Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

EDITORIALS>>New coach, same results

Nothing is more earthshaking in these latitudes than a change in head football coaches at the state university, and after a full year of turmoil and recriminations Arkansans woke up yesterday to find that they do not have Houston Nutt to kick around anymore. The head coach of the football Razorbacks for 10 years is headed to the University of Mississippi.

We find ourselves philosophical about the development knowing that the Nutt family will not be in distress — he landed a contract for $9.5 million at Ole Miss — but we know that for most people his leaving evinces either pain or joy. Nutt and university officials insisted that he left entirely of his own accord but it is more likely that the story was polite consideration to preserve his marketability. The chancellor, John White, does not have a perfect record of candor in these matters.

Every Razorback coach is controversial but Nutt raised it to new heights. It was not altogether of his own doing.

Midseason last year, a book came out that quoted the star freshman quarterback of the Razorbacks as repeatedly ridiculing Nutt while he was a senior at Springdale High School and being recruited by Nutt and every major school in the country. It cast a pall over the team, although Nutt said he didn’t mind the gibes. But then the young man was benched, the Hogs lost three straight and the recriminations began. The coach had too-eager friends. One sent nasty emails to the sports editor of the statewide newspaper and another to the quarterback calling him names and saying that he ought to pack up and leave.

He promptly left for the University of Southern California, along with the star freshman wide receiver. The offensive coordinator, the two players’ old high school coach, quit and went to the University of Tulsa.

Losing the first three conference games to lower-ranked opponents this fall did not help, but the Freedom of Information Act was Nutt’s undoing. FOI requests turned up a thousand text messages between Nutt’s state-supplied phone and a television reporter and a mean email, apparently from Nutt’s wife on his account, wishing harm to the quarterback’s mother. The man could have done with less ardent friends and family, but he and his bosses at the university did handle the situation badly.

Nutt by any measure was not a great coach, but he was pretty good and better than what the program had had for a dozen previous years. He took the team to two division championships and consistently to bowls. His record in the Southeastern Conference was barely above .500 — 42 to 38 — but in the toughest conference in the country that ain’t too bad. Arkansas has had only one demonstrably great coach in a major sport — Nolan Richardson — but fired him after a mediocre season and a crabby remark.

If it wants to hire a proven great coach, the university will have to pay even more than the unseemly fortune that it was paying Houston Nutt and the rest of the athletic department. It probably will pay more but be prepared to be philosophical when the results are no better or much worse.