FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Houston Nutt's sports goals as a youngster didn't revolve around becoming head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. From the time he was 10 years old, his dream was to be a professional football player, basketball player -- or both.
As an All-America high school athlete at Little Rock Central and a two-sport college player at both Arkansas and Oklahoma State, his goals appeared to be on track. But God had other ideas.
"The saddest day of my life was the ESPN draft day in 1981 when my name wasn't called" to play in the NFL, Nutt reflected. "That was so hard for me. I couldn't believe that for the first time in my life I wasn't going to do what I set out to do.
"I knew I was going to be a coach one day. My father was a coach. But I wanted to go play in the NFL first and I kinda had a deal worked out: 'I tell you what, God, I'm going to be a great witness for you in the NFL.' But it didn't happen."
Looking back, Nutt acknowledged, God "didn't see things quite that way. He had a better plan. It's amazing that if you truly trust God, he has a plan for you and he knew it all along."
Nutt, who was named head football coach for Arkansas after the 1997 season, has taken the state by storm as the Razorbacks compiled a 9-2 record, on the heels of two disappointing 4-7 seasons and earned a spot against Michigan in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, a contest the Hogs lost 45-31.
Noting he "grew up being a Razorback," Nutt said the first college game his parents took him and his three brothers to see was a Razorback game. "It was special to see red, calling the Hogs, the tradition," he remarked. "There's nothing like that and there's nothing like coming back home."
Nutt's coaching career began in 1981 as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State. Recalling he initially thought being assigned to live in a dorm with freshmen players was "the worst job in America," he added, "By the end of the first week of living with those 17-year olds, I knew I was supposed to be a coach. All of a sudden, that little bitty job became real big to me.
"I knew I could make a difference by personal testimony, by witness, by helping a young man's life and still enjoy the thing I love most, which is football. It wasn't going to be quarterbacking on Sunday in the NFL. But it was going to be trying to touch a young man's life."
Nutt served as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State and Arkansas and head coach at Murray State and Boise State before returning to Arkansas. Affirming "God took hold of my life and said, 'This is the way it's going to be,'" Nutt declared, "I love coming to work every single day. I feel such an awesome responsibility. I want to stay here, raise our family and win."
Noting the majority of student athletes today come from single-parent homes, Nutt pointed out that for many of his players, "I'm the first male authority over their life. That, to me, is why I know God wanted me in the profession of coaching."
That influence was obvious late in the season when Nutt suspended star kicker Todd Latourette for one game after he was charged with drunk driving. Although Nutt faced pressure to allow Latourette to play in a crucial game against Mississippi State, he explained, "I said, 'Guys, I can't do it. We've been talking about truth. We've been talking about doing what's right. We can't just sweep it under the carpet for this game.'"
Insisting his players "genuinely know we care," Nutt said, "They know we are going to hold them accountable for doing what's right and that we're going to expect their best, whether it be in study hall, the weight room or on the field."
As he looks to the future, Nutt said, "The biggest reward for me is 15 years from now when players come back and say, 'Hey, Coach, thanks a lot. I saw the way you treated your son. I saw a Christian father talk with his wife. You made a difference in my life by being with me for four years. I'm a better father because of it. I'm a better businessman.' That, to me, is what it's all about. That's the key.
"There's no greater feeling than touching somebody's life. It's better than a touchdown."
My Christian minister friend, Diane O'Connell, who lived in Arkansas and has lived with us since Sept. 2001, testifies that Houston is a strong Christian.