Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hous-ton Nutt!

I was there on October 25, 2008. There, in the Lower West Side of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, on the sixth row, and very close to the visitors' tunnel. Close enough to have a very clear view of Houston Nutt holding his team's entrance onto Frank Broyles Field until the Razorbacks began their run "through the A". Until the fireworks ignited. Until the band played, and until the crowd cheered. That way, the inevitable boos were not only minimized, but they were drowned out.

I just shook my head in disgust. This man had been the coach of my team for ten years. A decade. Even as his team was enjoying success, and mine struggling, how excited I was to be rid of this coward.

Toward the end of the night, after Ole Miss had salted away a close game that was decided by two points and (surprise!) a questionable call against the Hogs, the visiting faction of Rebel fans broke out in chant. They like to do that, you know. Up from their respectable crowd arose a "Houston Nutt" chant. Hous-ton NUTT...Hous-ton NUTT." Nobody knew it at the time, but it would become a rallying cry for BOTH sides over the next years. I looked up what I wrote about that chant after the recap of the game. I have to say, it still made me giggle.

Skipping over the game for a second, the "Houston Nutt" chant started by the Rebel fans was so much unintentional comedy that it was almost overwhelming. I know there was a "Bobby, Bobby" response, and I'm sure it was cathartic, but I really feel like my instinctual response would have been more apropos; three or four seconds of stunned silence as the realization that, no, it's not a joke, and yes, they really do feel lucky to have him, sets in, followed by a very nice belly laugh, right in the middle of a pretty dire situation. Like 70,000 Santas telling Ralphie "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." Pregnant pause, belly laugh. Would have been beautiful. Oh well.

The following year, 2009, brought a trip to Oxford, and with it renewed expectations of an Ole Miss beatdown at the hands of the Hogs. Ryan Mallett had breathed life into our offense, and Razorback fans dreamed of him tossing it around at will inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, bringing home a victory and prompting a sarcastic iteration of the "Houston Nutt" chant to be volleyed toward the Rebel sidelines. This was to be the year, but again, it was not. The Razorbacks played uninspired football, no doubt due in part to a hangover from the previous week's heartbreaking loss to Florida in Gainesville, a game that featured (surprise!) officiating so poor that it resulted in the suspension of the crew the next week. Razorbacks who made the trip were forced again to endure the chant, tasting the sting of a barb they so badly wanted to utilize themselves.

Last year, 2010, brought us Nutt Bowl III, and I was in attendance. For most of it, at least. For the first time, Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks had the upper hand in terms of talent to go along with their always-present upper hand in coaching. The Hogs struggled some early, however, no doubt due in part to a hangover from the previous week's heartbreaking loss to Auburn, yet another game which featured (surprise!) very questionable officiating. The Hogs did manage to take control, however, and looked ready to blow it open when the skies opened up, and lightning forced two stoppages in play, the second of which wiped out most of the crowd. I was standing across Razorback Road when the few remaining in the stands tested it out. I'm sure it felt good, but that was far from the scenario that Razorback fans had hoped for for so long. Houston Nutt had, yet again, somehow escaped the scorn that he was due.

Three years later, we are this week preparing for the fourth meeting of Arkansas and Ole Miss since Houston Nutt crossed the Mississippi River to become an Ole Miss Rebel, and things have officially come full circle. Rebel fans, fed up with nine consecutive conference losses and the virtual guarantee of a second consecutive year without a bowl game, have ratcheted up the pressure on Nutt to levels he didn't see at Arkansas until his seventh or eighth year. Ole Miss Alumni who once mocked their Arkansas counterparts for engaging in all sorts of headline-making activities designed to rid themselves of Nutt are now taking out newspaper ads and organizing clubs and wondering just how much flying a banner really costs. Things are bad in Oxford. Razorback fans, on the other hand, are eyeing the prize of a return trip to the Sugar Bowl and back-to-back double-digit-win seasons for the first time since they have been in the Southeastern Conference. Construction will soon begin in earnest toward building a new Football Operations Center, and plans were announced just this week to enclose Reynolds Razorback Stadium sometime in the future. Their team is talented, confident, and prepared every single week. The excitement surrounding the football program is palpable.

Things have turned around so much, so fast, that I have heard very little with regard to Houston Nutt this week. Fans are focused on Ole Miss because they represent the next SEC obstacle on the Razorback schedule. Stadium expansion and conference expansion have dominated the news this week, and there are very few pot-stirrers left to call in to the talk shows and pine for Nutt's leadership. I never thought it would happen, but things in Arkansas are pretty tame this week. I know that several thousands are planning on making the road trip, but I haven't heard one person mention that they are planning on doing The Chant. Of course, if the opportunity arises, I'm sure it will be hard to pass up. Neither the teams nor the weather look likely to save Nutt a fourth time.

Personally, I'm more interested to see if, as in 2008, he times his team's entrance onto the field in order to minimize the boos from the home crowd.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Paging Dr. Lou

Alright, 2011 SEC Season.  Into the locker room.  Or better yet, just stay on the field, behind the goal post, where coaches direct their team at halftime when they are so disgusted with them that they cannot wait to get behind walls to unleash their fury.  We're at the midpoint of the season, and just like Frank Costanza during Festivus, it's time I let you know just how much you've let me down this year.  So take a knee, take your hat off, and take what's coming to you.  Just remember, it hurts me more than it hurts you.

While we're on the subject of pain, why don't we let the first request be for you to STOP HURTING ALL MY FAVORITE PLAYERS.  I know you have a reputation to keep, what with the SEC being the biggest, baddest bully on the block, but you have to at least allow some of its stars to keep shining.  You took out Knile Davis before the season started.  He might have been the best running back in the conference.  After that, you took out his backup, Dennis Johnson.  When you gave Johnson back, you apparently took out HIS backup, Ronnie Wingo.  Then you took out four starters for Arkansas during their toughest three-week stretch of the season.  You tried your hardest to take out Tyler Wilson, the best quarterback in the conference, but he apparently is either too dumb or too numb to realize your intentions.  He just keeps playing and setting records.

You're not limiting yourself to Arkansas, either.  You decimated Georgia's running back corps in the preseason, and since kickoff you've whacked both Tennessee's best receiver and their starting quarterback, who might be the second best passer in the league behind Wilson.  In a cruel twist of irony, you refuse to injure Barrett Trotter, yet you take out his top two wide receivers... presumably in nothing more than a capricious act of evil brilliance, because he certainly needs no extra help in failing miserably as an SEC quarterback.  Oh yeah, you also ended the season of Florida's one viable quarterback option, John Brantley, and while you were at it, took out his cherubic understudy as well.  I think that kid might have been fourteen, and you trotted him out there against Alabama, bless his heart.  You should be ashamed of yourself.

Second, I'm going to need a little more ineptitude in the officiating department before this SEC season can really be deemed as legitimate.  Over the past few years fans of the SEC have gotten used to officials making themselves part of the equation that determines the winner of any given game, instead of removing themselves from that equation.  Excessive celebration penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, fumbles that were and touchdowns that weren't, we've gotten used to hating on the officials.  There is little doubt in my mind that the officials still suck, but you're going to need to give us more of an opportunity to affirm that for this season.  So far, all we've had is a clock-controversy over one second in the Auburn-South Carolina contest that was really much ado about nothing.  The officials got it right, and even if they hadn't, it's not like South Carolina would have been able to do anything with their one remaining tick.  Still, the Ole Ball Coach at least deserved a chance to see if he could coax brilliance out of his drunk quarterback and chunky wide receiver one more (or in the case of Garcia, just one) time.

Third, people are going to stop watching SEC football if LSU and Alabama turn the featured television slot into a blowout each week.  There hasn't been a CBS game worth watching this season, but the best one of the bunch as far as entertainment value was the first one aired, between Florida and Tennessee, which ironically enough featured the worst matchup in terms of talent and rankings.  Alabama and LSU are going to demolish every team they play, and even if it doesn't appear that way on the scoreboard, it will seem that way to those tuning in, because a 10-point lead for either team is insurmountable.  I was in the stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and I am a diehard Razorback fan who refuses to give up, but I knew well before the fourth quarter of the game between Arkansas and Alabama that my Hogs didn't stand a chance.  The Tide are that good. LSU isn't on that level, in my opinion, but they are certainly good enough to take every team in the SEC, save two, to the cleaners.  It's why the SEC, even at midseason, and even with two of the top three teams in the country, is being branded yet again as being "down".  Whatever that means.  So how about some exciting matchups?  If not great football, could you at least throw some intrigue our way?  Require Les to eat some other strange non-food?  Steal another game from Derek Dooley just to see if he breaks down and cries on the 50 yard-line?  Or steal the first game from Will Muschamp to see if his head does, in fact, explode like an overfilled balloon, right there on the sideline?  Just give me something... anything.  Remember, these few Saturdays are what we live for.

The second half is almost upon us, so I'm going to close the way that all great coaches close and send you out on a positive note, with fire in your belly and a gleam in your eye.  We laid an egg that first half, guys, but the SEC season is built for second-half comebacks.  We have rivalry game upon rivalry game, stacked up so high that some bitter feuds might get relegated all the way to the SEC Network slot.  Every week, a game will be played that is highly important for no other reason than the teams playing hating each other so much.  We have a Cocktail Party and an Egg Bowl and an Iron Bowl and a Battle for the Boot and so many more.  We have a conference championship game that will likely send a team to claim a BCS Championship for the sixth straight year.  We have Trent Richardson chasing a Heisman trophy and Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger himself, making his own case for being the best player in America.  And we have an ace up our sleeve.  We have a game on November 5th that can reinforce with undeniable resonance that the best football in America is played here, in our region and on our fields.  Sidebars with Stephen Garcia and Jordan Jefferson may pass the time, and debates over conference expansion  and the job security of Mark Richt and Houston Nutt may hold our interest temporarily, but for true college football fans, what it all boils down to is getting to watch GREAT football... and that's what the matchup between LSU and Alabama will deliver.  That's what the SEC does, and that's what will make this second half so great.

So let's get to it.

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