The following post was written by a long time Hog fan who earned his MA in English from the University of Arkansas where he wrote his thesis on William Faulkner. He has been looking for the opportunity to merge his football knowledge with his Faulkner knowledge in one piece of writing for some time now.
William Faulkner is known for the insight that "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." But I don’t know if even the gothic imagination of William Faulkner could have come up with the scenario of a football coach who haunts an entire state and who will make a re-appearance on the old battleground / football turf of his home state every other year in the quest to defeat the team he once professed to love. As much as some fans on message boards, in cafes and in barber shops tell other fans that Bobby Petrino is our coach now and that we need to get beyond Houston Nutt, I don’t think Hog fans are likely to get over our former coach anytime soon.
The past certainly won’t be dead and won’t be past when Houston Nutt runs out on the field this coming Saturday as Ole Miss’ coach. And being the past-haunted Southerners that we are, Houston Nutt is likely to be standing around in the back of our collective football consciousness for the other 364 days of the year. Just how far back will likely depend upon Saturday’s score.
For a character that seems like he could have only been created in our Southern part of the country and seems at times more of the stuff of absurd fiction than fact, it is only fitting that he should have found his way to Oxford, Mississippi, the navel of just about all things Southern. I just can’t see Hartford, Connecticut, ever producing a Houston Dale Nutt. Maybe Alabama graduate Reese Davis, of ESPN fame, has been living in Bristol, Connecticut, too long himself, for he should know that Houston Dale Nutt is not the Episcopalian "Right Reverend," but Brother Nutt of the Southern Baptist pulpit of sweating holiness and emotional appeals to the heart that wants to believe.
During the early years, I certainly wanted to believe that Houston Nutt was the coach that would take Arkansas to the promised land of SEC championships and respect amongst the big boys of the SEC. During those first years he got me truly interested in Razorback football again after the doldrums of the Danny Ford years. I enjoyed seeing him in the pre-game locker rooms giving his sermon on the importance of the "first five minutes," "a hat on a hat," "give me a turnover, defense," "the heart of a champion," and the "best years of your lives, men." The fire, the passion, I wanted to take the field myself!
I say that with some embarrassment now, feeling suckered like the famous search committee that hired him based more on his charm and story than his demonstrated X’s and O’s ability to coach football, for the ten years that Houston Nutt lead the Hogs showed us how the rah rah can only go so far. The ability to teach football intelligence, technique, focus and discipline will win you championships. The rah rah gets you roller coaster seasons that, to borrow from Faulkner again, gives you a lot of sound and fury that in the end signifies not a whole lot in the trophy case.
I believe the peaks, all of which I certainly treasure, the glories, of those ten years came in the two bowl wins, the win over Texas in Austin, Stoerner’s revenge in Fayetteville, the biblical epics that were the seven over-time wins, the famous out-of-the-sky miracle on Markham, the comeback in Tuscaloosa in 2003, the wins in Auburn, the day College Gameday came to town, the knocking-off of number one LSU in Baton Rouge and the never-say-die attitude that you could count on the Hogs having in a game.
The valleys or travails of those years: the oh-so-close loss in Knoxville; the two losing seasons; the snowball effect blowout losses; the national embarrassment of the USC games; the curse of always following the first SEC loss with another conference loss; the losing bowl record; the fruitless trips to Atlanta, the shooting of oneself in the foot that we continue to see today in his players; the lack of ever developing a true quarterback and passing game; the sense that the Fayetteville police department knew his players better than Nutt did; the mounting losses in Fayetteville; the sense that the presence of talent such as McFadden and Jones (both of them) was squandered; the whole Gus, Mitch, Springdale, "I called that play, Brotha," "dork," "Mr. Interception King," text messaging fiasco; split fan base; and my personal turning point, the home loss to Vanderbilt. A textbook example of defying the football gods at your own peril, the last one came after Nutt said he sure wish he had Vanderbilt on his schedule.
Knowing the good and the bad as we do, how do you really explain the depth to which Arkansas fans want to see their former coach and his new team, the new helmet, beaten on Saturday? I think part of it is the valleys, the travails we went through with him. We had ten years of having to wish for his success after each low moment, many of which we blamed on his coaching mistakes. Now we don’t have to do that, for wishing for his defeat is not wrapped up in the Hogs losing. His losing on Saturday will be something of payback for all those former losses and unfilled expectations of the "National Championship Under Construction."
Secondly, we want to show the rest of the college football world that doesn’t seem to see any fault in our former coach that we knew what we were doing when we let him leave Arkansas.
Finally, and I think most importantly, the quick three million dollar move to a division rival boldy told us that Houston Nutt really wasn’t all about the "one heartbeat" and the "love that helmet." He was really all about Houston Nutt from beginning to end, not the team, not the program itself, not the state. He was one of Faulkner’s Snopes, after-all, someone who is concerned only about advancing his position with no greater loyalty than that. There’s probably a fair amount of Snopes (Bobby Petrino included) in any football coach in these days of million dollar paydays, but it hurts more when it is a homegrown Snopes in question. When it is the former War Memorial ball boy . . . .
In order to squeeze one more Faulkner reference (arguably past its limit) into this post, I would like to end with another quote from Faulkner. The most famous Oxford resident said good writing was about "the human heart in conflict with itself." In my more charitable moments of thinking about Houston Dale Nutt, I think of him over there in Oxford looking at himself in the mirror, with his Rebel plantation hat on, and feeling at times horrible about the prospect of being on the other sideline and trying to defeat the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday. This vision of our former coach is one where he has his "What in the world have I done?" dark night of the soul moments of anguish that a Snopes wouldn’t ever have.
Though I admittedly can never be absolutely certain of what is inside now Colonel Nutt’s heart, I know my heart won’t be conflicted at all come Saturday when the first "Woo Pig Sooie" roars down from the stands and yet another chapter is written in Arkansas football history. Go Hogs!