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Arkansas Native On Houston Nutt: “Confident He’ll Turn It Around”

Evin Demirel

At age 24, Clark Irwin finally has a normal life.

The Little Rock native works fairly normal hours, has plenty of time for his wife and parents and occasionally catches NFL games on TV. In the last eight months, he’s even found time to shoot hoops in a Little Rock park, not too far from the neighborhood where he grew up.

So far, so good with this normal adult life stuff.

The way Irwin sees it, he jumped into it just in time.

Until February, Irwin had essentially coached under Houston Nutt for half a decade. Irwin spent three years seeing spot action as a backup Razorback quarterback and special teams player, but his real value was as an understudy to the coaches. He signaled plays to the offense and helped run passing drills with fellow quarterbacks Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain, both of whom were roommates at different times.

“I was getting my minor in graduate assistantship if you want to look at it that way,” Irwin says.

He officially took that position in early 2009 after following Nutt to Oxford, Miss., where Nutt had started as head coach at Ole Miss the season before. There, Clark spent late summers and falls immersed in game planning, film study and practice seven days a week. “It’s almost like you can ever do enough,” he says. Game days – with the crowds, the adrenaline and the constant in-game chess match between coaches – were the most fun part of it all.

Everything seemed primed for Irwin to take the next step up the coaching ranks, to one day possibly follow in his mentor’s footsteps as a head coach himself.

Irwin felt himself drawn closer to the point of no return for a game he’d deeply loved since childhood.

(Full disclosure: My younger brother was Irwin’s friend in childhood, and I knew Irwin when he was in grade school I recall my brother talking about Irwin’s lunch recess exploits on the playground field there and, a few years later, at middle school)

By the time Irwin started leading Little Rock Central High School’s ninth grade team to an undefeated season, he was a fairly seasoned young quarterback who knew his squad could be special on the varsity level. “We had Antwain Robinson [who would play for the Razorbacks], Mickey Dean and Kevin Thornton [both would play for Arkansas-Pine Bluff]. It was such a good group of guys, and we had all known each other from AAU basketball.”

Their chemistry was evident as sophomores, when they finished 7-4 with a share of a conference championship. In the next two years, though, the group finished 27-1 and won two state championships. In his career, Irwin passed for 3,000 yards, rushed for 700 yards and was the first quarterback to start every game in former Central coach Bernie Cox’s 37 years there.

Irwin, at 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds, knew he wouldn’t get many scholarship offers. But he did get an offer to play for Nutt, with whom he shared similarities. Both had been quarterbacks leading Central to state championships while starring in multiple sports – Irwin in baseball, Nutt in basketball. “I think he had some pride in that … He had a role for me help him and kind of assist him in coaching and signaling.”

Irwin felt loyalty to Nutt and his staff tug at him in the winter of 2008, when they suggested he become a GA in Oxford. He’ll feel it again when he travels to Mississippi to watch Saturday’s game Razorbacks-Rebels game. “Me and Danny Nutt [Houston’s brother] were very close. I’d love to say hello to them. Haven’t seen them in close to eight to 10 months.”

Last Saturday, Ole Miss (2-4) lost at home 52-7 to No. 2 Alabama, the Rebels’ worst defeat in 30 years. Ole Miss (2-4) has lost nine consecutive SEC games dating back to last season, and Irwin’s aware of the talk about Houston Nutt being on the hot seat. “I don’t think it would bother him, just because he doesn’t like to read any of that stuff. During the season, he’s focused on one thing.”

“I hate it that they had a rough start, but coach Nutt’s upset too many teams in his career to be worried. I know he’s got those kids ready to run through a brick wall for him. I mean, that’s the type of motivator he is… I’m confident he’ll turn it around and try to get them to a bowl and make the season a success.”

Without doubt, when Irwin visits his old haunts and co-workers in Oxford, he’ll remember all he loved from his past life. But he and his wife, Megan, decided that career didn’t allow the stability they wanted. Young coaches, lrwin says, need to move often “to learn other people’s schemes and philosophies.”

“I knew down the road if I got too much into it, I wouldn’t want to get out. I thought right now would be a good time for me to try the business world a little bit and see what I thought.”

So Irwin left coaching in February and now works as a broker for Irwin Partners, a commercial and investment real estate firm in which his father is a principal broker. He’s surrounded by familiar faces in the hometown of him and his wife.

Settling down, for the long haul, seems so easy. That’s the likely route, but it’s too early to tell, Irwin says. If working in business “turns out not to be for me, I may try coaching again.”

No. 10 Arkansas will be heavily favored on the road against Ole Miss. But Houston Nutt, God bless ‘em, has this habit of springing big upsets at the unlikeliest of times. Plus, he beat Arkansas in 2008 and 2009. Who’s taking this one and by how much? Share game predictions at Sync magazine.

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