Nutt remembered for his fiery nature

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, March 24, 2019
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt coaches from the sidelines during the second half of the 2000 Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt coaches from the sidelines during the second half of the 2000 Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

The fifth in a series profiling the nine newest members of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony will be held March 29 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

Houston Nutt's first SEC game as the University of Arkansas head football coach couldn't have gone much better.

The Razorbacks didn't just beat Alabama. They pounded the Crimson Tide into submission with a 42-6 victory in Fayetteville on Sept. 26, 1998.

Houston Nutt at a glance

COLLEGES AS PLAYER Arkansas, Oklahoma State

POSITION Quarterback

COLLEGES AS HEAD COACH Murray State 1993-96, Boise State 1997, Arkansas 1998-2007, Ole Miss 2008-11

HOMETOWN Little Rock

AGE 61 (born Oct. 14, 1957)

FAMILY Wife Diana, son Houston Nutt III, daughters Hailey, Hanna and Haven

NOTEWORTHY Three-time SEC coach of the year at Arkansas in 2001 and 2006 and at Ole Miss in 2008 … overall 135-96 record as a college head coach, including 75-48 in 10 seasons at Arkansas … led Murray State to back-to-back Ohio Valley Conference titles in 1995 and 1996 … NCAA Division II national coach of the year in 1996 … Inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. Led Arkansas to three Cotton Bowls and Ole Miss to two. Had 3-1 Cotton Bowl record. Didn’t coach the Razorbacks in the Cotton Bowl against Missouri after the 2007 season because he had resigned … Also in the Murray State Hall of Fame … Starred at quarterback for Little Rock Central and also was a standout basketball player … Lettered in football and basketball at Arkansas and Oklahoma State … Graduate assistant and full-time assistant coach at Oklahoma State, Arkansas and briefly at Arkansas State before going to OSU … Lives in McKinney,Texas, and works for CBS Sports as a studio analyst … Father Houston Nutt Sr. was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

"That game, we actually made them quit," Nutt said during a recent interview. "We really did. We played so hard and with so much passion. That's when we knew, hey, we've got a special team."

The Razorbacks finished 9-3 in 1998 in Nutt's debut season and shared the SEC West title with Mississippi State after being picked to finish last in the division.

After going 4-7 in each of the previous two seasons and being picked to finish last in the SEC West in 1998, Arkansas went to the Citrus Bowl and lost to Michigan and quarterback Tom Brady, 45-31.

"There was a lot of talk about Alabama coming into that first conference game, because their program was so respected by everybody," said Anthony Lucas, an All-SEC wide receiver for Arkansas in 1998 and 1999. "So when we beat Alabama the way we did, that really pushed our confidence to another level."

The turnaround season revitalized Arkansas football and galvanized the fan base.

"It was such a beautiful ride that first year in 1998," Nutt said. "Because the players were so hungry and focused."

The ride for Nutt at Arkansas lasted 10 years and produced a 75-48 record, including 42-38 in the SEC.

Those numbers look especially good considering the Razorbacks are 65-61 overall -- and 30-58 in the SEC -- in the 11 seasons since Nutt's tenure.

Nutt's 10 seasons were the third-most for an Arkansas coach behind Frank Broyles' 19 from 1958-76 and Fred Thomsen's 13 from 1929-41, and he has the second-most victories behind Broyles' 144.

Nutt, 61, was a college head coach for 19 seasons with a 135-96 record -- including other stops at Murray State, Boise State and Ole Miss -- but undoubtedly his success with the Razorbacks is why the Little Rock native is being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on March 29.

"It's a great feeling to be from Little Rock and to be going into the Hall of Fame in Little Rock," Nutt said. "I'm very appreciative.

"You look at all the heroes you had growing up in Arkansas and you read about all these guys that I've watched going into the Hall of Fame, and to now be joining them is very humbling."

Among Nutt's heroes previously inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame was his father, Houston Nutt Sr., in 2001.

"That was a great night for my family," Nutt said. "This is going to be a great night for all of us again."

Danny Ford led Arkansas to its first SEC West title in 1995 in his third season as the Razorbacks' coach, but he couldn't sustain success.

"Danny had done a good job of recruiting," Nutt said. "But I could tell the players were a little bit more individualized. They weren't a team."

Lucas said Nutt inherited a talented, but divided team.

"We had a lot of cliques," Lucas said. "Coach Nutt knew how to bring people together, and that's what he did for our team. He made us believe in ourselves and have one heartbeat."

Russ Brown, a four-year starting guard at Arkansas from 1995-98, said Nutt's first team meeting was an eye-opener.

"I'm 20 years removed from that meeting, but I'll never forget it," Brown said. "Houston walked in and was very animated, throwing his jacket around, telling us all what an honor it is to be a Hog, and his vision for the program.

"I remember walking out of the room and my first thought was, 'This guy can't be for real. This is going to wear off.' But it never did.

"Houston brought a lot of fun back to football and he brought a lot of spirit. He did a great job motivating the players. We knew he always had our back.

"He built unity and leadership among the senior class. Houston demanded that and allowed the seniors to lead. He kept recruiting great players. I think he elevated the kids that came to the university. He knew what an SEC player was."

Nutt's Arkansas teams won three SEC West titles and included 45 All-SEC players and 12 All-Americans, led by running back Darren McFadden.

McFadden, an Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee in 2017, won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2006 and 2007 and also was he Heisman Trophy runner-up both seasons.

"There were so many games where you saw Darren come alive and make things happen," Nutt said. "He was so fun to watch.

"On Sunday we'd go over special teams, and he'd come in and say, 'Watch my block on this kickoff return.' He wouldn't say, 'Watch my runs.' He was so proud whenever he pancaked a guy for Felix Jones and Felix took it to the house."

Nutt was a star quarterback at Little Rock Central, where he also played basketball.

Alabama Coach Bear Bryant recruited Nutt, but he chose to stay home and play for Broyles, who hired him as the Razorbacks' coach.

When Broyles retired from coaching to concentrate on being athletic director and hired Lou Holtz, who ran the Veer offense, Nutt transferred to Oklahoma State and played for Jimmy Johnson. Nutt lettered in both football and basketball at Arkansas and Oklahoma State.

"Coach Nutt experienced playing at a high level, so he understood what the players were going through," said Jonathan Luigs, a three-year starter for Arkansas from 2006-08 who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center in 2007. "He could read our body language and know when we might have needed a kick in the pants and when he needed to put his arm around us and say, 'I've been there, I've done that. I know what you're feeling.' "

Nutt was an Arkansas assistant coach when he landed the head coaching job at Murray State in 1993. He led the Racers to Ohio Valley Conference championships in 1995 and 1996 with teams that were a combined 22-3 and featured several players from Arkansas, including quarterback Mike Cherry and receiver Reggie Swinton. He was the NCAA Division II national coach of the year in 1996.

"We recruited a lot of Arkansas kids to Murray State, and they helped me get back to Arkansas as the head coach," Nutt said. "They helped me get into the Murray State Hall of Fame and now they've helped get into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, too."

Nutt recalled being among 14 candidates interviewed for the Arkansas job after his one season at Boise State.

"I still remember the chill bumps I had when [his wife] Diana and I walked into Walton Arena for that first press conference after I was hired," Nutt said. "It was unbelievable."

Nutt, who turned down the Nebraska job after the 2003 season, said he believed he would retire as Arkansas' coach.

That changed when he resigned under pressure after leading the Razorbacks to a 50-48 victory in triple overtime at No. 1 LSU in the 2007 regular-season finale.

Broyles was retiring and Jeff Long already has been hired as Arkansas' new athletic director.

Despite the Razorbacks being a combined 18-8 under Nutt in 2006 and 2007 -- including the 2006 SEC West title -- there had been turmoil in the program.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left after the 2006 season to take the same position at Tulsa. Quarterback Mitch Mustain and wide receiver Damian Williams -- both star recruits who played at Springdale High School for Malzahn and were Arkansas freshmen in 2006-- transferred to Southern California.

Nutt wasn't fired at Arkansas, but he got a buyout as if he had been.

"I thought hard about trying to stay," Nutt said. "But when they removed Coach Broyles I thought it was just time for me to go."

Two days after Nutt resigned at Arkansas, he was hired at Ole Miss -- the Razorbacks' SEC West rival.

"Coach Nutt did what was best for him and his family at the time taking the job at Ole Miss," Lucas said. "Of course, I didn't like it all. I was totally against it.

"But it's bigger than us on the outside looking in. He got an opportunity to go to another SEC and you can't blame him for that. I just hated that it was Ole Miss."

Nutt's Rebels beat the Razorbacks in 2008 and 2009 and finished 9-4 in each season with Cotton Bowl victories. Things didn't go well the next two seasons, and Nutt was fired after the Rebels finished 4-8 and 2-10 and lost twice to Arkansas.

Nutt said in a 2015 interview that he wanted to get another coaching job, but had accepted that it probably wasn't going to happen.

"It seems like a lot of the guys being hired are 40 or younger," Nutt said. "It's frustrating, because I feel like I have the energy of a 30-year-old.

"You don't miss some of the headaches of coaching, but you really miss the competitive deal on Saturday and you miss the relationships. You miss the guys."

Nutt said he some schools expressed interest in him when he was fired at Ole Miss after the 2011 season.

"I had a few offers early on I probably should have taken," he said. "But I just didn't feel like it was the right time."

Nutt, a three-time SEC coach of the year in 2001, 2006 and 2008, now lives in McKinney, Texas, and works for CBS Sports as a studio analyst.

"CBS has been so good to me," Nutt said. "I've got great people to work with, and you get to watch a lot of football."

Nutt stays in touch with many of his players.

"He hasn't forgotten us," Brown said. "It's cool to have a guy you played for 20 years ago get his Rolodex out and still buzz you every once in a while.

"I know if Houston had his way he'd still be coaching at Arkansas today. I truly believe that. He's as passionate about the Hogs as anybody I've ever seen."

Harold Horton, a former Arkansas player, assistant coach and administrator, recruited Nutt along with Ken Turner.

"I'm a Houston Nutt fan," said Horton, who is on the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame election committee and called Nutt to tell him about his induction. "I just think he did a much better job as our coach than what he's been given credit for.

"I'm very happy he's going into the Hall of Fame. He earned it."

Luigs played against Ole Miss and Nutt in 2008 after playing for him the previous two seasons.

"I don't think Coach Nutt ever willingly left Arkansas," Luigs said. "I think there was some stuff going on behind the scenes.

"But every single player in our locker room would run through a wall for him."

Luigs has a photo of he and Nutt embracing after Ole Miss beat Arkansas 23-21 in Fayetteville in 2008.

"He's been nothing but outstanding to me and my family and I couldn't speak higher of anyone else than Coach Nutt," Luigs said. "If there were bad feelings in the state about Coach Nutt leaving Arkansas for Ole Miss, I think that's kind of misguided.

"But I might be biased. I love the guy."

Sports on 03/24/2019


Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.