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March 31, 2008

Nutt happy to be coaching at Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. – This time a year ago, his eyes looked swollen, his gait seemed slow and his body language indicated fatigue.

Houston Nutt wasn't carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he was carrying that of the state of Arkansas - which was heavy enough to wear down a strong man.

As Arkansas' coach, he endured vehement complaints about the program despite having won the SEC West in 2006. There was controversy after a family friend sent a derogatory e-mail to former Razorbacks quarterback Mitch Mustain, who eventually transferred to USC. Nutt was accused of infidelity. And through it all, his brother, Danny, had recurring bleeding in his brain stem, which eventually forced his resignation as Arkansas running backs coach.

What a difference a year makes.

Still wearing red – now in a brighter version on a sweater with "Ole Miss" printed on it – Nutt obviously is more relaxed. As he settles into an overstuffed blue leather char in a huge office adjacent to the University of Mississippi's football indoor practice facility, his eyes seem keener, his step quicker, his body language indicates he's feeling better.

And why not? He was vigorously cheered by 1,500 Ole Miss fans when he was introduced in November as the successor to Ed Orgeron.

"The feeling I had then …it sent chills up and down my spine. I got goose bumps," Nutt said. "The people here are hungry to win. The fans want to win.

"Now, I understand we're in the honeymoon phase, but it's refreshing and rejuvenating."

It had better be because Nutt is taking over a program that is desperately in need of rejuvenation. Nutt and Ole Miss would seem kindred spirits. The coach and program seem a perfect match. Both have enjoyed wonderful success, but have fallen on hard times.

Nutt was 75-48 in 10 seasons at Arkansas and his teams won or shared three SEC West Division titles. Yet that wasn't good enough. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has endured four consecutive seasons of four victories or less, is the only team in the SEC West never to reach the conference championship game. The Rebels haven't celebrated an SEC title since 1963.

Change won't come easily in the SEC West, where LSU is coming off a national championship, Auburn has posted eight consecutive winning seasons, Nick Saban is rebuilding Alabama, Mississippi State won a bowl last season and Bobby Petrino has replaced Nutt at Arkansas.

Yet Nutt, who turns 51 midway through the 2008 season, is stubbornly optimistic that Ole Miss can become a national power again.

Few younger than Nutt would know Ole Miss once was a powerhouse. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Ole Miss football was comparable to programs such as Ohio State, Florida, LSU and USC today.

"I remember my father talking about Coach (Johnny) Vaught and Arkansas and Mississippi playing in the (1962) Sugar Bowl," Nutt said. "Ole Miss won championships – national championships. And when you've had success and the tradition and the national championships, there is no question you feel like you can have it again."

From 1955-62, Ole Miss went 74-10-2 – more victories than any other Division I team in the country in that span. The Rebels won five bowls and a national championship in 1960. But since then, Mississippi has managed just two 10-win seasons (1971 and 2003) and has endured 17 losing seasons, including each of the past four (in which the Rebels were a combined 14-32).

So what happened?

The simple answers are the retirement of the legendary Vaught in 1970 (he returned for one season in '73) and desegregation.

Ole Miss was one of the last all-white teams after desegregation. Its nickname (Rebels), the playing of "Dixie" and the presence of Confederate flags figures to have turned off many athletes who otherwise might have considered Ole Miss. The flag was such an issue that Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who was Ole Miss' coach from 1995-98, said it damaged recruiting efforts and in 1997 campaigned to have them banned from games.

"We were seeing a problem recruiting black athletes with the Confederate flag prevalent at games," Tuberville said recently. "We went to the student body and talked to them. There were a lot of things done in terms of the alumni to help in that area and progress as a university and athletic department.

"There are still flags on campus, but very few at games. They did a great job of educating on the situation, and they've done a great job since I've been gone. They've improved."

Ole Miss first banned from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium the sticks to which Confederate flags were attached. In August 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld Ole Miss' ban of waving Confederate flags at campus athletic events.

"Now, I understand we're in the honeymoon phase, but it's refreshing and rejuvenating."
-Houston Nutt

In fact, any racial issue would appear more perception than reality now. Ole Miss' starting lineup is dominated by black athletes. Six black players have earned All-American honors at Ole Miss, most recently linebacker Patrick Willis. The late Chucky Mullins is among Ole Miss' most beloved figures.

Nutt said he felt racial perceptions were not an issue as he put together his first recruiting class in Oxford. "I had my antennae up the very first time I arrived on campus, but I haven't heard one thing," he said. "The parents (of recruits) talk about how beautiful it is and that they feel safe."

Oxford is a quaint town about 60 miles southeast of Memphis. Ole Miss does have excellent facilities, although Nutt acknowledges the need to upgrade the football video room. The biggest problem Nutt may face in recruiting is that Mississippi is a small pond that's over-fished.

Though Mississippi has fewer than 3 million residents, it's a heavily recruited area. Three state universities participate in Division I-A football. Nutt said getting the top 10 players in Mississippi annually would put any program in national championship contention.

But not only must Ole Miss joust with Southern Miss and Mississippi State for in-state prospects, this year Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee also plucked prospects that were ranked among Mississippi's top 25 by Rivals.com. LSU frequently signs players from the state.

In addition, there are numerous junior colleges in Mississippi. This year, there were 14 prospects from Mississippi rated among the nation's top 100 junior college prospects and 11 signed with out-of-state Division I programs.

"It blows your mind how many junior colleges there are in this state, and every school in the SEC recruits Mississippi and people up north come here to recruit the junior colleges," Nutt said. "It's a well-traveled state, and what makes it tougher is we haven't had success lately. We haven't been to a bowl game since 2002, so that makes it hard."

Adding to the difficulty is that Ole Miss has one of the lowest athletic budgets in the SEC (just over $17.5 million for football) and old, dreary dorms in need of renovation. Several prospective recruits have cited those dorms as a reason for not considering Ole Miss.

Nutt remains unfazed, though.

"I asked (athletic director) Pete Boone for the tools to compete," he said. "(The SEC) is the most competitive and fierce conference, and the recruiting budget has to be solid. They were surprised at how many times I flew out of Oxford to a player's home, but that's not been an issue."

Nutt's recruiting classes at Arkansas consistently ranked among the nation's top 30, and he feels there are more advantages in recruiting to Oxford than to Fayetteville. "We'll always try to get two or three from Arkansas," he said. "We're close to Louisiana. We're 70 miles from Memphis. We're closer to Atlanta."

True, but those perceived geographical advantages haven't really helped his predecessors much. While most Arkansas kids grow up dreaming of becoming Razorbacks, that doesn't seem to be the case for Mississippi kids, who seem just as eager – if not more so – to go to Auburn, Alabama, LSU or Tennessee.

But Nutt thinks his track record is an advantage. Before Nutt's arrival, only 16 players in Arkansas history had been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Under Nutt, the Razorbacks had four, and two more – running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones – project as first-round selections in next month's draft.

That was a factor in signing Enrique Davis, a five-star running back prospect from Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy, who also had offers from Oregon, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida State and Maryland.

"Let's be realistic," Nutt said. "The kids want to go to the NFL and they want to know how we can help get them there. McFadden, Felix Jones, Shawn Andrews, Matt Jones gave us a platform. We've kind of developed a reputation, and they feel like, 'He can highlight my talent.'

"I thought we finished strong in recruiting."

Nutt's first recruiting class was ranked 29th nationally by Rivals.com, but even the strongest recruiting classes often don't bear fruit for a year or two. Ole Miss fans who so enthusiastically applauded Nutt's arrival don't want to wait long for another winning season – not after four consecutive seasons of at least eight losses (and not with Mississippi State coming off an 8-5 showing in 2007).

Nutt acknowledges there are significant holes to fill in the Rebels' lineup, but is encouraged when he observes guard John Jerry, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and offensive tackle Michael Oher at work. He also has to be encouraged by the presence of quarterback Jevan Snead, a transfer from Texas who sat out last season.

Snead figures to provide an immediate and significant upgrade at quarterback for Ole Miss' offense, which ranked 105th in the nation in scoring and scored fewer than 20 points in five games last season.

"I'm hoping I can make a big difference. I think I can," Snead said. "We're learning a new system, and the new offense puts us in a better situation. I'm learning the reads I have to make and I'm very comfortable with it.

"I'm definitely looking forward to this season. Spring ball has been great, and I cannot say enough about the linemen and how they are coming along. Everyone is doing great."

But a better quarterback isn't enough to turn a program around. Nutt's theme is "let's finish," and he repeats that at every opportunity. Finish that 6 a.m. workout. Finish every rep in the weight room. Finish every sprint.

Or deal with the consequences.

The Rebels ran more during winter conditioning than they were accustomed. Sixteen 110-yard sprints were followed by eight 80-yard sprints, six 60-yard sprints and four 40-yard sprints. If a player was caught running 39 yards, that meant everyone ran more.

But Nutt said he hasn't heard any complaints. He said players want to end this streak of losing seasons and have accepted him and his program as enthusiastically as those cheering fans did the day he was hired.

"Everybody is loving the change and excited to be able to play for him," Snead said. "We've been out working hard for him. Everybody is extremely excited and loves playing for him."

Nutt said he couldn't ask for much more.

"They've been hanging on every word," Nutt said. "It's a great feeling to be wanted, and I want to give back. I want to give back more than anything before."

Olin Buchanan is the senior football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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