At first blush, it appears Bret Bielema, and Houston Nutt have little in common. However, the two coaches are linked in Razorbacks history in a small way.
Both share a common opponent in their Hog debuts. In 1998, Nutt, the Little Rock native, led the Hogs to a 38-17 win against Southwestern Louisiana.
Fifteen years later, the Bielema Era begins with Louisiana-Lafayette. A lot has changed in that time, including the name of the school. The Ragin’ Cajuns are also a better program, coming off a 9-4 campaign, which includes a bowl game win.
As the season opener approaches, and Bielema’s popularity has risen with his #1-0 philosophy and pep rallies around the state, I thought about 15 years ago. Long before half the fan base wanted to kick his butt out of the state, Hog fans were excited about Nutt.
I was in the press box for Nutt’s debut. In fact, it was the first of many Razorbacks football games I covered. After growing up in Iowa, it was my first game in SEC country. I remember vividly how excited the fans were after that opening win. It wasn’t pretty, but Arkansas beat future NFL receiver Brandon Stokley and company with a second-half surge.
We didn’t know it then, but that win began an eight-game winning streak and put Arkansas in the national spotlight. It was a dream come true for a first-year coach. However, a nightmarish end at Tennessee and missed opportunities at Mississippi State led to a stretch of three losses in four games, including a 45-31 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
Despite the disappointing end, the season was exciting for Hogs fans. Very few figured the Hogs could qualify for a bowl, let a lone win nine games. Sound familiar?
Unlike the 2013 squad, the 1998 team boasted experience. Danny Ford had landed some talented prospects, but it took Nutt’s ‘rah-rah’ approach to motivate them to win. He was the right coach at the right time. Some call that a coach winning with another coach’s players, but at any rate Nutt enjoyed a fantastic debut season.
Nutt’s 1998 season was one of his highlights. It wasn’t downhill from there, but there were plenty of rocky times, including an alleged affair and his misdealings with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain.
On that hot, humid night in 1998 Nutt was all smiles, though. He had no idea what that year or the next decade would bring. Hog fans hope Bielema can smile after a victory against the same team with a different name and that his tenure brings wins, championships and much less drama than the previous two UA coaches.