FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- What's normal?
As the recruiting feedbag known as national signing day is about to be strapped on, Beck Campbell can't tell you. On Wednesday, the pressure should be off Campbell and her son, Mitch Mustain, regarded as the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country.
|With his cell phone ringing off the hook, Mitch Mustain better have a good calling plan. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
Mom, and an entire state, will exhale, confident that Mitch made the right decision by staying home and playing for the Razorbacks.
Things will finally be back to ... no, don't say the word because it doesn't apply here.
"He hasn't been normal in a while," Campbell said. "You almost don't know what normal means."
Is normal spending $10,000 of her own money, covering 20,000 miles on unofficial visits with her son?
Is it seeing her son surrounded by autograph seekers after games -- some of them opponents in full uniform?
Is normal dreading the public announcement of his commitment so much that Mustain felt like he was "headed to the gas chamber?"
Is it a younger brother going to Springdale's new high school just to carve out his own identity because, frankly, Mitch's is the prep football equivalent of the region's biggest employer?
You've heard of Wal-Mart. World headquarters are just down the road in Bentonville.
We'd love to ask Mitch what normal is but the 6-foot-3, 210-pound American idol doesn't return many calls these days. If he sees a number he doesn't recognize on his cell, he shuts it.
SportsLine.com left several messages for Mustain. An additional message was left through his mother. Former high school coach and Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said he would intercede and try to get Mustain to call.
He didn't, probably leaving us with the best definition of normal there is in Springdale at this point.
"We'll try to enjoy it and reflect a little bit," his mother said of Wednesday.
Mustain is bothered with being bothered. In a way, you can't blame him. But understand that a lot of this attention was created by Mitch and Beck, a stage mother in a refreshing sort of way. Campbell mailed out approximately 60 videos of her son to schools before his junior year. One famous rejection came from Wyoming.
There was that cross-country trip to find a football home. Springdale teammates sang the Arkansas fight song on road trips and during two-a-days to remind Mustain of his importance to the state.
Don't be a traitor, don't leave the state.
|SportsLine.com's top 10|
|Current recruiting rankings|
|4. Penn State|
|5. Notre Dame|
|8. Ohio State|
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt remembers the fans' begging more than 30 years ago when he came out of Little Rock Central High School.
Nutt might be one of the few people who can relate to Mustain in this whole process. He was an Arkansas native son too, turning down the likes of Bear Bryant to stay and play quarterback for the Hogs.
"That's when fans could write you," Nutt said. "I got stuff from governors, legislators. I got 25 letters a day for three months."
The annual recruiting disclaimer bears repeating. Beware of the hype. A year later coach Frank Broyles retired.
Nutt eventually transferred to Oklahoma State.
Mustain, at the height of his recruiting frenzy, was getting 30 pieces of mail a day. He was offered a scholarship before he took a snap at Springdale. His first high school game was televised. Schools from every major I-A conference, except the Pac-10, offered Mustain a scholarship. There were 26 in all.
Before his senior season.
The last No. 1 prep quarterback to choose Arkansas was Joe Ferguson in 1970. But the former NFL star came from Shreveport, La. Mustain carries the hopes, dreams and cell phone messages of a state that traditionally doesn't produce a load of top recruits. "There's one show at Arkansas," Nutt said. "It's always tougher for an in-state guy to play quarterback. The thing about Mitch is, he is very mature above his years."
Nutt had to be wondering how mature Mustain was in early December when the quarterback shocked a state and re-opened his recruitment. Mustain had promised himself to Arkansas since walking into that gas chamber at a school gathering in August.
Maybe it was all getting to him. It was widely known that Notre Dame was Mustain's first choice. ("Without a doubt, he told me," recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said.) It also hurt the Arkansas cause that Nutt fired offensive coordinator Roy Wittke, who had developed a close relationship with Mustain.
That's not the weirdest thing. A few days later Nutt hired Malzahn to be Arkansas' offensive coordinator. That was not necessarily a good thing for Arkansas.
It's an old recruiting "trick." Recruits' parents, coaches and hangers on have been hired for years as an insurance policy. In perhaps the most extreme case, Kansas' Larry Brown once hired the truck-driving father of Danny Manning to be an assistant coach.
Brown might have pushed some ethical boundaries but eventually got the dad, Danny and an NCAA title.
In this case, Arkansas was just trying to get better after finishing 107th in passing.
"Mitch already has the knowledge that his high school coach is coming," Nutt said. "Then on top of that he says, 'I'm going to look around.' That sent a real bad shock through me. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "
Nutt really didn't care how the hiring was perceived around the country. Within the state, the 40-year old Malzahn is regarded as an offensive genius. Springdale won the state title in 2005 having to apply the "mercy rule" in all but two of its games. Arkansas high school rules allow the clock to run in the second half if a team gets ahead by 35 or more.
Mustain threw for 3,817 yards and 47 touchdowns as a senior. Two receivers surpassed 1,000 yards. Springdale produced five I-A recruits off a team that averaged 47.4 points.
That put Malzahn into a touchy situation. He was suddenly recruiting players that he had coached. Some of those he taught since they were kids in Sunday School.
"I told him this will be the hardest year in recruiting he would have," Nutt said. "You have ties to the greatest players in Arkansas. It's a situation where you're saying, 'I coached you since the ninth grade. How come you aren't here?' "
Still, a high school coach coordinating an SEC offense? You get a mental picture of Steve Spurrier picking up the paper one day and chuckling out loud.
"Outside the state it's, 'Hmmm, that's a joke. There's no way in the SEC,' Nutt admitted. "Inside the state he's put up on a big-time pedestal."
This is not exactly Gerry Faust-ian. Malzahn will get help from new quarterbacks coach Alex Wood, an NFL coaching veteran. Malzahn is a featured speaker at coaches' conventions and has written a book about the no-huddle offense.
Great stuff except that Malzahn's hiring initially did nothing to sway Mustain.
"Mitch is not a big ego guy but he might have felt a little bit taken for granted," said Rick Schaeffer, Arkansas' former sports information director, now an area radio personality. "He might have been thinking, 'Let's see if they really want me here.' Whether he was toying around, I don't know."
The surrealism had just begun. Notre Dame, according to Beck, wanted an answer too. The Mustains didn't want to commit to the Irish without an official visit.
"I'm sitting here going, 'What crock of crap,'" Campbell said. "They wanted a commit without a visit. I can't do that."
Meanwhile, the story making the national rounds was that Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis nobly rejected Mustain because he already had commitments from two quarterbacks. Campbell contends a scholarship was waiting.
With his decision hanging in mid-air, Mustain decided to request a midnight meeting with the coaches at the Arkansas athletic complex. This version of Midnight Madness came about because of the NCAA recruiting rules. A dead period ended on a Thursday night at midnight so the kid wanted to meet Wood as soon as possible.
"He's not only the No. 1 player, he's the leader of your class," Nutt said. "The other receivers (you're recruiting) are looking at it like, 'Ohh, he's not coming. He's 15 minutes away from campus. There must be something going on.' Recruiting is vicious."
The meeting went well and two weeks ago Mustain "re-committed" to the Hogs. The Arkansas Held Hostage story lasted more than five weeks.
Malzahn-tov, Houston. But real story is just beginning. Arkansas won't settle for normal. The 81-year-old Broyles is Nutt's boss, a sort of emperor/athletic director in this state. His mandate might not be stated but it's clear: Get the Hogs back to the top of the SEC.
They have won only nine of their last 22 games, offensive production being the biggest concern. Nutt has given up the play-calling duties he held for eight years.
The irony being that the young Nutt inherited Lou Holtz who was running the ground-based veer when he replaced Broyles. Now Nutt needs a quarterback to balance out an offense that, once again, is run heavy. Arkansas has led SEC in rushing three of the last four years but was better than No. 88 nationally in passing only once since 2000.
"I'm a throwing quarterback," said Nutt who hasn't actually thrown a meaningful pass in 25 years but did coach the school's all-time passer (Clint Stoerner). "Don't tell me I don't want to throw the ball."
Until further notice, the two Arkansas prodigies -- one former, one current -- have hooked up to help save the Hogs.
Now it's up to them to set the new standard for normal. Mustain is trying to grab some precious moments of privacy before officially becoming a Razorback.
Nutt was lounging in his office Monday celebrating a "victory" that will be recorded only on a list somewhere.
"If we can hang on ... I think we'll see the greatest comeback in recruiting we've ever had," he said.
Is it really that important? On Wednesday, yes.