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Our Interview With Mitch Mustain

After seeing the documentary profiling Mustain's tempestuous time in Arkansas, we caught up with Mustain to ask a few follow-up questions.

Stephen Dunn

Mitch Mustain recorded approximately 20 hours of interviews for the 90-minute documentary The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain, which premiered at the Little Rock Film Festival in May. As with any good movie, there is plenty of material that had to be left out, but it still created discussion and questions among those who saw it.

I've followed this story through the years and still found the film to be interesting and thought-provoking. (Read my review of the film here) I caught up with Mustain in the days following the premiere and he was generous enough to answer some follow-up questions about the entire experience.

(Note: I'm fully aware of the segment of Razorback fans who don't want the Springdale 5 to ever be mentioned again. So, please, spare me. No one made you click on this story. Personally, I feel this was an extremely intriguing and important time in recent Razorback history, and if there's ever a good time to look back on Razorback history, it's during the dead stretches of the off-season.)

DH: After all these years, why did you decide to participate in the movie? Some might say it's impossible to get a true depiction of this story without participation from Nutt and Malzahn. Is that a fair question? Do you wish they had participated, and how different would the film be if they had, if at all? Matthew Wolfe said in the post-screening Q&A he tried to get them but couldn't.

MM: My decision to participate in this film was not a foregone conclusion. For one, I am uncomfortable with the idea of being the focus of the camera and certainly of a major production. It’s one thing to be on film or on television as part of a team, but quite another to subject yourself to the scrutiny I believed this work would undoubtedly bring forth. Second, what bit of humility I have been allowed finds it hard to believe myself worth the time and interest beyond discussing the 2006 season.

I agreed to participate for several reasons. First, plenty has been said on the topic, seemingly by everyone with a pen except me. Most of it was flat out false, and it was apparent from where it had come. I had initially remained quiet regarding my time and experience at the university and had maintained that silence throughout college. And I think that was a good decision, given that I had moved on to other things that required my time and attention and that I didn’t feel the need to rehash a sore topic.

Second, when I decided to participate in the film, I was no longer a part of a college football team. While at USC, I felt speaking about past negative experiences would only draw unwanted attention, both for myself and my team. When I left the university in 2007, I had lost any residual desire to discuss what had happened and why it happened.

However, ultimately I found myself needing and wanting to tell the story, both for myself and as a warning for those who may face a similar path. What happened in 2006 at the University of Arkansas was hard to grasp by nearly everyone, and as much so for those of us in the middle of it. Something like that can leave emotional scars that may be initially unrecognizable but which can and generally will manifest in some form down the road. This film was as much about telling the complete story as it was catharsis. It needed to be told, and I needed to tell it.

As for the lack of participation from Nutt and Malzahn, I certainly think it is a fair question. That said, I do not find the film incomplete without them. For one, each has had his say in the matter; Nutt in 2006 and his perpetual furtive commentary thence; and Malzahn, also in the past, a man of few words who has remained mum on the matter and would continue to do so. For the record, each was allowed opportunity for comment and rebuttal. Despite that, I don’t believe their commentary would have altered the film either way. Nutt would be who he is, and Malzahn would give nothing pertinent to the cause - and that’s understandable.

DH: Did you think the movie accurately depicted what happened to you? Is there anything that was left on the cutting room floor you wish had been included?

MM: I don’t think any film can accurately depict a person in full, and I knew it would be the case here. The human-interest angle to the film was Wolfe’s take and was a necessary evil to getting my part of the 2006 story to the audience. Had it been completely mine to make, very little would have been about my personal interests and doings, and more so about the specific events and people of the time in question. But I don’t make movies, and that wouldn’t sell anyway, at least not to a broader, interstate audience - which is the ultimate goal. That said, I did the film with a mind to the Arkansas audience and hope that they get a fuller look into what happened during my time there, and I suppose there is enough interest in my character at the time and certainly in everything that followed.

As for what was left on the cutting room floor (a great deal as it turns out), there is much that I personally would like to have seen. Of course, Wolfe is very good at what he does and gives his own reasons for leaving certain things said either by others or not said at all.

One item touched upon, by whom I don’t remember, was development, particularly as a freshman quarterback, and Matt Stafford comes up. If you’ll recall, Stafford and I had comparable statistics that same season and had each been benched at some time (Stafford on a couple of occasions, if my memory serves me correctly). I never really played again; he went on to the NFL with a mega contract and has started from day one. What was the difference in 2006? The difference was that he had a staff committed to his development; a staff that chose to bench him not as spiteful punishment but as a way to learn and as a time to get out of the struggle of being not only a freshman, but a freshman quarterback in the SEC, and get a better grasp of the game. He had what would (and should) be considered a normal, professional staff. Houston Nutt had no such program, and the results showed.

The other part that was left out that I would like to have seen is where I discuss more completely my arrest, specifically what followed it. While the film leaves the impression that I was flippant about the affair, indeed it had a much greater impact than portrayed. While it was embarrassing and humiliating, it was the beginning of a series of events that I seriously believe has made me better prepared for the long term than I otherwise would have been, fostering a new attitude toward my work and development.

DH: The name of the movie indicates that you've been defined by these events beyond your control. When you're in Arkansas, does what happened continue to negatively impact your day-to-day life or do you feel like you can go out in public and live a normal life? Were you ever harassed while you were selling cars, or did it help to have people know who you are?

MM: The title is something Wolfe and I debated for some time, and I can’t right recall whatever conclusion we came to regarding it. PR, I suppose. Just the same, a large part of our on-camera discussion centered on the familiar struggle to break the identities we all possess. I suppose the unique nature of having that identity thrust upon me at a very young age plays well, but I don’t find it necessarily unique given my line of work. Athletes all have that to some degree; the problem comes either when it doesn’t pan out, or when the interest fades, or both. It is not something that has broken me in the least, but it was an interesting angle and commentary, for myself in particular and athletes in general. The truth is that being a professional or collegiate athlete won’t last forever, and at some point we will all come to face that reality and the ensuing struggle to find a replacement profession and identity. Mine is unique only for the uncommon circumstances that precipitated my fall, if you will.

As for my day-to-day back home in Arkansas, it doesn’t seem to have a tremendous negative impact; most all people are very friendly and receptive when we meet, and often times encouraging. I like to believe Arkansans root for their own, and I have found as much to be true.

Also, it has been misreported that I was a car salesman. I did other work, but I did not sell cars.

DH: I felt the movie suggested a resentment between you and Gus Malzahn. Do you still have a relationship with him, and if so, what is it like?

MM: My and Gus’s relationship is generally that of any former athlete and coach, especially ones who have shared times like we have. There was a long period of silence, not for any particular reason but I think because there wasn’t much that could or needed to be said. We had each seen a tremendous opportunity crumble beneath us, due largely to our own naiveté and also our belief in the good and honesty of those whom we relied upon. I believe our pride was hurt on the former, and our trust on the latter. I feel confident in saying it was a tough time for each of us and our families, and there wasn’t much to be said.

As for today, we stay in contact and have even discussed opportunities when I decide to quit playing.

DH: In the film, you refer to yourself in 2006 as "trying to keep your head above water" and understanding why you were pulled in the South Carolina game. However, many fans believe that with Casey Dick struggling so badly in the LSU game, if you had gotten a chance to play Arkansas would have won that game. Do you think that's fair? Were you ready to come in if asked? Did you want to come in?

MM: By that point in the season, I’m not sure much could have been recovered. My reps during the week had diminished along with the possibility of playing, and I doubt little good would have come from throwing me into the fray. But this discussion is purely hypothetical; Nutt had made his point and was sticking to his guns. That much is apparent, and little honest consideration would conclude otherwise.

Beyond that, I don’t believe the discussion is fair to Casey; he was working with the same broken system I was, with only the benefit of a previous season’s experience to guide him. By that point in the season, we were running a mishmash of the former offense and the No Huddle, a strategy that proved extremely detrimental to a very talented team. We had failed to integrate the systems and ideas, and it showed. The result was more than any one player could overcome.

DH: The film touches on the fiasco with Kurt Voigt's book. Did that become the point of no return between you and Nutt? Are the rumors of a players-only meeting to berate you for the "dork" comment true? (note from me: it's absolutely insane to me that this was that big of a deal)

MM: That point was undoubtedly a catalyst for what would eventually happen in the following weeks and months, but it was by no means the beginning. Hindsight suggests that my relationship with Nutt (as well as his and Malzahn’s) was doomed and irreparable from the beginning.

There was a "players only" meeting that took place late in the season, with comments pointed at me for what I had said in the Voigt book. There was no physical confrontation as has been suggested by some, only brief verbal exchanges. This was a considerable time after I had spoken to Nutt privately to assuage whatever hard feelings he may have held, and we agreed that it was the past and was no longer an issue. He lied to that extent, and allowed (if not encouraged) the meeting, which was also alluded to in Teresa Prewitt’s now-infamous email to me.

DH: There is brief mention in movie about the infamous parents' meeting with Broyles in December 2006. This became a national story and led to frequent comments about the "Little League Parents" even though it was reported by some your mother only intended to learn about your academic situation. How did that impact your standing with the team and your decision to transfer, if at all? Had you already decided to transfer by that point or at what point did you make that decision?

MM: By the time of the "Little League Parents Meeting," things had pretty well fallen apart, and divisions had been made (the fact that the meeting was made public is evidence enough, especially considering that other high-profile players’ parents were regular visitors to Nutt and his staff, much more so than ours). The meeting largely focused around academic issues, specifically the fact that the athletic department offered little in the way of academic support and guidance, an important and integral part of all major programs. Broyles had agreed to the meeting, which was later billed as a random and unwelcome appearance, and the issue was spun in favor of the university’s larger narrative. It is a useful lesson in media matters, and a pathetic example of grown men and women protecting the institution rather than the students for which it was built.

As for how it affected my decision to transfer, it did not. If anything, it only highlighted the intent of the administration to damage what they viewed as a threat to their security, and it all but green lighted our exit.

DH: After losing seasons in 2004 and 05, Nutt was under serious heat from that point on. If he'd been fired at any point before you transferred, how would that have affected your decision to transfer, or to come to Arkansas at all? Were you ever hoping he'd get fired so that you could stay, or was the tension so bad between you and "Nutt's guys", as they're described in the film, that you would have left regardless?

MM: That’s quite a hypothetical scenario. If he had been fired prior to me actually leaving the university in May 2007, certainly I would have considered the options.

As for hoping he would be fired, no. At the time I was there, he had been the head coach for nine years. There was no indication he would go elsewhere, and the argument has been reasonably made that he was next in line for the AD position, or somewhere to that effect. Just the same, there was no indication from any reliable source that he was near losing his job. Given what it was, there was little choice but to leave if I wanted the opportunity to play again.

DH: It was interesting to see you play baseball in the bullpen at Baum Stadium (the Razorback baseball stadium). How did that come about? Do you have any relationship now with the new UA athletic department since Broyles and Nutt are gone? Do you consider yourself a fan at all?

MM: I have no formal relationship with the athletic department (aside from being a letterman and lifetime A-Club member). I grew up in the area and played there, and many of those relationships persist to this day.

The footage in Baum Stadium is from my actual White Sox tryout. Former-catcher and now an assistant coach Brian Walker was behind the plate that day, and Dave Van Horn was encouraging and helpful as we chatted briefly prior to the workout. At the White Sox I played with (and remain close friends with) former outfielder Kyle Robinson, and current UofA baseball strength & conditioning coach Mike Strouhal was the quarterback strength & conditioning coach during my freshman year, whom I had the pleasure of reuniting and working with this past off-season while in Fayetteville, before returning to California.

Many of the old relationships are still there, with new ones forming all the time. The shared experience of having played in Fayetteville is unique and lends itself to quick friendships.

DH: It was nice to see Ben Cleveland participating in the film considering he was the only member of that group that stayed in Fayetteville. Did the two of you maintain a relationship after you transferred? What was it like to see him in a Razorback uniform during his career? Speaking of which, did you pay any attention to the Petrino era at Arkansas after you left? Did you ever have a "what if" moment? I've seen many fans credit your transfer for the end of Nutt, which brought along the Petrino/Mallett years.

MM: Ben and I have remained pretty close throughout the years. We shared a tight friendship in high school, and our freshman year at Arkansas. Like any relationship, perhaps it thinned out with a 1,500-mile separation, but we kept in touch. I have always supported him and wished him the best in remaining in Fayetteville, and I have little doubt that, had injuries not plagued him, his career would have been outstanding. He’s a tremendous athlete and football player.

As for Petrino, I’ve never experienced a "what if" moment, for the reason mentioned above (Nutt wasn’t going anywhere when I left). That said, Bobby Petrino was a tremendous offensive mind (who had recruited me at Louisville), and brought a great deal of what was needed to Arkansas football. Mallett excelled under him, as did Tyler Wilson. But he came along a couple of years after I left, and there is little reason for me to wonder about having stayed for his arrival.

DH: Do you know of any plans for future screenings of the movie? I've gotten a several questions about that from fans who'd like to see it.

MM: I’m not sure of specific dates; I have no control over post-production matters, including screenings, etc. I do know that it has been picked up by the Hot Springs Film Festival for this coming October, but any other inquiries will have to go through Matt Wolfe.

DH: Anything else you'd like to say to Razorback fans?

MM: We didn’t make this film to change minds, though I certainly hope it does so along the way. We made it to give honest perspective to a trivial and challenging time in Razorback football history and to my own trials along the way. Ideally, the occasion for this film would never have arisen. But, seeing as it did, and given that more often than not the information concerning the matters of that season is slanted if not flat-out false, there fell a responsibility to tell the story as it was.

Matt Wolfe leaves the commentary regarding Houston Nutt and Gus Malzahn pretty well open to interpretation, and I won’t say as much to change that here. What I will say is this: in 2006, we committed ourselves to run through the "A" and play in front of our hometown and home state fans. To do so required a two-way street, and we were asked to entrust ourselves to grown men who, in the end, turned out to be only the sort in age.

We may be regarded as villains, as traitors, as anything under the sun, but the proof for those titles is yet to be given with any reasonable argument. What also has not been given is reason for pity or applause, neither of which I deserve or desire in this matter. What I asked of Matt Wolfe was to tell my story and to tell it as it was, for better or worse. All I ask of fans is for ninety minutes to give honest consideration to what is presented.

In the end, I don’t know what this film will serve as – perhaps a warning for any number of things; I suppose any good story is that way. My caution to prospective athletes is to follow not only your heart, but your senses: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...