Many high major college football players come from single-parent households. This is one reason it’s not surprising many college coaches preach a family-first environment when recruiting those very players and keep preaching team-as-family principles throughout their college careers.
But what does a college coach who has presented himself as a father figure owe that player in the years and decades following college?
That’s a question I delved into while reporting my most recent feature for SYNC magazine, a look at former Razorbacks struggling to find their place in the communities which once revered them. Fred Talley, who still ranks in multiple all-time Top 5 records for Razorback running backs, is one such player.
Last week, Talley spoke to me about his struggles during his playing days and afterward at MarketPlace Grill in Springdale. While he’s obviously still a fan of the program, and keen to talk about the current team, he was undoubtedly jaded toward certain aspects of his career. To start with, he insists it was he – not running backs coach Danny Nutt – who led the running backs positions meetings during the majority of his career, on account of Nutt’s worsening medical issues.
That would have been fine, Talley says, except that the Nutts (Danny and his older brother, head coach Houston Nutt) also promised him a starting position before his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. But for three years in a row, other backs started the first games of the season over him. Then, as Talley recalls, events like injuries would happen and the Nutts would make him a starter. He’d then usually run roughshod over the competition during the second halves of seasons and do things like detonate for 241 yards on Auburn.
As I mention in the SYNC piece, Talley also felt like the coaches showed strong preference to starter Cedric Cobbs over all other backs. Yes, Cobbs was good and sometimes great. But he also tended to take advantage of the fact he was “put on a pedestal,” Talley says. He brought up an example of this after discussing Cobbs’ recent attempt at pro boxing.
He recalls a practice, early in the 2000 season, when he was competing with Alvin Ray to back up Cobbs. At the beginning of a set of running back drills, Cobbs walked up to Bailey and said he could start off a drills so that he could insure he got time running the ball, since many of those attempts were supposed to go to Cobbs – an early-season dark horse Heisman candidate.
Cobbs “was like, ‘So you can get yo game reps,'” Talley recalls, laughing. And Alvin Ray – a Texan guy “you really don’t want to mess with” – was not happy.
“So Alvin pushes him like six yards back, and Danny [Nutt] steps in the way. And Ced, kind of jokingly, reaches around Danny and slaps Alvin Ray. So he goes around and Alvin hits him – boom! Ced has his helmet on and when I say his helmet went 15 feet in the air… So Ced grabs him, picks him up and kind of body slams him but he wasn’t gonna punch him…. He was more like wrasslin’… The whole time Ced was on the top, and it was fine – because players fight all the time on the field, but as soon as Alvin Ray got on top – ‘Break it up and break it up!’ coaches said. Adam Daily got them broken up.”
Many former Hogs are to this day huge Houston Nutt fans, but for these reasons and others Talley is not among them.
There is another reason, too.
The summer and fall of 2007 was a very hard time for Talley. He had just moved back to Fayetteville from Texas after a house fire in which his girlfriend’s child had died along with some of Talley’s cousins. Talley was trying to deal with the aftermath of that trauma while at the same time going back to the school to complete his Educational Studies major.
He got his tuition paid for essentially on a work-study type arrangement where he worked in the strength room with the football team. During that time he developed a tooth abscess – painful to point he could hardly work – and found out from the dentist he’d need surgery for it. During earlier dentist visits, Talley had been under the assumption the UA would pay for the surgery. He recalls that’s what his former UA coaches and staff had told him it would be paid for (as it would have been for an active player, according to Talley), and he says before that time he had talked to Nutt about similar expenses being paid.
But when he tried to call Nutt to inquire into the issue of the school paying to fix his abscess, he couldn’t get him on the phone. He then recalls going to see Nutt in person three times, and twice was told he was too busy to see him – in a meeting or something like that, he recalls. The third time he got him while walking to practice, and was assured the issue would be looked into, but he says he never heard back from Nutt or the athletic trainer Dean Weber on the issue.
Those incidents were the last time he tried to contact Nutt since 2007, he says. He likened not hearing back from his old coach to the hurt his dad had caused him when he was a child.
“It was like my dad’s situation. My dad, when he left, when I was younger, he used to always promise us stuff. Hey, I’m sending this. It’s at the Western Union, and we[Talley and his brothers] would go, and we’d be arguing with the [Western Union] people. “No, no, he said he sent it.”
But he never had sent it and, despite the promises, over time they learned he never would.
I called Houston Nutt for a response and his input. He says he doesn’t recall Talley asking for medical help and he doesn’t recall a phone calls left unreturned, although there may be outside chance that happened if it was in the middle of a game week. He counters by that he never saw Talley physically visit his office during that time. “If Fred Talley called me, trying to get my help, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would bend over backwards trying to call him back.”
He then, over phone and text, detailed how many former players and affiliated organizations he’d helped in various ways. “I will put my Love n caring n giving against any Coach in America, especially @ Arkansas!!!!!!!!,” he wrote.
Here are some examples of his donations:
- Keith Kidd – $7,000
- Sam Olajubutu – $4,000
- CJ McClain – $5,000
- $5,000 to send 25 high school players to a camp of Arkansas Baptist College
- Over $35,000 for new turf and weights at his alma mater Little Rock Central High School.
Nutt was so bothered to learn that Talley felt jaded he got his phone number and called Talley within minutes. According to both of them, for about 15 minutes they discussed Talley’s hard feelings about starting seasons on the bench although he was still, as Nutt put it, one of a few “first-team running backs” (Guys like Brandon Holmes and De’Arrius Howard also logged a lot of minutes in the early 2000s).
Although the abscess is no longer an issue, Nutt promised Talley he would help find a way to help pay for surgery for Talley’s injured shoulders (college football had caused three AC joint separations between them before his senior year), which have caused him persistent pain for about 14 years. In the last few days, Nutt has reached out to Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long about a way to pay for Talley’s injury, Nutt says.
Talley is appreciative of Nutt’s effort but says it doesn’t all the way change his feelings toward his former coach. He says he wonders why it took eight years for Nutt to reach out to him and that it’s a little like when an absentee parent all the sudden shows up in a kid’s life after years away. A few days later Talley added, in text, that he’s using the same mental toughness he honed as a player to deal with the pain and figure out a way to one day pay for whatever he needs: “I feel like I can overcome anything. I almost feel like I’m whining. That’s not me. I really don’t want their help. I’ll be finished with school soon. I’ll be fine with or without them.”
His parenting analogy, though, opens up that complicated question again: What does – and what should – a college head football coach owe his former players in terms availability? People only have so much free time, after all, and active major college head coaches are some of the more busy people around.
The more years a coach is in the business, the more former players he has. On top of that, he will have his own current players while needing to stay in contact with future players (i.e. recruits). Then he must all juggle staff, boosters, parents and, oh yeah, may even have his own family, too. “You’ve gonna focus on trying to keep your job, focus on trying to keep relationships with 125 players,” Nutt says.
“It’s really hard because of all the pressures. It’s hard because of all the people – the coaches, the coaches’ wives, the players on your team, the walk-ons. It’s really a hard, hard deal.” Staying in constant contact with all the former player who may need you is “almost impossible.”