Tuesday, January 05, 2010

SPORTS >> Ex-coach can still drive Hogs fans nuts

Leader sports editor

I got a Twitter update Saturday from an acquaintance road tripping to Memphis to see the Liberty Bowl between Arkansas and the East Carolina Pirates.

It seems my friend had stopped at a popular barbecue joint full of Hogs fans and a few disturbed East Carolina fans cowering in a corner.

I asked if the East Carolina fans had been disturbed by one those spontaneous callings of the Hogs always so welcome and appropriate in places like restaurants, wedding receptions, military deployments and wakes.

No, my friend said, but the visitors from the East may have been intimidated by the outpouring of hate the Arkansas fans were showing for Ole Miss as it played Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

I would hazard a guess these are the same Hogs fans who like to tout SEC supremacy on most other occasions. The difference in the case of Ole Miss, of course, is former Arkansas coach and Little Rock native Houston Nutt was coaching the Rebels.

Nutt’s Ole Miss team beat Oklahoma State 21-7 to finish the year 9-4, yet no Razorback fan I know was jumping forward to brag about Nutt’s blow for SEC supremacy. If Hogs fans really care about the SEC brand, they need to be reminded that under
Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss lost all eight of its conference games before Nutt came on board.

Later that night, Hogs fans were uneasily cheering their team’s 20-17 overtime victory in a dog-ugly Liberty Bowl that should be renamed the Wide Left Classic. But Arkansas prevailed and was congratulated for an 8-5 finish and victory in a mid-level bowl under second-year coach Bobby Petrino.

I pointed out the Hogs frequently did the same under Nutt, to which a fan replied that the difference is the Razorbacks now don’t have an “idiot” for a coach.

This is the “idiot” who has led Ole Miss to consecutive 9-4 records and two Cotton Bowl victories and who beat Arkansas 23-21 in 2008 and 30-17 this season.

This is the “idiot” who was 75-48 at Arkansas, who was usually good for a thrilling victory over LSU, and who led the Razorbacks to two SEC West championships and eight bowl games, with a victory over hated Texas in the 2000 Cotton Bowl.

But Hogs fans have this irrational blind spot when it comes to their former coach, and certainly Nutt did things while at Arkansas that were infuriating.

There were the disappointing losses that seemed to come with each thrilling victory. Think of the 1998 game at top-ranked Tennessee when quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled or the three season-ending losses — including one to Wisconsin in the Capitol One Bowl — that tarnished the 10-1 start of 2006.

There was Nutt’s apparent inability to find room in the pigpen for Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, now at Auburn.

There was the controversy over the handling of Springdale standout quarterback Mitch Mustain, who was 8-0 as a starter in his time at Arkansas.

And of course there was the scandal in a bottle over Nutt’s game of text-message footsie with a female television reporter and, probably more irritating to fans, his interest in other jobs like Nebraska and LSU. In fact, Nutt may have been perhaps the only man to flirt with Donna Bragg AND Tom Osborne.

So Nutt and his $2 million salary are gone after he posted a .610 winning percentage at Arkansas. Now the Razorbacks have Petrino, who made close to $2.9 million this season and has so far posted a .520 winning percentage.

Folks, it doesn’t get much better than that at Arkansas.

Every 15-20 years the Razorbacks might catch the right teams at the right time to break into the BCS championship picture.

But, without a Florida- or Texas-sized recruiting pool and competing in a league like the SEC, which IS darn good, the best Arkansas fans can regularly expect is an average 7.5 victories and a decent bowl.

Nutt gave them that, and they’re still cursing his name, if they say anything about him at all.

Lou Holtz, the former Razor-backs coach turned television commentator, made the statement during the Liberty Bowl that Arkansas fans are the most uneducated in college football.

Those are strong and unkind words I would have saved for the idiots supporting ousted Texas Tech coach Mike Leach and who cruelly mocked one of Leach’s allegedly abused players at the Alamo Bowl.

That’s the same Mike Leach who had a .613 winning percentage at Texas Tech, lost to Nutt in the 2009 Cotton Bowl, never won a national championship with the Red Raiders and only occasionally got his team into the BCS discussion.

Hmm, minus the player-abuse allegations, a lot of that sounds like Houston Nutt.

The difference?

Leach got more support from fans.