When Houston Nutt sought an opportunistic exit from Arkansas — the first time — Oklahoma State provided a natural landing place. "That’s where my mother went,” Nutt said. "That’s where my father went.”
And that’s where Nutt went, in 1978, recasting his playing career and his coaching future. Now Nutt’s past and present are set to collide when his Ole Miss football team faces the Cowboys in the Jan. 2 Cotton Bowl. "That’s where it all started,” Nutt said of Stillwater. "Those were great learning days. Wouldn’t trade any of that.” Nutt the quarterback, a drop-back passer, left Fayetteville after Lou Holtz installed the option offense at Arkansas. Frank Broyles had recruited Nutt, only to turn the program over to Holtz. And after a season as a bad-fit backup, Nutt did like his daddy, Houston Sr., and found a fallback plan at OSU. "Really wasn’t anything else in my mind,” Nutt said. "I loved the place. Loved the campus. The professors and teachers I met were awesome. There was no doubt in my mind.” The elder Nutt, a basketball player, transferred in from Kentucky after the Wildcats were placed on probation. Henry Iba invited him to Stillwater following a tryout in Little Rock. "That was a good move for him,” Houston said. "He was teammates with Eddie Sutton. He went to OSU and met my mother. She was from Okemah.” Like father, so it was for the son. Nutt never made a major impact with the Cowboys, although he had his moments — in football and basketball, playing for the likes of Jim Stanley, Jimmy Johnson and Paul Hansen. Still, it was Stillwater where the modern-day Nutt was cast. He met his wife, Diana, a Putnam City High alum, at OSU. Started his family in Stillwater. Started his coaching career there, too, working for Johnson and then Pat Jones immediately after graduating in 1981. "We all felt really good about him in all regards,” said Jones. "He was a gym rat growing up anyway, because of his dad being a coach. We really felt that he had a great future in coaching even when he was a graduate assistant.” Jim Traber saw it, too, even as the two engaged in a battle for the quarterback job. In 1980, Traber, Nutt and John Doerner stood next in line to lead the offense. All succeeded and failed to a certain extent as the Cowboys went 4-7 using all three. "I’m not very good when I’m in competition,” said Traber, a sports talk show host for WWLS The Sports Animal in Oklahoma City. "I’m not saying I want the other dude to get hurt or anything. But I don’t want them to do well... "I kind of got the feeling Houston did want me to do well. He just wanted to do better.” Nutt and Traber were hotel roommates the night before games, allowing Traber to get to know Nutt even better. "He was good with other people,” Traber said. "He was a vivacious, gregarious kind of guy. He was one of those guys you wanted to be around.” Nutt worked on Johnson’s staff as a graduate assistant, before returning to Arkansas in the same capacity under Holtz.