Houston Nutt thought he would retire at Arkansas. Thought his love affair with the Razorbacks would last forever.
But Nutt now is the football coach at Ole Miss and preparing for a Cotton Bowl showdown against his alma mater, Oklahoma State. Call it a testament to familiarity breeding contempt.
"Nowadays, about the 10th year (coaching at the same place), it’s hard on anyone,” Nutt said. "The days of Paterno and Bowden, those are pretty much over.”
Nutt’s departure from Arkansas two years ago was remarkably acrimonious for a program that had sustained success. It seems to have been one of those rare mutual breakups. Nutt was glad to go; Arkansas was glad he went.
"I can’t speak for him, but I think he was glad to get out of there,” said Pat Jones, who hired Nutt as an assistant on the 1984 OSU staff and remains a Nutt confidant. "I think he realized he’d probably stayed about a year too long … He’d been there long enough. And I think he knows that.”
Nutt was a Little Rock schoolboy star; the Nutts have been an iconic Arkansas family for 40 years. In his 10 years coaching the Hogs, Nutt went 75-48, won two SEC Western Division titles and reached the Cotton Bowl thrice and the Capital One Bowl twice. That’s not a juggernaut record, but it was the best stretch of Arkansas football since the 1980s, in the much-weaker Southwest Conference.
How devoted to Arkansas was Nutt? In January 2004, he turned down the Nebraska job, much to Jones’ chagrin.
Even Nutt’s final game, amid a swirl of controversy and scandal, was a rousing success, a 50-48, triple-overtime, road upset of LSU, which would go on to win the national championship.
Yet the day after that game, Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone said he received a call from outgoing Arkansas AD Frank Broyles, that Nutt likely was finished with the Razorbacks. Would Mississippi be interested in Nutt?
Boone, seeking a replacement for the ineffective Ed Orgeron, jumped immediately on Nutt.
"He’s a great coach,” Boone said. "We were fortunate.”
Arkansas once thought so, too. But the love affair disintegrated in 2006. Fans became polarized over the status of freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain and newly-hired offensive Gus Malzahn, who brought Mustain and four other standout recruits from Springdale High School. Mustain started eight games and played well, but down the stretch, Nutt turned to veteran Casey Dick. Arkansas won the division and played eventual national champ Florida tough before losing 38-28 in the SEC title game.
In April 2007, Nutt’s telephone records revealed phone calls to representatives of North Carolina State and Miami, both of which had been in the market for a football coach, and more than 1,000 text messages to a Fort Smith, Ark., female television anchor. Nutt’s wife, Diana, released a statement in support of her husband and blasting rumors about their personal life.
Truth be told, it was one big mess.
"I thought I was going to retire there,” Nutt said. "But (wife) Diana and I knew that ninth year … we’d go to Atlanta (for the SEC title game) and people still not very happy.