Most of the current Arkansas undergrads don’t remember the excitement that accompanied the arrival of Houston Nutt when the Razorbacks hired him away from Boise State after just one season.
In the initial round of interviews, Nutt was considered by many to be a long shot for the opportunity to be the head coach for Arkansas, but his energy and track record convinced AD Frank Broyles that Nutt was the right guy to lead Razorback football back to glory.
In his initial press conference, Nutt wasted no time in raising the expectations of Hog fans when he made it clear his goal for Arkansas was a national title. It looked as if he was on the way during his first campaign at the helm, as the Razorbacks won their first eight games of the season. Who knows how far the Hogs would have gone without the heartbreaking fumble late in the Tennessee game.
Many forget just how exciting those early Nutt years were. If there was an audience to talk to, the new head coach would go and preach to all that would listen to how great it was to be a Razorback. During this time, the national media was starting to find their way back to Fayetteville to televise games and, on the field, the team was rekindling memories of happier days.
Time to Go
Somewhere along the way it all changed. Razorback fans grew tired of high expectations that went unmet, flirtations with other schools and the Springdale mess. Despite reawakening Arkansas football it was obvious that many had concluded it was time for Nutt to go.
They did not like Nutt’s focus on running the football and his inability to produce a championship defense. They did not like the way he talked. It angered people that he could not seem to keep all the best players in the state at home. Everything was his fault.
In fairness there was truth in some of what was said. Nutt had never truly developed a quarterback for Arkansas and at times his defense failed to match the offensive output of his teams. What happened between Nutt, Broyles and the Springdale crew is a story for another day, but all that were involved in the situation carry some blame.
Many of the power players in Arkansas football circles wanted Nutt gone and they got their wish. After a decade that saw Nutt produce a record of 75-48, an agreement was reached between the coach and university for his departure. Before the ink was even dry on the check, Nutt was on his way to Oxford to become the head football coach at Ole Miss.
A New Start
With much excitement, Arkansas fans welcomed new head coach Bobby Petrino to campus. His prolific offenses would be the perfect tonic for all things Nutt and surely the Razorbacks would achieve what they had only dreamed of under Nutt.
Petrino is now at the mid-point of his third year at the helm of the Razorback program, which is a long enough window to start comparing his leadership to that of Nutt over the same span. Really, if it can be done with elected officials, why not football coaches?
Here is a sampling of a few relevant items. For details, take a glance at the chart at the bottom of this column. The numbers in parentheses are the Hogs' final SEC rank.
Nutt won a total of 21 games through his first two and a half seasons at the Arkansas helm. Petrino has 17 victories.
When it came to scoring points, Nutt ranked high in the SEC during his first two seasons. He also managed to put solid defenses on the field at the same time.
Like Nutt, Petrino also has shown a great ability to light up a scoreboard. What he has not shown is equal skill putting a defense in place that can keep other teams from reaching the end zone.
Many were critical of Nutt’s ability to coach his team in big games. In his first two years at Arkansas, Nutt produced a record of 4-3 against teams ranked in the top 25. Petrino has posted a record of 3-7 against ranked teams during his first two years.
What has been most interesting is listening to people talk about the quality of the program each man inherited. Some Razorback fans well tell you Nutt left Petrino a program that was in shambles. Far from it. In the two years prior to Petrino’s arrival, Arkansas football had won 18 games. In the two years prior to Nutt becoming the Razorback head coach, Arkansas had tallied a total of eight victories.
The program Nutt took over had a record 31-58-2 in the prior eight years. Petrino found a program with a far better record of 58-42 during Nutt’s final eight seasons.
So, what should Razorback fans take from all of this?
First, Houston Nutt left Arkansas football in far better shape than he found it. He took over a program that was in decline and brought it back to prominence. When the smiling salesman walks on the field for the first time Saturday, he is worthy of appropriate applause from Razorback fans, not boos.
Second, if Arkansas fans did not like what they had going with Nutt, there is a question they need to start asking : Is Bobby Petrino just Houston Nutt without the personality?
The early returns say he just might be.