Nutt has had enemies throughout his 10-year reign at Arkansas, but over the past 12 months or so, the number of fans calling for his head has grown exponentially.
A lot of people outside of Arkansas, and especially outside of Northwest Arkansas, can’t understand this—why would you want to fire a coach who won 10 games last year and just knocked off the number one team in the country last week?
Houston Nutt as a Coach
To start on a positive note, let me say that Nutt is not without some good qualities.
First of all, Nutt is a pretty good recruiter. Although he has missed out (especially recently) on some big prospects, during his years at Arkansas, he has brought in a lot of talent. Cedric Cobbs, Matt Jones, Marcus Monk, Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were all Nutt recruits, although they were all pretty much “local” finds—all of these players were from Arkansas except Jones, who came all the way from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Secondly, Nutt has always been able to get his players to play with emotion. This makes Arkansas especially dangerous in big games, as LSU found out on Friday. But it’s hard to play on emotion for an entire season.
When it comes to the Xs and Os on the field, I am certainly not the most qualified to talk, but in my opinion, Houston Nutt is not a terrible coach. In fact, he’s the best football coach Arkansas has had in my memory (although, admittedly, being the best out of three isn’t necessarily a sterling accomplishment). But by no means is he a great coach.
Arkansas is 8-4 this season with a team that has three potential first round running backs including Darren McFadden who, with all due respect to Tim Tebow, is the best player in the country, hands down. This is a team that could be 11-1 and in the National Championship picture were it not for critical coaching mistakes made by Nutt in the first three losses of the season.
My basic feeling is that Nutt is not the guy who will ever get you to a National Championship, but that he is more than capable when it comes to building teams that are a little better than average and are capable of winning (or losing) just about any game.
With Arkansas not having won a national title in 40+ years, that probably would have been good enough for most fans, were it not for Nutt’s actions off the field.
The Springdale Problem
Most people who follow college football are at least vaguely aware that much of Nutt’s trouble stems from the fact that he brought two Northwest Arkansas heroes (I use that term without exaggeration), to the University of Arkansas and then basically ran them off. Mitch Mustain, a highly-recruited quarterback, and Gus Malzahn, a very successful high school football coach, both came to the U of A prior to the 2006 season, only to leave for other schools once it had finished.
In the national media, this was largely blown off–Mustain was written off as a high-maintenance prima donna, while Malzahn was belittled as an arrogant high school coach who should have been more grateful for the opportunity he had been given.
But that was in the national media.
Locally, as I said earlier, both Mustain and Malzahn were basically heroes, and when they committed to the University of Arkansas, everyone was ecstatic.
Mustain was simply the most highly-touted high school prospect to ever come out of the state of Arkansas. The Parade Player of the Year as a senior, Mustain set state passing records while leading Springdale High School to a State Championship and a dominating season in which they outscored opponents 664-118 while playing in the state’s largest classification. Since his junior high years and including his time at Arkansas, Mustain was 61-2 as a starting quarterback.
Malzahn was Mustain’s high school coach. In addition to the 2005 state title, Malzahn won other titles in a smaller classification and was widely regarded around the state as a football genius. He was particularly noted for his offensive ability, and had written a book on his Hurry-Up No Huddle (HUNH) offense which routinely shredded defenses to the point of laughability. Malzahn’s 2005 Springdale team was ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and was generally considered the best high school team in Arkansas history.
It was considered so good in fact, that many people joked that the 2005 Springdale Bulldogs could beat the 2005 Arkansas Razorbacks, who had struggled through a 4-7 season on the heels of a similarly disappointing 5-6 record in 2004.
After amassing a 9-13 cumulative mark in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Nutt had come under considerable pressure prior to the 2006 season. Two other developments occurred to provide the ingredients for Nutt’s off-field behavior which would turn the stomachs of thousands of Razorback fans and ultimately, turn public opinion within the state against him.
First, Mitch Mustain, who had committed early to the University of Arkansas, backed out on his commitment due in large part to Nutt’s unbalanced run-oriented offensive mindset. Mustain, a passing quarterback, wanted to go somewhere where his skills would be used. After news of Mustain’s wavering surfaced, the pressure on Nutt intensified.
Secondly, Nutt’s play-calling (to this point, Nutt served both as Offensive Coordinator and Head Coach) had come into question to the point that he was strongly encouraged to bring in an Offensive Coordinator.
Gus Malzahn was the Offensive Coordinator that he chose. While people around the country were shocked that Arkansas had hired a high school coach to be the Offensive Coordinator at an SEC school, people in Arkansas, and especially in Northwest Arkansas, were delighted.
The good feelings only increased when Mustain, encouraged by the news of his former coach’s new position at Arkansas, renewed his commitment to the Razorbacks.
Hog fans were euphoric with the vision of the Razorbacks running the HUNH offense with a young Mustain at the helm balanced with the running abilities of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. With Gus Malzahn in charge and such weapons at his disposal, the Arkansas Razorbacks as a perennial SEC power and National Championship contender didn’t seem too far-fetched.
What became clear though, from the events of the 2006 season, much of which came out after the fact, was that Houston Nutt never shared that vision.
You can find a fairly encyclopedic version of what happened, and all the ways that Mustain and Malzahn were mistreated here—from Malzahn being condescendingly referred to as “high school” by other members of the coaching staff to Houston Nutt’s wife talking in an email about how she wished she had taken part in a near-fatal attack on Mustain’s mother that had happened several years earlier—but I’m not going to go into all the details here. What it comes down to is this: Houston Nutt had to bring in Mustain and Malzahn in order to save his job, and he resented and hated them for it as soon as he did.
- That’s why he pulled Mustain early in the South Carolina game, despite his unblemished record as a starter that season.
- That’s why Mustain continued to watch from the bench as QB Casey Dick got to starter and played poorly in Arkansas’ three consecutive losses to end the season.
- That’s why Malzahn’s HUNH offense was dismissed and only used on a handful of downs all season.
- That’s why Nutt intended to downgrade Malzahn to Co-Offensive Coordinator, despite the fact that Malzahn was named the National Offensive Coordinator of the Year by Rivals.com.
- That’s why Malzahn and Mustain both ended up leaving.
Malzahn, ridiculed by some as being in way over his head, is now the Offensive Coordinator at Tulsa (9-3), where he is no longer referred to derisively as a high school coach, and where he has been allowed to implement his offense. An offense which leads the nation at 548.6 yards per game.
Mustain, who Nutt supporters wrote off as an overrated mama’s boy who couldn’t hack it in the SEC, transferred to USC, a school not exactly known for handing out scholarships to talentless players. Because of his transfer, Mustain had to sit out this season, but has been able to practice as the QB for the Scout Team, and has reportedly impressed Head Coach Pete Carroll to the extent that it is widely suggested that he will end up starting next season.
And Nutt stayed at Arkansas, enduring what must have been a trying season, as more and more condemnatory off the field evidence came out, while on the field, Arkansas struggled at the end of games and with inconsistent play from the QB who Nutt picked instead of Mustain.
At the end of a regular season highlighted by last week’s defeat of top-ranked LSU, the overall feeling among the Arkansas fans is one of “what might have been.”
And now, the man who sacrificed “what might have been” for the sake of own ego is gone too, leaving behind what seems to be a largely depleted 2008 team with no Malzahn, no Mustain, no McFadden and likely no Felix Jones. Certainly a high price to pay to get rid of him, but it’s what needed to happen.
And for those of you who insist on toeing the (uninformed) national media line and feeling bad for Nutt, don’t—he received a $3.5 million going away present and has already found himself another job at Ole Miss, which isn’t surprising, since the Rebels were one of the only SEC teams Nutt could consistently beat.
On second thought, he is now coaching for Ole Miss, so maybe you should feel sorry for him after all.