Spring games…just another reminder that we are mired in the doldrums of the college football off-season. Sure, it has been another off-season with its usual carousel of coaches, but none with the drama of what happened in the Southeastern Conference in 2007; the year that my favorite completely insane sideline leader finally fell victim.
That December marked the time Houston Nutt went down the river from Arkansas to Mississippi. But it was more than just a leader going to the other side of the river; the ripple effect could be felt throughout the conference. The angst of the Arkansas athletic department led by former director and Hawg legend Frank Broyles combined with the need of the other coaches in the league to reign in the Rebellion Nutt had established in Oxford led to the remake of a classic Coppola film. After all, even the river wanted Nutt dead.
The scene: Fayettte-nam, 2008
ACT I – The Mission
Fayetteville…Shit; I’m still only in Fayetteville…Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into college football.
I’m here a week now…Waiting for a mission…Getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.
Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.
I was going to the worst place in the world, only I didn’t know it yet. Weeks away, and hundreds of miles down a river that snakes it’s way through the SEC and straight into Colonel Nutt. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Houston D. Nutt’s memory; no more than my being in Fayetteville was an accident. There is really no way to tell his story without telling mine; so if his story is a confession, then I guess so is mine.
“Play the tape for Captain Petrino.”
“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor; throwing a forward pass. That’s my dream; it’s my nightmare, crawling, slithering along the edge of the razor and surviving, throwing forward passes. But we must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an improper recruiter. What do you call it when the improper recruiter is recruited?
“Houston Nutt was one of the finest coaches this country ever produced. He was brilliant; he was outstanding. He was a good man, a good humanitarian man. Then he joined the Razorbacks; his ideas, his methods became unsound. Now, he’s crossed into Mississippi with this Rebel army of his that worship him as a god, and run every play, no matter how ridiculous. Well, you see, Petrino… in this game, things get confused out there; power, ideals, the old morality, and practical football necessity. Out there with these kids it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil, between running and passing. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Colonel Nutt has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane. Your mission is to proceed down the river in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Nutt’s path at Oxford, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.”
Terminate?… the Colonel?
“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still on the field getting recruits. Terminate…with extreme prejudice. You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.”
ACT II – On the River
How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure; close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time it was a Razorback, and a coach. That wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit, charging a man with improper recruiting in the SEC is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. I took the mission; what the hell else was I going to do? But I really didn’t know wha I’d do when I found him.
The crew of the patrol boat were mostly just kids; rock ‘n’ rollers with one foot in their graves. The machinist, the one they called Miles was from Baton Rouge. He was wrapped too tight for ‘Nam; probably wrapped too tight for Baton Rouge.
Richt on the forward .50s was a surfer from the beaches. To look at him, you wouldn’t believe he ever called a play in his life.
Then there was Saban…“Mr. Clean” was from some NFL shithole, and I think the speed and the money of the SEC really put the zap on his head. And the Chief…It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was the Chief’s boat.
Then there were the Gators; our escorts to the mouth of the river. They’d cashed in their tailbacks for choppers and gone tear-assing around the SEC looking for the shit. And their C.O., Colonel Meyer…He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn’t going to get so much as a scratch here.
If that’s how Meyer ran an offense, being completely dependent on one superstar, I really wondered what they had against Nutt. It wasn’t just insanity and improper recruiting; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right; unless you were going all the way. Nutt got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program. How does that happen? What did he see on that first tour? 40 fucking years old; if he joined the Razorbacks, there was no way he would ever get above Colonel. Nutt knew what he was giving up.
The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired him. His family and friends couldn’t understand it, and they couldn’t talk him out of it. He had to apply three times, and he put up with a ton of shit, but when he threatened to resign, they gave it to him. He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead.
October 2007; on special assignment in Ar Kan Sau province, Nutt staged “Operation Wildcat”and paraded a major success. He received no official clearance; he just thought it up and did it. What balls! They were going to nail his ass to the floorboards for that one, but when the press got a hold of it, they let him start calling the plays again.
Man, the bullshit piled up so fast in ‘Nam, you needed wings to stay above it. No wonder Nutt put a weed up Broyle’s ass. This whole offense was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away.
Late autumn, 2006. Nutt’s teams started coming under frequent ambush; the camp started falling apart. November, Nutt orders the assassination of four leaders of the “Springdale Parents Revolt.” Enemy activity in that recruiting sector dropped off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right four people.
Broyles tried one last time to bring him back into the fold, and if he’d pulled over, it all would’ve been forgotten. But he kept going; he kept wanting it his way. Then, they called me in. They lost him; he was gone. Now even rumors and random intelligence – mostly from captured Rebels; the Rebels knew his name by now, and they were scared of him – said Nutt and his men were playing “single-wing” all the way into Mississippi.
“My orders say I’m not supposed to know where I’m taking this boat, so I don’t. But one look at you, and I know it’s gonna be hot, where ever it is.”
We’re going down river about 75 klicks past the Oxford bridge.
“That’s Mississippi, Captain.”
That’s classified. We’re not supposed to be in Mississippi, but that’s where I’m going. You just get me close to my destination, and I’ll cut you and the crew loose. My mission is to make it down the river into Mississippi. There’s a Rebel colonel there who’s gone insane. I’m supposed to terminate the colonel’s command.
Charlie didn’t get much USO…
ACT III – Oxford
He was close, he was real close. I couldn’t see him yet, but I could feel him. As if the boat were being sucked upriver and the water was flowing back into the jungle. Whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t going to be the play they called back in Fayetteville. Part of me was afraid of what I would find, and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.
“Just hit your siren, man. And, watch out; I mean, those monkeys bite, man. I’m a Plainsman, an American civilian. I’m a photojournalist. I’ve been covering the SEC since ’64. I’ve been in ‘Nam, Mississippi, ‘Bama…Shit, in a few years I could end up stuck in some damn place like Texas Tech.”
Who are all these people?
“Yeah, well, they think you’ve come to take him away.”
Take who away?
“Him! Colonel Nutt! These are all his recruits, man, as far as you can see. Hell, man, out here, we are all his recruits.”
Could we, uh, talk to Colonel Nutt?
“Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-coach in the classic sense. I mean, sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you, and he won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say ‘Do you know that ‘ing’ is in both words in ‘single wing?’”
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you. I mean, I’m no, I can’t – I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man. I’m just a pair of ears scuttling across the SEC. I mean, look at me. I’m not going to be the one who sets him straight. It’s you.”
I wondered if the generals back in Fayetteville could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? Probably more than ever. Even the river wanted him dead. He broke from them; then he broke from himself.
“I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me an improper recruiter. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that…But you have no right to judge me.”
“It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror…Horror has a face…and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with the Razorbacks; seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into Springdale to recruit some kids; one of ‘em a big-throwin’ quarterback they had up there. We left after we had given out a bunch of those Hawg rubber-bandy type bracelets.”
“This old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every braceleted arm. There they were in a pile; a pile of arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my tusks out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized…like I was shot…like I was shot with a pass…a forward pass right through my forehead. And I thought…my God, the genius of that, the genius. The will to do that; perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.”
“Then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters. They were coaches, old-school, ground-game ball-control coaches. These men who coached with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love…but they had the strength…the strength…to do that.”
“If I had ten coaches like that, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have coaches who are moral, and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to run a warmed-over single-wing offense without feeling…without passion…I mean, without passing…Because it’s passing that defeats us.”
And after all that, there is only one choice to play Bobby Petrino in the movie…Winnie the Pooh.