The University of Mississippi will move forward together without Houston Nutt.
It remains to be seen if any of Nutt’s assistant coaches will stay in Oxford at the end of a season that has the Rebels 2-7 with three games remaining, but Ole Miss will pay a hefty price to end its association with Nutt after only four years.
Ole Miss Chancellor Dr. Dan Jones and Athletic Director Pete Boone decided to change coaches after a 30-13 loss to the University of Kentucky on Saturday, its 12th straight in the Southeastern Conference.
It’s difficult to fathom Ole Miss will pay Nutt, who is making nearly $2.7 million this season, a buyout of $6 million to leave. If none of Nutt’s assistant coaches are retained, that buyout climbs to almost $8 million.
Maybe Ole Miss can write the check to cover that expense with money that has been raised in the school’s Forward Together capital campaign. Announced in August, the goal of the campaign is to raise $150 million to support a comprehensive initiative to build new facilities and to enhance existing ones for Ole Miss athletics.
Someone will pay the tab. Someone always does in college athletics, where the arms race increasingly makes “amateur” athletics look more and more bankrupt.
Nutt’s dismissal likely will be the first domino to fall in an annual coaching carousel in which schools search for a magic man who can transform their football programs.
Ole Miss fans thought Nutt was that man. Back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories raised expectations of grandeur for a program that last won the Southeastern Conference title in 1963 and has one SEC Western Division championship to its credit.
Six wins in a row, including a victory against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, to end the 2008 season raised hopes for 2009. That season came crashing down after Ole Miss lost to South Carolina in the third week of the season. Ole Miss rebounded to win four of its last five, but lost to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Another loss to MSU followed in 2010 along with a questionable decision to bring in University of Oregon transfer Jeremiah Masoli to play quarterback. That experiment resulted in a 4-8 finish that set the stage for the current free fall.
In the past 47 seasons, Ole Miss has had a winning record 27 times. Six times, including two in Nutt’s tenure, the program has won at least nine games in a season. That’s mediocre, and $6 or $8 million is a high price to pay for mediocrity.
Perhaps Ole Miss fans believe they will find the next Dan Mullen, someone with an impressive coaching résumé who will stir emotions and talk of painting the state of Mississippi red and blue. The reality of the situation is the next coach faces a challenge like no other coach in the nation. Nutt’s replacement will coach in a state that ranked 31st in population according to the 2000 census and has two schools in the SEC, the nation’s premier football conference, and another school — Southern Mississippi — that plays in a mid-major conference.
Consider, too, that football powers LSU and Alabama annually pilfer the best talent in the state of Mississippi and it is no wonder Ole Miss and MSU have had ordinary success in football the past 50 years.
So what is Ole Miss paying for? It’s paying a buyout that unfortunately has become the norm in college athletics because it wants to show its fans it doesn’t want to be mediocre. The school has undertaken a massive capital campaign to compete with MSU and others for the state’s best and brightest, and its best football players, too.
But what will Ole Miss get? Will it get a coach who can “Spread the Fun”, as Mullen announced he would do when he arrived at MSU, or someone who can convince the state’s best football players Ole Miss is the place for them, not Alabama or LSU?
Will Ole Miss’ capital campaign raise money so it can have a modern, first-class basketball facility, renovate and improve Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, upgrade existing premium seating areas to enhance functionality and comfort, expand the north end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to accommodate the increasing demand for premium seating and improve the overall aesthetic look and feel of the stadium, create a Hall of Fame area to showcase the school’s athletic history, and provide for improvements to the Gillom Center?
Forward Together listed those six goals when it was announced. By the time those goals are met, all of the facilities likely will need another face-lift to help the school keep up with the next round of conference reshuffling.
For many, though, big-time college has become an endless game of sleight of hand. Roll out something shiny and new and combine it with a slick marketing strategy to get everyone excited. While you’re leaning back in your new leather seat in your skybox, the football team is directionless and spiraling out of control to another embarrassing finish.
Don’t let Jones fool you. The decision to fire Nutt isn’t about being dedicated to excellence, as he wrote in a letter to Ole Miss alumni announcing Nutt’s dismissal. Nutt has 135 wins in 19 seasons as a college football coach. He has 10 bowl appearances in 13 years as a coach in the SEC, which is second only to South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier (16 bowl bids in 18 years).
Nutt’s record is above average. His .579 winning percentage at the school is just below that of David Cutcliffe (.588) and a little better than Tommy Tuberville (.545). Boone fired Cutcliffe, while Tuberville said, “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box” when asked if he was leaving Ole Miss for another school. Two days later, it was announced he was going to become the next coach at Auburn University.
Should Nutt been fired? No. It’s seems only fair to give a coach who has shown an ability to recruit the best players in his state a chance to coach those players. Changing coaches again with the memory of Ed Orgeron still fresh in the minds of many Ole Miss fans makes the school appear directionless and every bit the mediocre, SEC punching bag everyone is trying to deny it is.
But it’s naive to use the word “fair” in any conversation about college football in 2011. The movement of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Texas Christian University, just to name a few, to new conferences illustrates loyalty and common sense no longer matter in major college athletics. As Rod Tidwell said, “Show me the money.” That’s what it is all about today, so don’t feel sorry for Ole Miss or Nutt. The Rebels will move forward together, hire a new coach, say he’s the second coming of John H. Vaught, and proclaim the football program will make Atlanta a regular destination. Nutt will get a job coaching somewhere soon. You might even see or hear him as a broadcaster for college football games.
The gravy train that is major college athletics has plenty of stops, just make sure you don’t get gauged at every station and fall prey to schools that as Jones said in his letter, “look forward to moving into the next chapter of the storied history” of their football program thanks to your wallet and provide nothing in return.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.