a phone call that would be hard for the school to explain. He'd been tipped off by Steve Robertson, a Mississippi State fan and publisher of Scout.com's MSU site, meaning message boards were again technically involved. After looking into the matter, Freeze was asked to resign. Had he resisted, Ole Miss said they had enough to fire Freeze with cause, citing a pattern of behavior by Freeze.
And that is how in the span of a decade, phone records and message boards undid two head coaches who were in a Blind Side scene together.