The second half of Arkansas football’s 2023 season was disappointing for many reasons. Bowl game eligibility was a distant dream, recruits started decommitting and the future of the program was in serious doubt.
One of the most alarming and disappointing parts of those last handful of games wasn’t really the fact that the Razorbacks lost, but rather how they went down. Similar to how Eric Musselman’s squad let go of the rope in the second half of last Saturday’s historically bad home loss to Auburn, or even this weekend’s loss to Florida, Sam Pittman’s team was guilty of the same just two months prior.
The Arkansas football program is missing a sense of pride and passion that used to be a non-negotiable demand from their fan base – whose state, need I not remind you, has no other major college or professional sports team within its borders.
That unique fact has been what separates Arkansas from every other SEC program, which all have to compete with other major college or pro teams for resources and attention. Despite this, the program has now seemingly lost the exact passion and pride that has made it special in the past.
One potential solution is bringing around a former coach who exudes the fire that the Razorbacks so desperately need.
Another Former Coach Returns to Fayetteville?
It’s been 16 years since Houston Nutt’s tenure at Arkansas came to an end. After a roller coaster 10-year run leading the Razorback football program from 1998 to 2007, Nutt moved on to coach Ole Miss and then eventually served as a broadcaster at CBS.
Now, with his coaching and broadcasting days behind him, the former head coach is back in Northwest Arkansas a lot more these days.
Because of this – and the fact that the football program’s reunited with another former head coach this offseason – some fans have thrown around the idea of bringing Nutt around Arkansas football on a more consistent basis.
On a December episode of “Ask Mike,” a fan asked Mike Irwin, in a half-joking manner, if there was a chance that Sam Pittman could hire Houston Nutt to give halftime speeches. While Irwin noted that this exact scenario is unrealistic and improbable, he did discuss how Nutt could be brought back around the program in other ways.
“This is a guy who can fire people up,” Irwin said. “He understands the fans and he can tell (the school) what fans think and what they want.”
“Some people have told me that he may end up being the guy that raises money for (Arkansas) Edge, this new NIL thing, because he would be really good at getting people to do that. Or he may end up at the (Razorback) Foundation.”
Irwin goes on to mention other programs that have had coaches serve in similar roles. His co-host, Courtney Mims, brought up Steve Spurrier being hired back by the Gators in an official ambassador role.
Despite abruptly resigning as Florida’s head coach in 2002 after 12 years, only to be hired by SEC East rival South Carolina less than four years later, Spurrier was always held in high regard by Florida football fans. In 2016, one year after his retirement from coaching, Florida brought Spurrier back in an official capacity as an ambassador and consultant to the athletic program.
In this role, Spurrier does public speaking engagements, fundraising and works adjacent to the Florida football team, offering advice and input when asked.
It’s the kind of role that someone like Houston Nutt – a native Arkansan with an energetic, passionate and infectious personality – could thrive in.
Houston Nutt’s Connection with Arkansas Fans
Houston Nutt was born and raised in Arkansas and coaching is seemingly ingrained in his family’s DNA. His father served as athletic director and basketball coach at the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock for 35 years, earning an induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 for his service.
His brothers Dickey and Dennis Nutt have both been head basketball coaches at in-state schools. Dennis is currently the head coach at Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia and Dickey is an assistant coach at Missouri under Dennis Gates. Nutt’s youngest brother, Danny, served as an assistant coach with him at Arkansas and Ole Miss, but has since retired from coaching due to health concerns.
Nutt’s understanding and family connection to the state of Arkansas is something that a lot of people across the state have always appreciated. Irwin touches on this point and why, despite the ups and downs of his coaching tenure, he’s still held in high regard by so many.
“He is a throwback to a time that the fans can relate to, when that program was closer to the average fan than it is right now,” Irwin said. “They’ve gotten away from the closeness that Frank Broyles believed the athletic department should have with fans and Houston can bring that back.”
Nutt worked under athletic director Frank Broyles for all 10 years of his tenure in Fayetteville. As Irwin noted, Broyles was big on making sure that Razorback pride extended to every corner of the state.
It’s well-documented how Broyles traveled across the state, visiting Razorback clubs as far east as the Mississippi River delta, as far south as the Arkansas-Louisiana border and even up into Northeast Arkansas. The goal being that Arkansans everywhere felt connected to the state’s flagship university and that the football team could become a pillar of state pride.
Nutt, a quarterback recruited to Arkansas when Broyles was head coach, fully understood what his former coach was trying to do. So, when he was hired by Broyles in 1997, he embraced that aspect of the job and understood what the team meant to fans across the state.
It’s something that Ken Hatfield, a West Helena native who had played under Broyles on the ’64 national title team, also understood 20 years after that when he became the Arkansas football coach. Hatfield, by the way, still lives in northwest Arkansas. Even if he didn’t take any official position involving the program, his ability to talk from a first-hand perspective as someone who had a hand in two of the most successful periods in school history shouldn’t be discounted.
“It’s not his personality to jump in and offer unsolicited advice, but he may have been the best purely technical football coach the Razorbacks have ever had,” as SI.com’s Andy Hodges wrote. “Hatfield also won 75.3% of his games over six seasons.”
Among all Razorback coaches, none was more well known for his ardent speeches than Houston Nutt. He most memorable one was this “One Razorback” classic prior to his first game as head coach in 1998:
What many may not remember about Nutt’s tenure was how much he stressed to his teams the importance of winning games in central Arkansas. Arkansas won its first 17 Little Rock games under Nutt, their first loss coming in 2004 to LSU. Over his 10-year tenure, Nutt’s record at War Memorial Stadium was an astounding 22-2.
That respect and pride Nutt had for Little Rock games was a way to connect with fans who otherwise couldn’t make the trek up to Fayetteville on a consistent basis to see their beloved Razorbacks. As a native of Little Rock, Nutt understood exactly what those handful of games meant to fans in and around central Arkansas.
In the years after Nutt’s departure, games played in Little Rock have lost nearly all of the luster they once had. Instead of the games being a unique and positive experience, they’ve been viewed as more of a nuisance than anything by some former coaches and fans alike.
This past year’s Little Rock game left a lot of fans frustrated and angry at the lack of preparedness from War Memorial Stadium. Issues with ticket scanning, the stadium’s staffing size and limited supply of water made it an extremely unpleasant experience for some.
For a segment of fans, who would gladly welcome the day that Arkansas football stops playing games in Little Rock altogether, this only added fuel to the fire and evidence to support their case.
Arkansas no longer plays important conference games, against the likes of Mississippi State and LSU, in War Memorial Stadium like it did when Nutt was coaching. The annual Little Rock opponents are almost always cupcakes and smaller programs so bad that they made this year’s 4-8 Razorback team look like world-beaters. (That’s not always the case, though, is it Bret?)
Still, the game could be considered important to some and the disconnect mentioned by Irwin isn’t solely because of waning interest in Little Rock games and the on-going “Great Stadium Debate.” However, it is part of a growing issue that Irwin highlighted in his comments.
Having Nutt, a Little Rock guy who understands the state, around could help bridge what may be a growing gap between the program and fans in other regions of the state.
Disconnect Between Arkansas Football and Former Players?
This issue isn’t exclusive to just fans. There are some former Razorback players who have, in recent years, begun to feel distant from the team they used to represent.
A few years ago, former Razorback star Peyton Hillis lamented that the warmth he felt from the program toward former players had cooled after Bret Bielema was fired in 2017.
He wanted to help the program so much, Hillis said in a July 2020 radio interview, that he “signed up for every position they’ve had an opening for, from quality control to defensive assistant to, heck, waterboy. [Even] recruiter, something where I could come in and help the team.”
Hillis never got a call back.
“There’s been no contact from either coaching staff,” he added. “It’s kind of like you’ve been abandoned by the staff, not by the university or the fans.
“Where I’ve been, recent players go to their college. They’re accepted. They want them on the field for recruiting or for, you know, inspiration or, you to talk to the guys and let them know, ‘Hey, this is what you do. This is what you don’t do. Keep your head.’ Things of that nature.”
Peyton Hillis’ former teammate knows his pain. Former Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajubutu still lives in Arkansas and owns a logistics company based out of Little Rock. He was undoubtedly one of the program’s best linebackers during Nutt’s tenure, earning two All-SEC selections during his time in Fayetteville.
Despite his accomplishments as a Razorback, Olajubutu and other former Razorbacks have only been back to Fayetteville a handful of times. He’d like the UA to reach out more.
“For a while now, I’ve said that they need to hire more former players and just get guys up there around the program on a regular basis,” Olajubutu told Best of Arkansas Sports. “We had a reunion a couple of years ago, but other than that, we’re not really getting invited up there for games.
“I feel like being a former player, we could be a big benefit to the current players because we’ve gone through the same experiences those (current) guys are. We could give them advice and share what we went through and just help those guys by being around.”
Olajubutu mentions how he regularly talks with other former Arkansas football players who constantly express their desire to be around and more involved with the program, outside of what the club for former Razorback student-athletes is doing.
He specifically mentioned how programs like Texas, Alabama and Miami have a lot of former players on the sidelines for multiple practices, home games and allows them to be around the team multiple times throughout the year. That adds depth to the “brotherhood” type of atmosphere all programs strive for.
“A lot of us see how other schools do it and how it helps them in recruiting,” Olajubutu said. “You have a lot of guys who have had successful careers and want to be around more to offer advice and share their experience to help the guys up there now. I just think having us around like that, having coach (Nutt) around, that could be a big benefit for everyone.”
He added: “He knows what it means to be a Razorback and he did a lot of good things for the program. I would definitely like to see him back around the program in some kind of role.”
Houston Nutt as an Ambassador?
Adding Houston Nutt to an ambassador role may open the door to having former players like Olajubutu around the program and could help the university.
Expect a lot of criticism in the wake of such an announcement, however. While many fans still admire Nutt, many don’t.
Some may point out that Nutt isn’t necessarily worthy of a role that Spurrier was given at Florida. After all, their accomplishments at their respective schools aren’t exactly 1:1. While Nutt appeared in two SEC championship games, Spurrier appeared in eight such games – winning six of them – and also won a national championship in 1996.
The most popular argument against Nutt as an ambassador would be the circumstances surrounding his departure from Fayetteville. The 2006 and 2007 seasons were filled with off-field controversy for whic Nutt, in part, bears a large part of the responsibility.
However, laying all of the blame in Nutt’s lap for that situation would be wrong, and time has indeed healed wounds in other, more recent, controversies surrounding Arkansas football coaches.
Fans have been more than willing to forgive Bobby Petrino for the embarrassing scandal that led to his dismissal. In comparison, the way Petrino’s tenure ended and Nutt’s tenure ended are apples and oranges. Petrino brought way more shame and national embarrassment to the program than Nutt. For that reason, it’s time for Nutt’s detractors to move on – just as they did with Petrino.
As Mike Irwin said, there is no previous Arkansas football coach who can connect with the average fan quite like Houston Nutt.
Looking ahead at NIL fundraising, the leaders of the new Arkansas Edge organization need a team of people who can effortlessly connect with both corporate brass and blue-collar workers alike. If Arkansas is serious about getting those average fans to invest financially, then that should start with someone who knows exactly how to get the entire state invested in the Razorbacks.
As Nutt himself has said, “There’s a lot of lions, tigers and bears, but there ain’t but one Razorback.”
A brand and fan base as unique as Arkansas’ deserves an ambassador who understands that perfectly.
More from Mike Irwin on Houston Nutt starting at 28:00 here:
More coverage of Arkansas football and Houston Nutt from BoAS…