Playing For Pride

FAYETTEVILLE -- Playing for pride: The three most dreaded words when it comes to sports.

No championships at stake. No bowl bids to position for.

How does a coach motivate a team when there's really nothing on the line other than the proverbial "playing for next year?"

That's the position Arkansas finds itself in for the last three games of the season.

The Razorbacks are playing for pride for the first time in coach Houston Nutt's eight years when it travels to Ole Miss on Saturday. The loss last week to South Carolina meant Arkansas won't reach the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible for the second straight season. But at least in 2004, the Hogs went down to the final game against LSU (a 43-13 loss) with a chance to earn a bowl bid.

Nutt said he'll ask his players to be men on Saturday. They wrap up the season with Mississippi State in Little Rock and LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

"Keep tugging at their hearts," Nutt said. "It's a lot like life. Things aren't always going to go just right. In times like these, it makes you really appreciate the great times, but you've got to learn how you got it, and you fight through the fire."

Players have been working almost a year on the current season. Now, they have to spend another year and the last few games practicing for next season. There are no prizes or incentives.

The only thing going for players and coaches is their pride.

"That's what we are playing for," said Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, whose Bulldogs are 2-7 with games against Arkansas and Ole Miss remaining and will finish with a losing record for the fifth straight season. "Believe me, that's more important than a bowl game, playing for your own personal pride. Without that, you're not much of a competitor anyway."

Other Southeastern Conference coaches have been in the situation.

LSU's Les Miles' first year (2001) at Oklahoma State started slow. Out of bowl contention with four games remaining, the Cowboys put together a late season rally that inspired the offseason hope which led to three straight bowl appearances.

It started when they came three points shy (22-19) of upsetting No. 25 Colorado. They then lost 49-30 against Texas Tech the following week, but beat Baylor 38-22 and No. 4 Oklahoma 16-13 to end the season on a high note.

"I think people play football for different reasons," Miles said. "Certainly, bowl motivation is one. I think championships certainly is the over riding motivation. I think there's always a desire to get better and play as a team. I think all of those things can be found after you're mathematically eliminated from a bowl season."

Alabama's Mike Shula may be the dean of playing for pride. In his first year in 2003, NCAA sanctions made the Tide ineligible for a bowl.

"You talk about short term goals," Shula said. "Our guys are very, very competitive and they know that every time you go out, you put your reputation on the line. You put your signature on the line each and every week. And when you do it in front of 83,000 and 84,000 here, it's not hard to motivate them.

"You recruit good guys, guys that are self motivated, that helps."

Shula took over in May (months later than most first-year coaches) after Mike Price was fired before coaching a game.

In his first meeting with more than half the team that summer, Shula told players that they had to get to know each other pretty quick. He also asked them to focus on how they could help the team each day and not to worry about things they couldn't control, namely going bowling that season.

"I think our guys responded then going through a tough time," said Shula, whose team is 9-0 this season and ranked No. 4 in the country. "And a lot of the guys that were on this team are seniors now and remember all the things that we have gone through.

"I think that's helped us as far as our motivation and experience."

Kentucky hasn't been able to get back up after its problems with the NCAA. The Wildcats are in the middle of a third-straight losing season under coach Rich Brooks. They're 2-6 this season heading into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt.

Brooks said he'll occasionally have a player, not necessarily a senior, express their opinions to the team on what it needs to do to win a particular game.

"Every game is a challenge," Brooks said. "It's a challenged to your pride and what we have to do is try to send our seniors out of here with what we hope is the start of the turnaround of Kentucky football. The younger players have to have something to build on to come back to next year, so that's the point of emphasis."

Something to build on seems to be the emphasis at Arkansas. The Hogs are trying to look at the loss of any bowl hopes as the dawning of a new day.

They will give true freshman quarterback Casey Dick his second start against Ole Miss. They plan to give true freshman tailback Felix Jones more carries, although fellow true freshman Darren McFadden is expected to shoulder most of the load. They also will try to give more snaps to true freshman safety Elston Forte and defensive linemen Marcus Shavers.

Looking ahead to the future has helped keep Nutt positive during what he described as the toughest time of his coaching career.

"It starts with us, the coaches," Nutt said. "They're watching us and our attitude. They know that we're not going to give up. But right now, you hate the pain and the agony of your seniors not going to a bowl. It's tough.

"I try to keep believing. You look out there and you see an unbelievable future."

The future includes Springdale High quarterback Mitch Mustain, the backbone of a strong recruiting class that Nutt said is far from being finished. Without bowl preparations, Nutt can begin in-home visits with prospects in December instead of January as usual.

Showing a need for immediate help is not a bad selling point for a program that's struggling. It also inspires coaches to target problem areas better.

"I'd rather be on the other (winning) side," Nutt said. "We haven't experienced this too many times thank goodness, but it's been where you almost do a better job of total evaluation when things aren't just right. Whereas, sometimes when you're winning and you're going to the Cotton Bowl or Citrus Bowl, sometimes there's a tendency to relax and you try to fight hard against that even in the good times.

"You try to feed off every positive that you have and let (recruits) know that this is why we're in your living room. We played a lot of freshman last year, so we're not afraid to play them."

Nutt said he won't ask any of his captains to hold any player-only meetings or ask any to speak in front of the team like Brooks does at Kentucky. He said the team has played hard after every loss and hasn't seen anything to indicate a drop off in effort at Ole Miss.

"We've had some awful bad breaks, but good things are going to happen, you've just got to keep believing," Nutt said. "I don't see any separation (on the team) at all. I don't see any of them throwing in the towel. I think they'll go as hard as they can Saturday. I don't think you'll see any sign of it."

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