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.

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