It’s time for another stroll down Arkansas Razorbacks Football memory lane. Last time we talked about Mitch Mustain and where he’s currently calling home. This time, we’re going to look a little beyond a Razorback player. Instead, we’ll talk about the former Razorback play-caller, Houston Nutt.
If you’ve been a fan of the Razorbacks at least once in the past 10 years, you should know the name Houston Nutt. Ol’ Nutt came to us as head coach in 1998, after head coaching stints at Murray State and Boise State. He also served as assistant coaches at Arkansas, Arkansas State and Oklahoma State. Also, waaaaay back in the day, Nutt played quarterback at Arkansas (1976-77) before transferring to, and playing at, Oklahoma State.
Houston Nutt was a quarterback that liked to drop-back in the pocket and throw it. Then came along Lou Holtz and established the option as our offense of choice. That didn’t fit Nutt’s style, so he went to Oklahoma State, and like Mustain, served as backup for the remaining two years of his eligibility. Bonus points to those of you that knew Nutt played for Eddie Sutton on the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team.
Right after graduating (from Oklahoma State), Nutt began his coaching career. From 1981-1992, Nutt had various assistant coaching gigs, but it was 1993 when Murray State hired him as their head coach. After going 9-13 in his first two years, his third and fourth years at Murray State were good ones — his team went 11-1 in 1995 and 11-2 in 1996.
Houston then went over to Boise State and began a rebuilding process to take the 2-10 Broncos to a higher level. The next year, in 1997, Boise State compiled a 4-7 record and it wasn’t much longer that Frank Broyles picked up the phone and told Nutt it was time to come home.
It was December 10, 1997 that Houston Nutt was named head coach at Arkansas, succeeding Danny Ford. You see, Arkansas Football was hurting real bad at that point. In the eight years prior to Nutt, we had gone to a total of two bowl games. So when Houston came in and mentioned a “national championship” in his first press conference, some of us believed and others were rolling their eyes.
Between the years 1998 – 2004, Nutt and his Razorbacks had the fan-base excited again. For six straight seasons, Arkansas finished with winning records (48-32 overall, 6-6 in the year 2000) and bowl game invitations (winning the 1999 Cotton Bowl and the 2003 Independence Bowl).
Some might say that the 2004 and 2005 seasons were the beginning of the end for Nutt’s reign at Arkansas. Despite having the golden child Matt Jones on the team, the Razorbacks went 9-13 and the rumblings were growing loud for change.
And so change happened. In 2006, Nutt hired former Springdale High School head coach Gus Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator. With Malzahn came the highly recruited QB Mitch Mustain and WR Damian Williams. After losing the first game of the season to USC, Mustain was named starting QB and rattled off eight-straight wins. Mustain was replaced by Casey Dick, and after being 8-1, the Razorbacks finished the season with a 10-4 record, three straight losses (including) a bowl game loss, and a Heisman Trophy runner-up in Darren McFadden.
Four games weren’t the only things Nutt lost in 2006/07. Rumors were rampant that Malzahn and Nutt didn’t get along and the evidence was on the field — Nutt was a running-game coach, Malzahn was a spread the field and have a balanced attack coach. Once Dick was named starter, the offense changed. And with that change, at the end of the season, Malzahn left the team. So, too, did Mustain and Williams (who both transferred to USC).
The 2007 season was supposed to be awesome. We had the front-runner Heisman candidate back and lost very little on both sides of the ball from the team that went 10-4 the year before. The season quickly got off track with early losses, and the only saving grace of the year was beating then #1 LSU in Baton Rouge. Arkansas went on to lose the Cotton Bowl, badly, to the Missouri Tigers.
But Houston Nutt wasn’t on the sidelines for that game. No, instead, he was searching for a job because he resigned three days after the victory at LSU. And to the shock of everyone, Nutt was hired as the Head Coach at Ole Miss just FOUR days after the LSU game. If that wasn’t shocking enough, Nutt also walked out $3.2 million dollars richer due to a buy-out clause in his contract.
Where is Nutt now?
On top of the proverbial world. His first season at Ole Miss proved to be a good one. The Rebels finished 9-4, 2nd in the SEC West and beat whipped the high-flyin’ Texas Tech Raiders in the Cotton Bowl. Better yet, Nutt has already received a pay increase from Ole Miss due to rumors that Auburn was interested in hiring him away.
Things couldn’t be better for Nutt, could they?
I might argue that yes they could, in fact, be better. Thinking way back to Nutt’s first press conference at Arkansas, he mentioned the words “national championship.” Those are big words to mutter, especially coming into such a dismal situation like he did. But Nutt did quick work to dispel the non-believers.
The problem is, he dispelled the non-believers for six straight seasons. For six straight seasons we had a winning record (save 2000 when we went 6-6). For six straight seasons we went to bowl games. For most schools, that’s quite an accomplishment. But, for six straight seasons, Nutt never delivered us an SEC Championship, let alone the National variety.
Under ten years at Arkansas, Nutt went 75-48 overall. In those ten years, Nutt went 2-5 in bowl games. And in those ten, long years at Arkansas, Houston Nutt only went 42-38 in SEC play. That’s barely over a .500 winning percentage. That’s good for a middle-of-the-road team. That’s good for a team that had previously gone to only two bowl games in the preceding eight years. That’s NOT good for a team whose coach mentioned “national championship” in his very first press conference.
For all it was worth, I don’t believe Nutt to be a bad guy. Sure there were stories of some affair with a reporter. Sure there were stories of his disagreements with Malzahn. Sure there were stories of all sorts. But when it comes down to it, Nutt is a good coach who has enjoyed success during a majority of his coaching years.
He’s a master motivator, a players’ coach, if you will. He’ll get every ounce of “I can do it,” from his players. And when they think they don’t have anything left to give, he’ll somehow find more inside of them. That’s what Nutt is good at. He’ll take a team of kids that aren’t supposed to do well, and turn them into winners. I’m willing to bet that’s an ability that most coaches desire.
Here’s what didn’t work for Nutt at Arkansas — his stubbornness. After his magical run of six seasons to begin his career, Nutt had two throwaway years. It was then that Broyles, and the fans, suggested change. For the longest time Nutt called the offense. Broyles convinced Nutt it was time to allow someone else to call the shots. But that, too, didn’t last long and Arkansas was back to being the predictable offense. Stack the box defensively and make the Hogs throw. And throw we couldn’t.
For all of the times Nutt was successful when he shouldn’t have been, it was amazing to see an offense capable of so much (Heisman-caliber RB, SEC-starting caliber 2nd RB, All-SEC FB, All-Time Razorbacks TD receptions leading WR, highly recruited QB, WR and TE), accomplish so little. That’s when a bigger change started to take shape.
And now Houston Nutt is over-achieving again at Ole Miss. They had a great year and finished it off with a great bowl game win. It appears that things are taking shape in Oxford. But, if you ask me, I think this stint at Ole Miss is just a blip for Nutt. I highly expect him to take another job soon. In the very least, I think he’s gone in the next two seasons.
Houston Nutt is a good coach and will succeed in most places. Although, I’m not sure he’ll ever get that coveted “national championship,” until he can prove that not only can he get the most out of his players, but that he’ll let his other coaches get the most out of the players, too.