Houston Nutt in the SEC: What Do You Make of an Enigmatic Coach?

It's taken me a few days to try and put together an assessment of Houston Nutt as head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels for a few reasons -- the recent news has obviously been a distraction for all of us, the middle of the season is not exactly the best way to do one of these things and I'm having trouble answering a simple question.

Namely, what do we make of Houston Nutt? After all, he's been a coach in the SEC for 14 years now, so it's not like any of us are unfamiliar with him. And his off-field antics, and the bizarre and blind anger he seemed to inspire in parts of the Arkansas fan base, are the stuff of legend.

But, barring some sort of scandal like we've seen at some other universities, coaches are generally paid and retained based on their ability to win football games. And in that regard, Nutt was sometimes as much an enigma on the field as he was outside the stadium.

Houston Nutt, 1998-2011
1998 Arkansas 9-3
1999 Arkansas 8-4
2000 Arkansas 6-6
2001 Arkansas 7-5
2002 Arkansas 9-5
2003 Arkansas 9-4
2004 Arkansas 5-6
2005 Arkansas 4-7
2006 Arkansas 10-4
2007 Arkansas 8-4
2008 Ole Miss 9-4
2009 Ole Miss 9-4
2010 Ole Miss 4-8
2011 Ole Miss 2-7

The primary charge against Houston Nutt over the years, based both on the records in that chart and the way he achieved them, is that a season with Mr. Giggity at the helm was a roller-coaster ride wearing a blindfold: You knew you were going to drop at some point, you just didn't know when.

Which is both right in a way and wrong in a way. Over the years, Houston Nutt has indeed seen peaks and valleys in his year-to-year record (blue line). But when you look at the number as a four-year average (red line), Nutt was actually fairly consistent over time.

Houstonnutt_medium

The odd thing here is that the complaint that Arkansas fans basically began -- the endless series of ups and downs -- actually became far more pronounced in Oxford than they ever were in Fayetteville. Nutt's best winning percentages at Ole Miss were just a shade under his best seasons in Arkansas, but when the bottom fell out over the last two years, it really fell out. Last year's mark and the current record for this season would both have been the worst of Nutt's years in Fayetteville.

Which just brings us back to that initial question: What do we make of Houston Nutt?

It's worth remembering that Nutt led the Hogs to two SEC Championship Games, including all but one of the times Arkansas has ever been to Atlanta. But it's also true that the Razorbacks remain the only team to go to the Georgia Dome more than once and leave the building losers every time.

And Ole Miss, which had no appearances when Nutt arrived, has still never played in the conference's year-ending event. He did have two nine-win campaigns in the tough SEC West, but both of those were powered by quarterback Jevan Snead. That lends some credence to Nutt's contention that things would have been different if Snead has not taken his bizarre leave to head to the NFL Draft after the 2009 season, but that's not really an excuse for a head coach. You're supposed to plan for things like that, and the Rebels would have been in the same situation (perhaps minus Jeremiah Masoli) if Snead had blown out a knee in practice.

What about comparing Houston Nutt to other coaches at the schools he's been at? David Cutcliffe had a 10-win season at Ole Miss and a string of bowl wins before his first losing season got him fired -- but Nutt's sample size is a bit small to compare to that. Nutt did better than Ed Orgeron, but that's a rather low bar he's clearing there.

Bobby Petrino, meanwhile, has had three seasons of eight or more wins in his first four years. Nutt took five years to get there. It might yet be too soon to compare Petrino to Nutt, but unless something changes, the current Razorbacks coach looks like he's on a path to perhaps pass the Arkansas alumnus who preceded him.

Like most coaches, Nutt was defined by the level of talent he was able to recruit -- but the pattern was amplified with Nutt. When he had Darren McFadden and Jevan Snead, Nutt's teams were strong teams that were in contention for or winners of division titles. Without those players, Nutt was more likely to struggle to get to .500 or anything approaching a memorable season.

Nutt was a good coach -- we've certainly seen enough coaches in the SEC who couldn't win regardless of their talent -- but will probably not be remembered as a great one. Which is not to say that he won't be remembered; it's hard to think that any fan of the SEC who watched him at work will ever forget him.

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