Jim Harris: Houston Nutt Finds His Stride In Return Home


Houston Nutt

Houston Nutt is in a good place in his life. He’s living in the mountains and dry air of Sante Fe, New Mexico. He spends Thursdays through Sundays talking and watching lots of football while commentating on a New York set for CBS’s college football.

He even fits his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes better than he has since strolling in as Arkansas’ head football coach in December 1997.

“I needed to lose weight. I don’t eat. Well, I still eat, just not as much,” he said after wowing a full ballroom of the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock with a half-hour or so as only Houston Nutt can do.

Maybe that’s the best measure of a speaker: Club president David Bazzel will tell you Nutt was not necessarily a popular choice on this year’s Little Rock Touchdown Club lineup, at least from what he heard from some of the club members, and the welcome for Nutt when he began was the standard for anybody else who addresses the club weekly. But Nutt had the crowd jumping out of seats to a loud, standing ovation when he finished covering a lot of ground, from his playing days to his Razorback coaching days while mentioning everyone he’d influenced or been influenced by all these years.

There was a humbleness to his voice, but he punctuated moments with those loud, Nutt-style exhortations. There was some remorse. “There were some things I wish I had done differently while I was here,” he said of his decade as a Razorback head coach.

“There were more things I wish I could have said but that’s hard to do in 30 minutes or less,” he told the media after his time in front of the club members.

Still, he reminded everyone why he’s still the most entertaining Razorback coach at a speaker’s dais since the days of Lou Holtz, if not Frank Broyles before him.

Nutt had a playful banter with Rex Nelson, one of the Touchdown Club’s weekly entertainers who recaps the previous weekend’s actions and often has imitated Nutt’s delivery from “the 662 area code,” where Nutt resided from 2008-11 as Ole Miss’ head coach.

Nutt can do some dead-on impressions too, as he reminded folks with his stories about Frank Broyles, his coach and later his boss as athletic director, or Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Alabama legend who came to the Capitol View neighborhood to recruit Nutt in the winter of 1975-76 and found all the Nutt boys in the backyard playing hoops on an 8-foot goal.

“Finish the game,” he urged the brothers, Nutt recalled Monday in a deep Bear growl.

Nutt’s bandwagon of local followers has far from emptied since he departed Fayetteville. Other than Dickey Nutt, who was out recruiting for his job as head basketball coach at Southeast Missouri State, brothers Danny and Dennis and mom Imogene were at one table up front, while Clint Stoerner, Anthony Lucas and Jamal Anderson were just a few of Nutt’s former Hogs to show up, along with former Razorback assistant coach Ken Turner, who was Nutt’s chief recruiter. Former high school mentors and players who had known Nutt for decades were back again, and he recognized them all.

“This is home,” he said.

Nutt said he’d welcome another head coaching opportunity, “but only if it’s the right place.”

From the back of the room, a loud voice yelled, “Texas is looking.” Laughter took over the room, and Nelson made a downward hook ’em gesture to Nutt, who was just to his left.

That let Nutt tell another story, the one where he had to explain to Texas coach Mack Brown, a friend, why he gave the downward horns after Arkansas’ 27-6 Cotton Bowl win on New Year’s Day 2000. Brown had asked him why he’d made such a gesture, which was caught on TV.

“You’ve got to understand, Texas is our biggest of all rivals,” Nutt said he told Brown on a sponsored trip. “All your fans had already left. I was just doing that in front of our fans.”

Nutt wanted to debase the notion that he or brother Danny, who was a running backs coach for the Hogs, “invented” the Wildcat, the direct snap play to the tailback that gained nationwide popularity after the Hogs’ used it so well in 2006 with Darren McFadden.

“The Wildcat, the Single Wing, all those things were already in football. What Danny did do, in our second day of two-a-days he said, ‘You really wanna make this offense go? Put Darren McFadden back there to take a direct snap.’”

It was Danny Nutt who had seen McFadden operate occasionally as a quarterback for Pulaski Oak Grove High School and knew he could be a weapon running or reading the option.

Nutt later said to the media, “A lot of teams have caught up to the Wildcat as far as running the ball. But you put a guy back there who can  pass and it adds a whole different dimension.”

Nutt seemed to have seen all or parts of every Arkansas game thus far this season. He said the Hogs and first-year coach Bret Bielema should relish a week like this, going up against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel,  having nothing to lose with no one expecting Arkansas to stay with the Aggies.

“This week, you turn it loose. Turn it loose,” Nutt said. “The pressure is all on the Aggies and you’ve got them coming to Fayetteville. Your job [as fans] is to be loud, louder than you’ve been.”

While Nutt said he missed the competition and preparing for a game as a head coach, he was also reminded by Arkansas’ 28-24 loss at Rutgers Saturday what he doesn’t miss. “I know how Bret Bielema has been feeling on Sunday and Monday,” he said.

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