The Glory and Travail of Houston Dale Nutt: One Fan’s Perspective

Razorback ExpatsSenior Analyst IOctober 22, 2008

The following post was written by a longtime Hog fan who earned his MA in English from the University of Arkansas where he wrote his thesis on William Faulkner. He has been looking for the opportunity to merge his football knowledge with his Faulkner knowledge in one piece of writing for some time now.

William Faulkner is known for the insight that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But I don’t know if even the gothic imagination of William Faulkner could have come up with the scenario of a football coach who haunts an entire state and who will make a reappearance on the old battleground/football turf of his home state every other year in the quest to defeat the team he once professed to love.

As much as some fans on message boards, in cafés, and in barber shops tell other fans that Bobby Petrino is our coach now and that we need to get beyond Houston Nutt, I don’t think Hog fans are likely to get over our former coach anytime soon.

The past certainly won’t be dead and won’t be past when Houston Nutt runs out on the field this coming Saturday as Ole Miss’ coach.

Being the past-haunted Southerners that we are, Houston Nutt is likely to be standing around in the back of our collective football consciousness for the other 364 days of the year. Just how far back will likely depend upon Saturday’s score.

For a character that seems like he could have only been created in our Southern part of the country and seems at times more of the stuff of absurd fiction than fact, it is only fitting that he should have found his way to Oxford, Mississippi, the navel of just about all things Southern. I just can’t see Hartford, Connecticut, ever producing a Houston Dale Nutt.

Maybe Alabama graduate Rece Davis, of ESPN fame, has been living in Bristol, Connecticut, too long himself, for he should know that Houston Dale Nutt is not the Episcopalian “Right Reverend,” but Brother Nutt of the Southern Baptist pulpit of sweating holiness and emotional appeals to the heart that wants to believe.

During the early years, I certainly wanted to believe that Houston Nutt was the coach that would take Arkansas to the promised land of SEC championships and respect amongst the big boys of the SEC. During those first years he got me truly interested in Razorback football again after the doldrums of the Danny Ford years.

I enjoyed seeing Nutt in the pre-game locker rooms giving his sermon on the importance of the “first five minutes,” “a hat on a hat,” “give me a turnover, defense,” “the heart of a champion,” and the “best years of your lives, men.” The fire, the passion—I wanted to take the field myself!

I say that with some embarrassment now, feeling suckered like the famous search committee that hired him based more on his charm and story than his demonstrated X’s and O’s ability to coach football, for the 10 years that Houston Nutt led the Hogs showed us how the rah rah can only go so far.

The ability to teach football intelligence, technique, focus, and discipline will win you championships. The rah rah gets you roller coaster seasons that, to borrow from Faulkner again, gives you a lot of sound and fury that in the end signifies not a whole lot in the trophy case.

I believe the peaks, all of which I certainly treasure, the glories, of those 10 years came in the two bowl wins, the win over Texas in Austin, Stoerner’s revenge in Fayetteville, the biblical epics that were the seven overtime wins, the famous out-of-the-sky miracle on Markham, the comeback in Tuscaloosa in 2003, the wins in Auburn, the day College GameDay came to town, the knocking-off of number one LSU in Baton Rouge, and the never-say-die attitude that you could count on the Hogs having in a game.

The valleys or travails of those years: the oh-so-close loss in Knoxville; the two losing seasons; the snowball effect blowout losses; the national embarrassment of the USC games; the curse of always following the first SEC loss with another conference loss; the losing bowl record; the fruitless trips to Atlanta; the shooting of oneself in the foot that we continue to see today in his players; the lack of ever developing a true quarterback and passing game; the sense that the Fayetteville police department knew his players better than Nutt did; the mounting losses in Fayetteville; the sense that the presence of talent such as McFadden and Jones (both of them) was squandered; the whole Gus, Mitch, Springdale, “I called that play, Brotha,” “dork,” “Mr. Interception King,” text messaging fiasco; split fanbase; and my personal turning point, the home loss to Vanderbilt.

A textbook example of defying the football gods at your own peril, the last one came after Nutt said he sure wished he had Vanderbilt on his schedule.