College football fans love to toss around the word "dirty." Pete Carroll was "dirty," they'll tell you, because one of his former stars took a bunch of money. Urban Meyer must be "dirty" because so many of his players get arrested. Lane Kiffin is presumably "dirty" because ... well, duh.
The definition of "dirty" seems to vary based on one's affiliation, but surely we can all agree on at least one designation: A dirty coach is willing to eschew his integrity if doing so might pay off in a couple more W's. He's not so much a winner as a survivalist. He's not even necessarily a rule-breaker because he creates his own loopholes.
Which is why Ole Miss' Houston Nutt -- more so than any of the aforementioned names -- is a certifiably dirty coach.
Nutt's controversial decision to add trouble-plagued Oregon exile Jeremiah Masoli to his roster on the eve of preseason camp is so transparently pathetic in its desperation you wonder how he can make it with a straight face. And yet we should hardly be surprised.
This is, after all, the same man who hired a high school coach he didn't want just to keep a quarterback recruit he wound up losing anyway; turned the practice of oversigning into such a farce that the SEC had to make up a rule just to curb him; and, just last year, welcomed another high-profile castoff with a checkered past only to watch him run afoul of the law again before playing a down with the Rebels.
The so-called "Right Reverend" has voluntarily gone down the wrong path again.
Masoli, the star quarterback for Oregon's 2009 Rose Bowl team, was desperate to find a new football team following his June dismissal, and Ole Miss just happens to be in desperate need of another quarterback following the transfer of second-stringer Raymond Cotton. And so, thanks to a convenient NCAA loophole, Masoli, a recent sociology grad, may wind up starting for an SEC team less than six months after being charged for second-degree burglary, and just three months after getting caught with marijuana while already on suspension from his former team. As an added bonus, he'll get to pursue his lifelong dream of attaining a master's degree in Parks and Recreation Management.
Only in America. Or at least in one dirty coach's pocket of it.
If you read Michael McKnight's excellent feature on Masoli last week, you know there's more to the player's story than meets the eye. Evidence suggests the quarterback may have played almost no role in the infamous fraternity laptop theft at Oregon last January. His widely reported involvement in a "series of strong-armed robberies" in high school actually consisted of one incident in which he may also have been a bystander. And there's something to be said for earning one's undergraduate degree in three years.
But that doesn't make Masoli an angel. He still lied to police during the fraternity investigation, then pleaded guilty to a crime he now says he did not commit. He also lied to his coach, Chip Kelly, who showed restraint in not dismissing him initially, before promptly blowing his second chance with the marijuana bust.
Only a dirty coach would take a chance on a kid who so blatantly duped his previous coach.
Nutt says he did his homework. He spoke with Oregon coaches. He spoke with Masoli's mother. He invited the player for a campus visit last weekend to "look in his eyes."
"I spent a great deal of time with him," Nutt told SI.com's Andy Staples on Sunday. "I really feel that I can help him and he can help us."
Indeed, what better place to send a wayward quarterback than to the coach who helped turn Jevan Snead into an undrafted free agent.
Nutt, an Arkansas native, was once a widely respected coach known for his close family, his strong Christian values (hence the "Right Reverend" tag) and his loyalty to his home state. In 2003, after taking the Razorbacks to bowl games each of his first six seasons, he turned down serious overtures from Nebraska to remain at Arkansas. (Only later would he become famous for tossing his name into every coaching opening in the country.)
Something changed, however, after enduring consecutive losing seasons in 2004 and '05. It's not hard to pinpoint the moment when Nutt went to the dark side. In the winter following the '05 season, amid whispers about Nutt's job security, his prized recruit, quarterback Mitch Mustain of nearby Springdale, Ark., began wavering on his commitment. So Nutt took the unusual step of hiring Mustain's high school coach, hurry-up guru Gus Malzahn, to be his offensive coordinator, which ensured pledges from Mustain and three of his similarly touted teammates.
Nutt's coup paid off in the short term, with Arkansas notching its best season of his tenure (10 wins and an SEC West title), but ultimately led to his unraveling. Having ditched Malzahn's flashy offense after just one game, believing it could never work in the "big boy" SEC, Malzahn bolted town after the '06 season. (His offense, meanwhile, is working just fine at Auburn.) Mustain and receiver Damian Williams left for USC shortly thereafter. Enraged Razorbacks fans unleashed the hounds, publicizing a nasty letter sent by a friend of the coach's family to Mustain; obtaining his cell phone records and exposing an apparent relationship with a local TV news anchor (they exchanged 1,063 texts in six weeks).
As soon as he got through the next regular season, Nutt packed his bags for Oxford before someone else did it for him. He's won nine games each of his first two seasons, including a pair of Cotton Bowl victories, yet the 52-year-old continues to make decisions like a desperate man with no job security.
In his first full recruiting calendar at Ole Miss, Nutt brazenly signed 37 players -- 37! -- fully intending to stash the non-qualifers (of which there wound up eight) at junior colleges in the state. SEC schools are now limited to 28 signees per class because of it. Four of the nine highest-rated players from that '09 Ole Miss class are no longer with the program and another is suspended indefinitely.
One of the four-star signees in that class was safety Jamar Hornsby, who was dismissed from Florida in 2008 after fraudulently using the credit card of a female student killed in a motorcycle accident with one of his former teammates. Disgusting, right? Apparently not to Nutt, who swooped up Hornsby after a year in junior college, only to watch Hornsby get arrested again a month after Signing Day on charges of assaulting a man at a McDonald's drive-thru.
Yet here we are again, a year later, with Nutt taking another chance on another risky player -- purportedly for altruistic reasons. "You want to try to make a difference," said Nutt. "After visiting with him, the bottom lime is I think he wants to do the right thing. He wants his name back."
Nutt's humanitarian interests in Masoli's redemption might seem more credible if they didn't magically materialize the day after his quarterback transferred.
The truth is, Nutt could have found any number of walk-on candidates to fill the emergency third-stringer role. Nutt's taking Masoli because the former Holiday Bowl MVP and lethal dual-threat athlete has the ability to lift Ole Miss from its predicted finish in the SEC West basement (according to the SEC media's preseason poll) back to another respectable bowl. Apparently the terminally insecure coach doesn't feel he can afford a rebuilding year despite averaging nine wins over his past four seasons.
What message does this send to Nathan Stanley, the Ole Miss sophomore who, while Masoli was in self-induced football exile, spent the offseason dutifully working to earn himself a starting job? What message does it send to the families of future recruits about Nutt's attitude toward discipline? He presumably stopped caring three or four years ago.
And what does it say about the SEC and NCAA that they would allow this to happen? Masoli is not the first player to take advantage of the graduate-transfer waiver allowing for immediate eligibility. He follows in the footsteps of former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk and former Duke point guard-turned Syracuse quarterback, Greg Paulus, among others.
Unlike them, however, Masoli is changing locales solely because his previous team wouldn't let him stay. If it had, he would probably still be suspended this season. You can't blame Masoli for using whatever avenue possible to continue playing football -- even accepting a walk-on invitation -- but he still needed the approval of a morally ambivalent coach to make it happen.
Masoli's former coach, Kelly, spent much of last winter fighting a stigma that his program was "dirty" following a rash of off-the-field incidents. But the second-year Oregon coach wound up dismissing or suspending every player who ran into trouble.
The only "dirty" coach in this scenario is the one openly welcoming other coaches' castoffs.