Nutt, Arkansas still a perfect match

Maisel: The perfect marriage

Originally Published: January 14, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Houston Nutt hadn't been looking for another job, which was fine, because the Arkansas coach understood that most athletic directors wouldn't approach him. In the last six years, Nutt said, he had gotten "one or two" calls about other jobs. He was spoken for.

Nutt is a Little Rock native and, as a high school quarterback, turned down a scholarship offer from Bear Bryant at Alabama to sign with the Razorbacks. Nutt is famously close to his parents, who still live in Little Rock. The Nutts have been the First Family of Arkansas athletics for years. Houston's younger brother Danny, another former Arkansas quarterback, coaches the Razorback running backs.

Houston Nutt
Houston Nutt says he and Arkansas have been re-energized since he turned down the Huskers.
But Houston had begun to wonder. He worried that the Arkansas fans would get The Seven-Year Itch. Nutt just finished his sixth season with the Hogs. They went 9-4, finishing with a dominant 27-14 victory over Missouri in the Independence Bowl. They beat Texas, once their biggest rival, 38-28. The muted celebration of Arkansas fans rang loud and clear.

"Everybody wants to win a championship yesterday," Nutt said Wednesday morning. "When I got here, the first question was, 'Can you beat SMU?' Now it's, 'When can you get to the BCS?' The newness wears off."

When Nutt returned to Fayetteville in Dec. 1997, the Hogs had just endured consecutive 4-7 seasons. They had lost to SMU in three straight season openers. Nutt has gone 48-27 (.640) in six seasons. He has won or shared two SEC Western Division championships. He has taken the Hogs to three New Year's Day bowls.

And in the back of his mind, he wondered how much longer he would be welcome. He just said goodbye to a senior class of 24. His best junior, All-American offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, and three others left for the NFL. It was a good time to leave.

Could he leave? Nutt had left before. He signed with Broyles and started for him as a freshman in 1975. But when Broyles retired and Lou Holtz replaced him and installed an option offense, home didn't matter. Nutt transferred to Oklahoma State for his last two seasons.

So when the phone rang, and Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson wanted to talk to him about the Huskers job, Nutt listened.

"Sometimes, you think, 'Maybe the fans think I should go. Maybe I need a change,'" Nutt said. "There are so many more talk shows, quarterbacks on Monday morning. What gets back to you is negative."

Pederson dangled some pretty baubles before Nutt -- a $2 million salary, a larger fan base, the grand history of Husker football. No offense to the Big 12 North, but having Kansas and Iowa State in your division is a walk on the beach compared to the SEC West.

But Nebraska would have its negatives, too. There is no local recruiting base. You think it's hard operating out of Arkansas? Try living on just what you find in Omaha. There are the higher expectations. Worst of all, Nutt found himself, albeit in more visible circumstances, in the predicament of many 46-year-olds these days. He had obligations to his four children, the oldest of which is in a sophomore in high school. He had obligations to his parents.

How could uproot his kids? How could he tell his parents goodbye?

"Oh my god," Nutt said. "They would disown us. They didn't want to hear it. They didn't want it to happen. I expected that, especially my dad. Three of his four sons live in the state of Arkansas (Dickey is the head basketball coach at Arkansas State; Dennis, the youngest, is the head basketball coach at Texas State.) He can see his grandchildren and he can see the games."

In the end, Nutt didn't have a decision to make. It made itself. He took a pass on a higher salary. He took a pass on greater prestige. He did what was right for Houston Nutt. He braced himself for criticism from, as he termed it, "the outside world." And none came.

"The faxes into our office have been overwhelming," Nutt said. "The support, the letters of encouragement have been unbelievable. The thing that's been so positive is recruiting. We're totally re-energized. The recruits see a commitment. I didn't expect it to be this positive this early. We're two scholarships (commitments) from being full. If we hold on, this is going to be the first time that we keep everybody in Arkansas that we wanted."

Ten days after renewing vows, the marriage between Houston Nutt and the state of Arkansas is healthier than ever. In their case, all it took was the threat of absence. Their hearts, from both sides, grew fonder.

As Nebraska Turns
The firing of Frank Solich jolted the Nebraska campus at the end of the season, but not nearly as much as the decision by new coach Bill Callahan this week to fire seven assistants. While expected, the mass firing signaled with finality the end of the greatest era in Nebraska football history. No one knew whom defensive coordinator Bo Pelini might have kept if he had been promoted, but the housecleaning ended virtually all connection between Husker Past and Husker Future.

The departure of receivers coach Ron Brown, who has been in Lincoln since 1987, and special teams coordinator Jeff Jamrog, a former Husker defensive end, left only one tie between Callahan and the glory years. He retained local hero Turner Gill, the former Nebraska quarterback, although Callahan moved him from quarterback coach to receivers coach.

Callahan has been out of college football for 10 years, and he has two months to jumpstart recruiting and plan a month's worth of spring practice. His transition will be fascinating to watch, all the more so because of the jolt he delivered when he landed.

Snyder's Cover Blown
Bill Snyder has spent 15 years building a reputation as a football coach who cares about winning first, and little else second. Kansas State football operates under Soviet-style conditions of secrecy. Discussing injuries, discipline, or anything beyond the weather in the Little Apple is frowned upon.

All of which made the letter that Snyder wrote to the Wildcat Nation last week so remarkable. The coach laid out in military detail his thoughts and actions in how he responded to quarterback Ell Roberson and the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him on the eve of the Fiesta Bowl.

"I want all K-Staters to know that this incident has hit at the core of my value system," Snyder said. "I do not condone any form of sexual abuse or, for that matter, sexual activity for young, unmarried males or females. I have three daughters and three granddaughters, each of whom I pray to be safe and secure and to carry strong moral values that coincide with those of our family...

"As I anguished over this decision I was well aware that I do not have the capacity to regulate the decisions that 22 year olds make regarding their moral and sexual behaviors which are within the limits of the law.

"The question arose: would it be better not to start the young men? The idea of allowing them to play, but not start the game and sit out for a series or two seemed merely a token consequence. I believed the price of this irresponsibility should be far greater."

Snyder took away Roberson's scholarship for this semester, which he noted was worth approximately $8,481, took away his Fiesta Bowl ring, and decreed that Roberson must speak to local youth groups.

Snyder understood that no matter what he decided, he would be criticized. From here, it looks as if he nailed it. The larger issue is, Snyder has blown his cover. Behind that Dick Cheney fašade, there's a warm, emotional coach who treats his players as if they were his sons. Fifteen years of hard work, a career of concealment, all of it gone with one letter.

It's about time.

Playoff Talk
Ten years ago, Charles E. Young, then the chancellor of the UCLA, led an NCAA committee that attempted to examine the possibility of a Division I-A playoff. The committee began its work with great fanfare. However, the committee encountered so much opposition among the membership that it ended its work before it even made a recommendation.

Young retired at UCLA in 1997, then returned to work as president of the University of Florida. Upon his recent retirement in Gainesville, and in wake of the most recent postseason train wreck, Young reminded the intercollegiate community of the appeal of an NCAA-led playoff.

Chief among his points, which he made in an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, is that most of the fears regarding a playoff have come true in the bowl system.

  • The season is too long. Young pointed out that there are 28 bowls, nine more than before the BCS began, and the regular season went from 11 games to 12, although it is scheduled to return to 11 this year. "There are now 18 more institutions playing an additional game than there were when our committee was disbanded. Don't those constitute extra games?"

  • The overcommercialization of the postseason. Young noted the number of bowls with sponsors in their names, the amount of commercial signage at the bowl stadiums, and the fact that the national championship trophy has had a different title sponsor in each of the last three seasons.

  • The gulf that has opened between BCS and non-BCS schools. Young's case for a playoff is that it could achieve the goals of his fellow presidents better than the current system. "A playoff system could be used to reduce the number of games, rein in commercialization and help distribute the income of postseason football more fairly," Young wrote.

    No one listened to him a decade ago, and no one is listening now. But don't think that every university president is against a playoff.

    Silence Is Deafening
    The NCAA Convention came and went this week with remarkably little discussion of reviving the 12th regular-season game for this fall. When Division I-A approved a 12th game for the last two seasons, they couched it in terms of the calendar.

    There would be 14 Saturdays between Aug. 1 and Dec. 1, so the season wouldn't really get any longer.

    Conventional wisdom maintained that this was merely the camel's nose inside the tent, that once athletic directors got their hands on the increased revenue -- for instance, $3.5 million at Texas A&M, according to athletic director Bill Byrne -- they would find the political juice to keep it.

    It didn't happen. Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley, the chair of the Football Issues Committee, which would have to approve the change, said there is a consensus of support for the change among athletic directors, but not enough to change the minds of presidents.

    Division I-A coaches don't want to play 12, but said they would agree to it if they got support for their pet causes, which are a fifth year of eligibility and a promise that the 85-scholarship floor wouldn't be breached.

    Denny Poppe, the NCAA staff liaison to the committee, said there was even brief discussion of getting a 12th game at the price of giving up conference championship games. In the end, however, the committee didn't act, and the 11-game schedule looks like it will return for the 2004 season. The calendar will allow for 12 games again in 2008.

    Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

    Ivan Maisel | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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