A Real Nutt Job
Coach Houston Nutt has revived Arkansas to the tune of 8-0
First-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has a simple message for die Razorbacks' players and faithful: Believe. Believe in him. Believe in the Hogs. Nutt, who grew up in Little Rock, came home from Boise State last December and took over a 4-7 team dispirited by losing and by the rigid discipline of fired coach Danny Ford. Nutt tapped into die reserve of Razorbacks pride that lay in his heart and in the heart of Arkansas fans.
"I remember seeing people outside the stadium holding up two fingers and three fingers, and I would ask my dad what they were doing," Nutt says, referring to die universal sign for, I need two (or three) tickets. "My goal this year was to have people holding up fingers after two games."
He has met that goal. In a cold downpour last Saturday, a sellout crowd of 49,115 at Razorback Stadium saw more than it had dared hope to see. With a stunningly easy 34-0 wipeout of Ole Miss, Arkansas raised its record to 8-0 and its ranking to No. 10 heading into its SEC showdown against No. 1 Tennessee. Picked to finish last in the SEC West, die Razorbacks have a two-game lead in the division.
"Last year if we'd get down in a game by seven, you'd look at the sideline, and there would be the coach with his head down," says guard Brandon Burlsworth. "His shoulders were slumped. That filtered down to the players. A week ago Auburn scored two quick touchdowns and went ahead 21-17 in the third quarter. Coach Nutt is standing there erect. You can see in his face he has no doubt we're going to win. That's one thing about this team. We believe."
Nutt, 41, and his nine assistants—seven of whom grew up in Arkansas or played for the Razorbacks—turned attitudes around by injecting themselves into the players' lives, often dropping by their dorm rooms and apartments. Nutt, who lettered in football and basketball at Arkansas and Oklahoma State, had a basketball hoop installed inside a football practice facility and quickly got an inkling of what he was up against when he and his staff went undefeated in three-on-three games against players last spring and summer. "That wasn't a very good sign," he says. "I thought, How are we going to win football games in die SEC?"
In the last session of two-a-days, with a scrimmage on the schedule, Nutt brought the players together and announced, "When I blow this whistle, I want everyone to go...swimming!" Once they arrived at the campus indoor pool, the Hogs showed their appreciation by throwing every coach, plus trainer Dean Weber, into the water.
Nutt took special interest in senior defensive end C.J. McLain, whom Ford kicked off the team with two games left last season for testing positive for marijuana. "I come to tears every time I think about how much Coach Nutt's reaching out meant to me," says McLain, who got his team-leading fifth sack against the Rebels. At Nutt's behest McLain had extra meetings with the coaches and underwent extra drug tests. He did what Nutt asked of him. "So many things could have gone another way," McLain says. "I love being a Razorback. I love working hard for Coach Nutt."
A year ago Arkansas removed 1,200 seldom-sold seats from the south end zone at Razorback Stadium and planted grass in their place. Last Friday the board of trustees approved the hiring of an architect to design a $60 million, 20,000-seat expansion of the stadium. The way Nutt's team is going, even then the fans may be holding up fingers.
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