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Kicking it with Houston Nutt, Part II

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

OXFORD, Miss. -- Once a Hog to the core, Houston Nutt is now a diehard Rebel.

He couldn't be happier about his move across the Western Division to Ole Miss and said it's rejuvenated him in more ways than one after a bitter divorce with Arkansas.

The scars from that divorce remain. There's no getting around that, but Nutt says he's thankful to be at a place that genuinely wants and appreciates him.

Approaching the most anticipated season at Ole Miss in more than 40 years, here's the second part of my Q&A with Nutt:

Is there anything you would have done differently at Arkansas?

Houston Nutt: I probably wouldn't have hired a couple of people. I probably would have just stuck to my niche. (He hired current Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn from nearby Springdale High following the 2005 season).

Why go away from that niche?

HN: It was probably the two losing seasons (in 2004 and 2005), and I was the only coach in Arkansas history to survive two losing seasons. But what people tend to forget is that the reason we had the two losing seasons was because of the sins we paid for the previous group that put us on probation. That took off 10 to 12 scholarships, and that's a major blow. They tend to forget that when the season gets going because everybody wants to win now.

Having gone through what you went through at Arkansas, the highs and the lows, how much better has that experience made you as a coach and how much stronger has it made you to deal with pretty much anything?

HN: It's made myself and my family stronger, closer, and it tends to make you wrap yourself with alligator skin. What I mean by that is you stay more focused and more attentive to detail. You don't worry about things. Especially the first four or five years at Arkansas, being from that state, I tried to please. When you grow up there, it's different, but I've learned.

Will it ever be the same for you when you go back to Arkansas to visit?

HN: I don't know. I have enough friends with my mom living there that I'll always go back. There are still people there that I'm very close with, guys like Jim Lindsey and Frank Broyles, who I still talk to. There are a lot of good people there, Warren Stephens in Little Rock, Rex Horne, who was my pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. So I've got enough friends there that I'll always go back. What's difficult, and it goes back to what Phil Fulmer said (after he was fired at Tennessee), but you love the place so much, grew up there, played there, coached there and felt like, 'Boy, you've done nothing but give it your all,' so it still hurts a little bit.

Even at your height at Arkansas, did the level of energy and excitement there rival where it is here at Ole Miss leading into this season?

HN: No, because our people here are so hungry. The thing that was discouraging there was that you get to Atlanta twice and it was like, 'You gotta win the big one.' I'm thinking, 'Well, you didn't even go to a bowl game for a long time.' But now, you look at the last eight months here. People can't wait. There's an excitement here. I went to the M Club meeting with guys who played in the 50s and 60s, and they have that same attitude, a pride about their school. It makes you feel good, how good they feel about what we're doing.

How have some of the former Ole Miss stars like Eli Manning and Patrick Willis bought into what you're doing?

HN: They've been awesome. They have bought in full go. I look out there every morning in June and it's amazing. They're in that weight room and around our players. We had Eli in our weight room one morning along with Archie Manning, Derrick Burgess, Todd Wade, Patrick Willis and Deuce McAllister -- all in the same weight room. Pat Patterson is hollering up and down the hallway, 'I caught my first pass this summer from Eli Manning.' They're pumped, too.

Is it an unfair tag that your best seasons as a coach have come when people didn't see you coming or when you weren't picked very highly?

HN: The truth is that I haven't been picked too many times to win, and when I have, I've had some tough injuries. I know that's an excuse. But when you lose real players, it makes a difference.

Do you rethink your decision at all to sign Jamar Hornsby, who had already been kicked off Florida's team and has since been let go by you after getting into trouble again?

HN: In talking to his mother and getting to know him, there are days I wish he were still here. I think I could have helped him. But when he was involved in another court deal, that was one too many bad decisions for him. It was best for him to go to a lower division and get on with his life.

You took a lot of grief for signing 37 players last February, which precipitated the SEC presidents passing a rule limiting the number of signees a school can sign each year to 28. How surprised were you at that legislation?

HN: I was surprised because when we did it, I went to my athletic director, Pete Boone, and said, 'I've never experienced how many junior colleges we have in this state and want to build some relationships. I know that nine guys want to be at Ole Miss, but I know they're not going to make it academically. It gives me a chance to make them feel like a part of the family and let me shuffle them out to these different junior colleges and prep schools.' I never would have thought so much would come from it, because there's never been a rule and we all have to get to 25 by August. I guess they looked at it like it was embarrassing. But to the young men, I think they look at it more like, 'I get to sign with Ole Miss, go to JUCO and then come back.'

How refreshed are you to be at Ole Miss and have this new challenge at this point in your career?

HN: I can't tell you how appreciative I am to be so excited about coming to work every day and coming to a beautiful place. These players make it for you, because they hang onto every word. They're excited. I know we just got here. But to me, that's what it's about.

Has your family fully settled in now at Ole Miss?

HN: They love it. I have three of my four kids (son Houston III and twin daughters Hailey and Hannah) here going to college. My fourth one (youngest daughter Haven) swears she's going to be an actress and is headed to Pepperdine on a half-scholarship.

Pepperdine? That's some serious coin, isn't it?

HN: (laughing) Yeah, I hear that half-scholarship ain't going to help too much.