The popularity of Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt might have plummeted in the Rebels' community as the losses mounted this season, but it remained high in the eyes of prospects committed to the program.
"I've always really liked Coach Nutt," said cornerback Mike Hilton of Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek.
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On Monday, the school announced Nutt, 24-23 in his four years in Oxford, would not return to coach a fifth season. Reaction among Ole Miss commits reached by Rivals.com and RebelGrove.com were similar across the board in that there was both shock about the situation, and strong support for the coach with whom many had grown close.
"I really wasn't expecting it," said running back Jaylen Walton of Memphis (Tenn.) Ridgeway. "I was hearing a couple rumors, but I never knew it was true until I found out Monday. I bonded with (Nutt) first. He gave me my first offer when I was back in the 10th grade."
Nutt didn't achieve the on-field success many expected, but he was known for being a solid recruiter. The coach's final three classes in Oxford ranked Nos. 18, 18 and 19, respectively, in the recruiting team rankings.
The Rebels' 2012 class currently is ranked No. 40, but that is largely because it only consists of 11 prospects. The average rating per player is 3.18, which is 24th among FBS programs.
Moving forward, one question is this: Can Ole Miss hang onto it current commits?
Thus far, no members of the 2012 class have jumped ship. Most, as is typically the case in these types of situations, are taking the wait-and-see approach.
"All my teammates were coming up to me, saying, 'Have you heard? Have you heard? What are you going to do?,' " Hilton said. "I've been getting that a lot from my friends. But my family is different. They're like, 'Don't rush the decision. Take your time.' They want me to see who they hire so I can meet with the new coaching staff."
That said, Hilton and the other Ole Miss certainly are keeping their options open. The fact is, there is a chance they might not mesh with the next staff, or fit its schemes.
Once a new staff is in place, Hilton, who said he already is sold on the school, will look at two things: His comfort with those people and with the systems they plan to use. For now, he remains "95 to 100 percent committed" to the program, though he gave the impression Mississippi State and Southern Miss, where he made an official visit recently, are still very much in the picture.
"Everything happens for a reason," Hilton said. "Ole Miss was struggling a little this year. So I kind of understand why it happened, but it still bothers me a little."
Walton, one of the most coveted Ole Miss commits, also is being targeted by other schools. Monday alone, he was contacted by Mississippi State, Purdue and West Virginia, he said. A day later, he heard from Arkansas State.
Walton pointed out that, "I haven't de-committed," but he is listening to others.
"Cincinnati, who was my No. 2 school before I committed, Mississippi State, Auburn, Purdue, West Virginia" are schools getting a look, he said. According to Walton, Cincinnati and Mississippi State likely will get official visits. For that matter, so will Ole Miss. A final decision about his officials won't be made until after his season ends.
Jordan Wilkins, a junior running back from Cordova (Tenn.) St. Benedict, nearly committed to the Rebels after the program's July camp. But he held off and has since been pursued heavily by other programs. Even before he learned of Nutt's departure, the Rebels were slipping. But this development only made things worse for Ole Miss, he said.
"Houston Nutt leaving, that's big," Wilkins said. "Some people were expecting it, but I wasn't. I thought they'd let him play it out. He's one of those coaches who's a players' coach. He's one of those coaches you'd like to play for."
For now, Nutt and his staff will continue to recruit. Their sales pitch will lean heavily on the benefits of the school itself and program as a whole, not on coaches and schemes. That typically is true for most staffs.
"Here's the thing," Nutt said Monday. "We have two good home games, and I really want everybody to get there. We got a lot scheduled. (Ole Miss staff member) Clifton Ealy already has a big list of guys that plan on coming. I still see those guys coming in. Our staff, the one thing that you can bank this on, you can book it. Our staff will do a tremendous job with all the guys that are committed, all the guys that are still interested in Ole Miss and we'll keep that going all the way to the end.
"Now it's going to come down to, of course, the No. 1 question: Who is going to be your coach? So we can hold them for so long and then we'll take the baton and hand it to the next guy. But these guys will do a very professional job, we'll stay on them. Stay in contact. Get them in here for the games. Make them feel real good. Then we'll turn it over."