In these midsummer dog days, best-ever lists and Arkansas football recruiting pieces become standard fare for media outlets to fill in the gaps for actual, live Razorback sports news.
Tye Richardson, however, is doing something unique and highly interesting for Arkansas sports fans.
The ESPN Arkansas sports radio broadcaster has been interviewing some of the most well-known and iconic sports media personalities Arkansas has ever produced. Near the top of that list is Wally Hall, the longtime Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports columnist who has never failed to rile up the fanbase with his takes on Arkansas football and more.
In a recent in-depth interview, Hall talked about a number of important moments from his career, from cutting his sportswriting teeth in the New York City market, to working with legendary editor John Robert Starr to amp up the Arkansas Democrat’s sports coverage in Arkansas’ newspaper war of the 1980s.
Through it all, Hall sometimes rubbed folks the wrong way with his reporting/columnizing.
This was never more publicly obvious than when Houston Nutt, the former Arkansas football coach, took umbrage at one of his columns and went the unusual route of calling in to a sports radio talk show that Hall was co-hosting to publicly air his grievances.
Houston Nutt Didn’t Appreciate Hall’s Arkansas Football Take
The situation took place in early February, 2007.
At the time, the embers were still burning from an emotionally charged 2006 Arkansas football season that was laced with accusations of division in the locker room and between Nutt (who won SEC Coach of the Year) and then offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
In January 2017, after just one season on the Hill, Malzahn left to take the same position at Tulsa, perpetually one of the least likely mid-majors to break into the national title conversation according to betting.us odds.
That apparent rift, combined with the fact that the Arkansas football signing class of 2007 finished No. 9 in the SEC (which doesn’t sound as bad nowadays), inspired Wally Hall to write that Nutt wasn’t taking responsibility for the then-poor recruiting ranking.
“According to him, it was the media’s fault,” Hall wrote.
“Well, no one in the media was continuously rude to Gus Malzahn.”
“No one in the media promised Malzahn and every Razorbacks fan that there would be a passing game. No one in the media overruled Malzahn’s play calling.”
Houston Nutt didn’t appreciate this criticism at all.
He phoned into the Buzz 103.7 FM and directly addressed it with Wally Hall.
His rebuttal included an insistence that “no one was rude to Gus Malzahn. Never have been rude…” and that Hall hadn’t gotten his information from good sources.
“He’s got it from somebody, either on the internet, or somebody’s mother. He’s been disgruntled,” Nutt said on air.
“Not one time have I ever told Gus Malzahn not to run the hurry up offense. Not once. Not one time. What I did tell him, was this: I want you to get the ball to Darren McFadden.”
“I want you to get it to him between 25 and 30 times. [Do] anything you want to do, but I want to make sure he touches it 25 to 30 times.”
Listen to more of Nutt’s call-in starting at the 1:39 mark below:
While Nutt’s calling into a show was very unusual, this is far from the only time that an Arkansas football coach has fired back at public criticism.
In 2020, for instance, Sam Pittman defended himself on Twitter against a fan who insulted his integrity.
Still, the call-in did take Wally Hall a bit by surprise.
He had been good friends with Nutt’s father, Houston Nutt Sr., and known Nutt since he was a 15-year-old sophomore quarterback for Little Rock Central. But through all the years that Nutt had been Arkansas football head coach, they had never gotten into it like this.
“I knew that it was going to backfire on him,” Hall told Hit That Line co-host Tye Richardson.
“The public image was that head football coaches don’t call into radio shows” if uninvited as an interview guest.
“I did tell him ‘I stand by what I wrote.’ And to be quite frank with you, I had a couple of people on the board of trustees call me and say, “Going down that list that you wrote every bit of it has happened, or is going to happen.'”
Wally Hall and Houston Nutt Make Peace
While that spat did call a rift for many years, the two men have reconciled.
The occasion was an Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet on a Friday eve around 2018, Hall recalled.
“I walked over to him. I said, ‘Hey, we have too much history, to let this thing continue to fester. We need to bury the hatchet, and not in each other’s head.'”
And so I gave him my phone number, and he called me the following Monday and he aired some things. And I aired some things. And we speak now.”
“I’m not going to say we’re close friends. But it worked out.”
“I did think it was the right thing to do.”
Love him or hate him, Hall ranks with the likes of Clay Henry, Nate Allen, Harry King and Mike Irwin for sheer institutional knowledge of Razorback sports built up over decades of coverage.
If you care about Arkansas sports, make sure to listen to some of his other insider stories in the interview below.
His perspective on how Orville Henry played a bigger role than even Frank Broyles in evangelizing the Razorback brand to the entire state is especially interesting.
He also talks about the time he suffered a stroke covering an Arkansas basketball game and how his friends came through to help him at such an important time:
More Insider Arkansas Razorbacks History
What today is called the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette used to be two newspapers.
In the early 1980s the largest was the Arkansas Gazette, with sports columnist G.O.A.T. Orville Henry as sports editor.
The young challenger was the Arkansas Democrat, with Hall at the helm of the sports page. Both engaged in what became known as the “Great Little Rock Newspaper War.”
In the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat Project, Hall explained the the strategy that helped his Democrat eventually win the war:
“In sports, we—I guess I came up with this strategy—we—nobody could touch the Gazette with the Razorbacks. Orville [Henry] was in tight with [University of Arkansas Athletic Director] Frank Broyles. The Gazette had that sewn up.”
“Everybody expected to get the Razorback news there. We weren’t going to surrender any ground—we tried to make up some, but we took more of a grassroots approach starting when I became the sports editor.
We really stepped up our high school coverage, the old AIC [Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference] coverage.
We started putting on softball tournaments. We did a lot of things that were just grassroots.
… I think we offered more than just the Hogs. We offered the equal coverage to Razorbacks, although people didn’t know that. We had the same 100-inch front page stories on Mondays as the old Gazette did. And it wasn’t Orville—it wasn’t his take. He was a master at what he did.
But we began to step up, and we hired Bob Holt. Bob was a Missouri graduate. We put him in Fayetteville full-time and Bob really brought a new element. Things began to change in Fayetteville. When I began [as] sports editor, Lou Holtz was the coach [of the University of Arkansas football team], and everything was the same.
A few years later, he was gone and Kenny [Ken Hatfield] came in. Kenny and I hit it off and developed a good professional relationship. [Eddie] Sutton and I hit it off because I love basketball.
And he used to really like the fact that I liked basketball more than football. That meant a lot to him. Some trust was developed between the University of Arkansas and the Democrat. Then Sutton left and Nolan [Richardson] came in. Of course, we weren’t close. I don’t think he was really close with anybody, and probably shouldn’t be. But that beat began to change—
… We made a critical hire in the early 1980s. We hired [horse racing writer] Randy Moss, from the Gazette.
Randy was considered the best. We made a run at him [and] we were able to hire him.
I think he stayed four years before moving to the Dallas Morning News, and that kind of was a statement. I don’t think the circulation went up a lot, but it made a statement to the people that we weren’t going away, that we were for real.”
Wally Hall Runs with the Bulls in Spain
In 1984, the Democrat was looking for every conceivable way to outdo the Gazette in sheer buzz factor.
Hall told his managing editor, John Robert Starr, he’d always wanted to run with the bulls in Spain and that’s how he found himself on the streets of Pamplona.
Here’s the story:
“The Spanish people didn’t like American people very much at the time, which I didn’t know. [President Ronald] Reagan was hung in effigy on almost every corner there. I think it had something to do with our politics with Cuba.
But as we were about to turn—you only run this thing about a hundred yards because there were so many people and—I hadn’t really intended to run the first day… The first day was always the most crowded—I was going to watch, and I was sitting on this barricade and was pushed into the street. They had three rules back then—no drunks, no women, and once your feet touch that street, you’re not getting out.
You had to pay the tax. I think it was twenty-five pesetas, or something like that.
As soon as my feet hit that ground there was a guy there. He took my money [and] gave me a red scarf, which, you know, you tie around your waist. I still have it somewhere at home, I think.
But as we were turning the last block—and for some reason this is part of the sport, the women sit on the balconies and spray water on these cobblestones which get real slippery—[as] we were turning the last corner, this guy tripped me.
We were maybe forty or fifty yards ahead of the bulls—maybe less than that—and I caught myself on my hands and came up and I saw him duck into a doorway.
As I was running by, I reached out, grabbed him right around at the shoulder, and he came out, and I jumped in the doorway. And a bull nicked him right in the shoulder. I thought, ‘I’m dead. This whole crowd would turn on me.’
[But] it was the Red Badge of Courage. He was so proud of that.”
The Arkansas Democrat oral history project is awesome. Make sure to check out some of the interviews here.
The former sportswriters include Hall, Jim Bailey (my old Democrat-Gazette colleague) and Jerry McConnell.