Three Years, Three More Games for Nutt
By Paul Myerberg // Nov 8, 2011
It never got any higher than Nov. 28, 2008, when Ole Miss ripped through the rival Bulldogs, 45-0, to win the 103rd Egg Bowl. There was a win the week before over then-No. 18 L.S.U., a win a month later in the Cotton Bowl — not to mention another Cotton Bowl win a year later — but that Egg Bowl was it: this was the program’s high-water mark under Houston Nutt’s direction. On the back of that win, along with four others to end 2008, Ole Miss entered 2009 as a bona fide national title contender but disappointed, losing to South Carolina in September, Alabama and Auburn in October and, most notably, Mississippi State in November to finish 9-4, albeit as Cotton Bowl champs for the second straight year.
You should never peak in year one. Nutt learned this the hard way yesterday, when he resigned amid Mississippi’s longest SEC losing streak in program history — a streak that reached 12 consecutive conference losses after the Rebels dropped a 30-13 decision at Kentucky on Saturday.
Kentucky was the last team the Rebels beat in SEC action, way back on the first Saturday of October a year ago, and the program has gone steadily downhill in the year-plus since. So it’s fitting, in some strange way, that Nutt was given his walking papers — though he resigned, to be accurate — after losing to the Wildcats.
You wonder how a coach who had rebuilt the program with such speed could fall from grace with equal velocity. It was always evident, but it’s now perfectly clear that Nutt’s winning days, from 2008-9, were achieved with the talented haul reeled in by his predecessor, Ed Orgeron, who may have been a horrific in-game coach but brought in high-level SEC talent over his three years in Oxford.
This year’s team features only 12 seniors, only six of whom have been on scholarship since stepping on campus as freshmen: Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis, Derrick Herman, Alex Washington, Kentrell Lockett, Marcus Temple and Bradley Sowell. There are 30 true freshmen on the roster, whether with a scholarship or as a walk-on.
Nutt didn’t replenish the roster. That’s it: simplified, perhaps, but that’s the primary reason why his tenure bottomed out with such speed over the last 13 months. Jevan Snead left early after 2009, throwing the quarterback position into disarray; after nabbing Jeremiah Masoli, Nutt and Rebels saw the former Oregon transfer fail to resemble his prior form; and in 2011, Ole Miss has trotted our several different options under center with varying degrees of ineptitude.
It’s an ugly mess of a season; it’s an ugly mess of two seasons, in fact; it’s an ugly mess of seven seasons running across three coaches, with those back-to-back Cotton Bowl berths merely the exception to the rule. For that, it was only logical that athletic director Pete Boone, who fired David Cutcliffe, hired Orgeron, fired Orgeron and hired Nutt, also got his walking papers.
Boone will remain in place no later than next December, though I imagine he will have little say in selecting Nutt’s replacement. That task should either fall to his successor, should the university find one in the next 60 days, or to the two-man team of former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning and FedEx Executive Vice President Mike Glenn. That pair will also select the school’s next athletic director, pending final approval from Ole Miss chancellor Dan Jones.
The issue for Ole Miss: this job isn’t entirely desirable. Well, let me rephrase: this job is not necessarily a destination job for a proven, winning B.C.S. conference head coach with options. To make an example, I don’t think the university could wrestle another SEC coach away from his current stop, such as it did — in a way — with Nutt from Arkansas, or what Auburn did to the university when it lured Tommy Tuberville away from Oxford in 1999.
Ole Miss needs to think smaller, and in thinking smaller the university needs to consider the big picture. This program doesn’t need a fixer, a Houston Nutt, but needs a coach with a broad-view plan for leading the Rebels into the sort of competitiveness this program desires. Forget about being national title contenders; that’s ridiculous. Settle for being contenders in the SEC and work from there.
Who is that coach? I tend to think that Hugh Freeze is the right coach for the Rebels, though the program will be scared off by his lack of F.B.S. coaching experience. In Freeze, the university would get a young, offensive-minded, enthusiastic, energetic and Southern coach who knows the program after serving as an assistant under Orgeron.
Maybe Larry Fedora is that coach: he has all that Freeze brings to the table, minus familiarity with Oxford, but with the added bonus of four years spent along the sidelines in Hattiesburg. Butch Jones? Kevin Sumlin? Mark Hudspeth?
Small names in the big scheme of things, when held against a Nick Saban, Les Miles or Bobby Petrino, three megawatt coaches inhabiting the same division as Ole Miss, let alone the same conference. But for the Rebels, the days of taking a proven SEC commodity — even one with Nutt’s baggage — are over. The days of taking the hot assistant are over.
It’s time for Ole Miss to start from scratch, getting back to basics on the field and the recruiting trail, and the coach who fits that bill shouldn’t necessarily be the one with the high-octane offense or the one who has earned high marks as the top lieutenant under the nation’s top coach.
Ole Miss may be tempted to follow in its own footsteps, hiring a coach who can take this current roster and be immediately competitive — this team isn’t “far off” from being back in the SEC hunt, Nutt said yesterday, though I find that hard to believe. The university needs to look past 2012 and ahead to the future beyond next fall, as it is the school’s recent shortsighted decisions — firing Cutcliffe, hiring Orgeron, hiring Nutt — that has left it in this mess.
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Tags: Ed Orgeron, Houston Nutt, Hugh Freeze, Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora, Mark Hudspeth, Mississippi, Pete Boone
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