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. Last game (in ’07), beat LSU, third Cotton Bowl, still some people are upset, because of the handling of Mitch Mustain. "We thought, ‘It’s probably time. Probably time to make a move.’” Nutt said he felt pressured to hire Malzahn but stands by his decision not to completely revamp the Arkansas offense with Malzahn’s hurry-up spread. Instead, Nutt stuck with a run-oriented attack. "Look, I can’t do that,” Nutt told detractors. "I’ve got (Darren) McFadden and Felix Jones. That gives us the best chance to win.” Nutt said he knew things had changed on Nov. 4, 2006, when he benched Mustain in favor of Dick, who led the Hogs to a 26-20 victory at South Carolina. "I knew by the looks and expressions,” Nutt said. "That’s when it took off.” After that 2006 season, Malzahn left for the University of Tulsa and now is offensive coordinator at Auburn. The Springdale 5 dispersed. Lineman Bartley Webb transferred to Notre Dame, receiver Andrew Norman to Tulsa and receiver Damian Williams and Mustain to Southern Cal. Only tight end Ben Cleveland stayed at Arkansas. And only Williams has played much. Mustain, the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit in 2006, has been third-team at USC. Nutt said Mustain is the biggest victim of the Arkansas troubles. "I feel sorry for the student-athlete,” Nutt said. "Feel sorry for Mitch. Really good kid. I begged his mother, don’t transfer.” The truth is, Mustain probably wasn’t as good as advertised. He would have been better off following Malzahn to Tulsa, where he likely would have been playing the last two years rather than sitting on the Southern Cal bench. Ironically, in the same recruiting class as Mustain was Ryan Mallett of Texarkana, Texas, just across the Arkansas line. Mallett attended Nutt’s summer camps and was interested in the Razorbacks. But the signing of Mustain sent Mallett to Michigan. Mallett eventually transferred to Arkansas, where he is a passing star and top-shelf NFL prospect under coach Bobby Petrino. "I think it all worked out,” Nutt said. "They’ve got a good coach there. They want to throw the ball, which they are.” But there was collateral damage. Mustain and Nutt’s family. "It was pretty hard,” Nutt said. "My kids were in school. It was pretty difficult, having those things said about their dad. It was a nightmare.” Even after Nutt’s departure for Ole Miss, there was one more hurdle. The return to the Ozarks. On Oct. 25, 2008, Mississippi played at Arkansas. "Much more difficult than I thought,” Nutt said. "Taking the team back to Fayetteville. Really, really strange. So many cheers we had heard. All of a sudden ... tough, tough day.” Ole Miss won 23-21. The Rebels also beat Arkansas 30-17 this season in Oxford, Miss. Said Nutt, "We thought we would be there a long, long time.”
The Houston Nutt StoryOle Miss coach Houston Nutt, whose team plays his alma mater Oklahoma State in the Jan. 2 Cotton Bowl, has had quite the football career. Today, The Oklahoman continues a three-part series on Nutt. →Thursday: Nutt’s Oklahoma State ties run deep. →Friday: Arkansas seemed the perfect job for Nutt. →Saturday: Can Nutt be Ole Miss’ messiah?