The first step in measuring success is defining a standard of excellence. For college football coaches that standard often includes building a championship contender while helping to nurture academic achievement and personal growth for more than 130 student-athletes.
While standards may vary slightly from individual to individual, it is safe to say that Houston Nutt is one of the nation’s best college football coaches by any definition. Set to enter his sixth season as the UA head coach, Nutt has elevated the Razorback program to new heights both athletically and academically. In 2002, Nutt and his staff blended a Southeastern Conference Western Division championship with a record-breaking representation on the league’s academic honor roll.
Last year’s success is just another sample in the pattern of excellence that Nutt has woven in his time with the Razorbacks. Since Nutt arrived in Fayetteville in 1998, Arkansas has enjoyed unparalleled success among SEC Western Division members. Arkansas has won more games (39) than any other school in the Western Division in that span and the Hogs are the only SEC West team to advance to five straight bowl games. In addition, Arkansas owns the best home winning percentage (.853) of any SEC team in the past five seasons as well as the league’s longest active regular season non-conference winning streak (17).
Add to that a pair of SEC Western Division titles and five consecutive winning regular seasons and you have a good idea of just some of the prosperity Razorback fans have enjoyed under Nutt.
Success is nothing new to the Little Rock, Ark., native. Nutt has compiled a career record of 75-45 (.625) in 10 seasons as a head coach including stops at Murray State, Boise State and Arkansas. He has compiled a 39-23 (.629) mark as the Razorbacks’ head coach.
As Nutt enters his sixth year at the helm at Arkansas, the 45-year old finds himself in elite company in the school record books. Nutt is only the third head coach in UA history to lead the Hogs to bowl games in each of his first five seasons. In his tenure, Arkansas has played in the 1999 Citrus Bowl, 2000 Cotton Bowl, 2000 Las Vegas Bowl, 2002 Cotton Bowl and the 2002 Music City Bowl.
Nutt joins former UA coaches Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield in accomplishing that feat. Holtz went on to lead the Hogs to six straight bowl games and Hatfield remains the winningest coach by percentage in UA history. Nutt appears to be on the same winning track as his predecessors.
When you consider that Arkansas had earned only two bowl berths in the eight seasons prior to Nutt’s arrival, the postseason string is even more impressive. When Nutt was introduced as the 29th head coach in the history of University of Arkansas football on Dec. 10, 1997, it would have been difficult for anyone to envision the immediate, positive impact that he would have on a program, a university and a state.
Taking the reins of a proud program that had faltered in back-to-back 4-7 seasons, Nutt faced the daunting task of restoring the excitement and passion that had been a part of Razorback football for decades.
Nutt has more than answered the call. While his eventual rank among UA head coaches remains to be determined, there is little doubt that Nutt has already made an immeasurable impact on the Razorback football program. His commitment to enhance the football program is not limited to the playing field. Nutt yearns to create a family atmosphere for the student-athletes who choose to come to Arkansas. While his on-field accomplishments speak for themselves, it is his investment in the lives of his players that sets him apart.
He and his staff personally monitor class attendance and visit players in their apartments and dormitory rooms at night. Nutt consistently makes decisions with the best interests of his program and student-athletes in mind.
In 2002, Arkansas boasted a school record 26 members on the SEC Academic Honor Roll. In his five seasons, the Razorbacks own a total of 88 honor roll selections.
When the 2003 campaign kicks off, the Hogs’ roster will include seven student-athletes that already own an undergraduate degree prior to completing their athletic eligibility.
While wins and losses are easily calculated, it is Nutt’s investment in the academic success of his student-athletes that will continue to pay dividends for years to come.
His philosophy has proven to be a recipe for success in the rough and tumble world of SEC football. Once courted by Frank Broyles as a star quarterback out of Little Rock’s Central High School, Nutt has made a habit of delighting University of Arkansas fans. In the past five seasons he has taken the Razorbacks to heights unreached in more than a decade.
The optimism of Nutt’s tenure can be calculated in large part by the expansion and renovation of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Hogs’ on-campus home was expanded from 51,000 to 72,000 in time for the 2001 season.
Nutt first thrilled Hog fans when, as a high school senior, he signed with Broyles over Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama. The current UA head coach was the last player to sign a letter of intent to play for Broyles before the legendary coach retired after the 1976 season.
With Ron Calcagni sidelined by an injury, Nutt started four games as a true freshman in 1976. He also lettered for Arkansas’ basketball team that year, a squad that finished 26-2 and won the Southwest Conference championship with a perfect 16-0 league mark under Coach Eddie Sutton.
Recruited as a drop-back passer, Nutt spent the 1977 season as a backup in the option-oriented offense instituted by Lou Holtz, Broyles’ successor at the helm of the UA football program. He decided to transfer to Oklahoma State where he redshirted and then played two years at quarterback for the Cowboys. He also spent two seasons with the OSU basketball program. Nutt earned his degree in physical education in 1981. Following his graduation, Nutt remained at OSU as a graduate assistant for head coach Jimmy Johnson.
In 1983 he returned to Arkansas as a graduate assistant under Holtz. His first full time position came at Arkansas State in the spring of 1984, but Nutt never worked a game in Jonesboro. Instead, Nutt returned to Oklahoma State, this time to be a receivers coach, in August of 1984.
He remained in Stillwater for six seasons, working extensively with quarterbacks and receivers. He was named offensive coordinator late in the 1989 season. Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders and All-American Thurman Thomas both played for the Cowboys during Nutt’s tenure.
Nutt made the trek back to Fayetteville in 1990 to serve as wide receivers coach under Jack Crowe. Despite the Hogs’ struggles during his three seasons on campus, Nutt quickly gained a reputation as an aggressive recruiter while he was establishing excellent relationships with high school coaches in Arkansas.
Murray State recognized his abilities and hired him as head coach in 1993. Nutt guided the Racers to steady progress with 4-7 and 5-6 marks in his first two seasons. In 1995 the program took off.
The Racers went 11-1 in 1995 and won the Ohio Valley Conference with a perfect 8-0 mark. They scored a school-record 421 points and had the most improved record in NCAA Division I-AA football. Their league championship was the school’s first since 1986. Nutt was named OVC Coach of the Year and The Sports Network/Eddie Robinson National Division I-AA Coach of the Year.
In 1996 the Racers posted an 11-2 record, including a perfect 8-0 mark in winning their second consecutive league title. MSU won its first I-AA playoff game in school history while eclipsing the school scoring record set just the season before. Nutt was again named OVC and Regional Coach of the Year.
Nutt’s accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed. Boise State, in just its second season of Division I-A football, called on Nutt to take over a fledgling program that was coming off a dismal 2-10 record. In fact, Sports Illustrated rated Boise State 112th out of 112 teams in Division I-A football.
With what most observers agreed was a limited talent pool, Nutt managed to guide the Broncos to a 5-6 record in his first campaign. Nutt’s squad held a lead against Wisconsin in the final minute of play at Madison, Wis., before the Badgers escaped with a win. The Broncos did, however, upset archrival Idaho on its own home field to end the 1997 season.
After a successful season at Boise State, Nutt found himself in the running for the top job at Arkansas. The first candidate interviewed, he waited a week to learn his fate before hearing the job was his.
Since the day he arrived in Fayetteville, he has taken the state by storm. As he recruited student-athletes he also re-recruited fans who had grown apathetic during a listless decade of Hog football. A solid support base had remained even through the down years, but many who had stayed away were rejuvenated by Nutt’s enthusiasm.
Fans were not the only ones attracted to Nutt’s refreshing approach. Picked to finish last in the SEC West, the Razorbacks exploded out of the gates, winning their first eight games. Arkansas had top-ranked Tennessee on the ropes at Knoxville, Tenn., before an untimely fumble allowed the Volunteers to escape on the way to a national championship.
The Razorbacks finished 9-3 and won a share of the SEC Western Division title. The Hogs made their first ever trip to the Florida Citrus Bowl and concluded the season with their first top 20 poll finish (16th) in nine seasons. For his efforts, Nutt was named Football News’ National Coach of the Year.
In 1999 the Razorbacks became the Western Division favorite because of an unusually large senior class. The Hogs had trouble on the road throughout the campaign, but finished in the manner of legends, defeating third-ranked Tennessee and 12th-rated Mississippi State on consecutive weekends to earn a spot opposite long-time rival Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Nutt’s extremely well-prepared team handed the Longhorns a 27-6 defeat in front of a packed house that included more than 40,000 cardinal-clad Hog fans. For the first time in its illustrious history, Texas was held to negative rushing yards. Once again the Hogs finished in the top 20 in the final polls, and Nutt’s status in the eyes of Razorback fans was raised to an even higher level.
In the 2000 campaign, Nutt faced his toughest challenge yet. Charged with winning in the nation’s toughest conference after losing the top career passer (Clint ) and receiver (Anthony Lucas) in school history, Nutt set out to mold a young team into a winner.
From literally the first day of workouts, Nutt and the Razorbacks faced more than their fair share of adversity and injuries. Nine players were lost for the season to injury, including the top three tailbacks listed on the preseason depth chart. In addition, dozens of other players missed practice and game time with various ailments.
Despite all the misfortune and distractions, Nutt rallied team to back-to-back wins over No. 13 Mississippi State and No. 24 LSU to secure yet another winning regular season and a bowl game.
In 2001, the Razorbacks stumbled to a 1-3 start, including three-straight losses in league play. Nutt and the Hogs rebounded to win six of their final seven regular season games, including wins over conference divisional leaders in consecutive contests. Arkansas topped No. 9 South Carolina, 10-7, before downing No. 17 Auburn, 42-17.
The Hogs won their way back to Dallas, Texas, for a New Year’s Day meeting with defending national champion Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The 2002 season started impressively with convincing wins over Boise State and South Florida. But after a home loss to Alabama and a road defeat at the hands of Tennessee in overtimes, the Razorbacks’ hopes for a division title looked bleak.
The momentum of an impressive win at Auburn was quickly dashed in a home loss to Kentucky. Arkansas stood 3-3 and 1-3 in conference play. But once again Nutt rallied his team down the stretch. Five straight wins including road conference wins at South Carolina and Mississippi State gave the Hogs a chance for a share of the SEC Western Division crown.
Trailing nationally-ranked LSU with less than a minute to play, quarterback Matt Jones found DeCori Birmingham in the back of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown pass, a share of the SEC Western Division title and a ticket to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Ga.
Arkansas made its second appearance in the league championship game and capped its season in the Music City Bowl. It was another brilliant late-season rally that ended with a division championship and a fifth straight bowl appearance.
Nutt is quick to credit his upbringing for laying the foundation for his success. His parents, Houston Sr. and Emogene, spent 35 years teaching young people at the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock. His father, a 2001 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, also served as athletic director and head basketball coach.
The oldest of four Nutt boys, Houston is not the only family member carrying on his father’s coaching legacy. Dickey is the head basketball coach at Arkansas State while Danny is the Razorbacks’ running backs coach. Dennis is beginning his fourth season as the head basketball coach at Southwest Texas State. The Nutt coaching foursome was featured in an article in Sports Illustrated in 1999.
The head coach at Arkansas has proven true to his family’s rich coaching heritage: a heritage that is centered on commitment, enthusiasm and a passion for people. He has impacted his players’ lives and has revitalized a tradition-rich program in the process.
Born Oct. 14, 1957, Nutt and his wife Diana, who also graduated from Oklahoma State, have four children: Houston III (3/11/87), twins Hailey and Hanna (9/26/88), and Haven (3/19/91).