It’s rare that two college football coaches who have spent all of this decade in neighboring states have never met.
But so it is for Tommy West of Memphis and new Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who just finished 10 years guiding Arkansas.
“We’ve never met,” West said, “but Houston did a good job over there (at Arkansas).”
“I’ve kept up with Tommy from afar,” Nutt said. “I know his teams have always played hard and he’s done a good job wherever he has been.”
They’ll meet at 6 p.m. Saturday when the Tigers travel to Oxford, Miss., to face the Rebels in the season opener. Though the coaches have never shaken hands, their professional relationship already seems more amicable than the one West lacked having with former Rebels’ coach Ed Orgeron.
Orgeron was fired last year after going 10-25 (with just three SEC victories) in three seasons. But one of the few things he did accomplish was beating Memphis all three years, by a combined nine points.
Two months before coaching his first game at Ole Miss, Orgeron guaranteed at a booster meeting at the Memphis Botanic Garden that he’d “build a fence around Memphis” when it came to recruiting.
“I never even got to know the other guy,” West said of Orgeron earlier this week. “We didn’t talk before games.
“It’ll be easier (now) for us to get down there from Memphis without having to go through that fence.”
There are a couple of links between West and Nutt.
The first is Justin Crouse, the Tigers’ director of player personnel.
Crouse played one year for Nutt at Murray State, then spent the first 10 years of his coaching career with Nutt, first at Murray and then at Arkansas.
He was tight ends and receivers coach at Murray from 1994 to 1997, then made the jump with Nutt to Arkansas, where Crouse was assistant recruiting coordinator and eventually Nutt’s personal assistant.
Crouse left Arkansas in 2004 to become an area scout and a personnel assistant with the NFL’s New England Patriots. He came to Memphis a year ago from the University of Miami, where he was assistant director of football relations.
“It’s funny that (West and Nutt) have never met each other before,” Crouse said, “but they are both similar in a lot of ways.
“They are both real enthusiastic with the players, and the players are always ready to play. Both are great recruiters because they both are very personable.”
The second West-Nutt connection is Reggie Herring, now linebackers coach with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
Herring was on West’s staff at Clemson for five seasons (1994-98) when he was the Tigers’ head coach. After coaching stops with the NFL’s Houston Texans and North Carolina State, Herring spent the last three seasons on Nutt’s staff at Arkansas as defensive coordinator.
It was through his conversations with Herring last season that West felt great empathy for Nutt, who despite winning was being torn to pieces by disgruntled Arkansas fans who didn’t like his run-oriented attack.
Nutt, 75-48 overall (42-38 in the SEC) at Arkansas, finally resigned under pressure shortly after the end of the regular season in which he went 8-4 (before the Cotton Bowl loss coached by Herring). The resignation came a year after Arkansas went 10-4, played in the 2006 SEC championship game and led eventual national champion Florida in the third quarter of that game.
West knows what it feels like to win, but not necessarily win enough to satisfy the voracious appetites of fans and boosters. Three straight winning seasons (8-4, 7-5, 7-5) and three straight bowl games was not enough to save West’s Clemson job after a 3-8 record in 1998, the same year Nutt became head coach at Arkansas.