Commentary -

Ole Miss' veteran Coach Houston Nutt is handling this year's Rebel team with a firm, but gentle, hand. He's walking a tightrope between helping them get their swagger back after a few years of futility, while still preaching a tougher, more physical mentality. Read about it inside.

Good coaches make the big bucks because they wear so many hats in a highly competitive and under-the-microscope profession.

Besides being a disciplinarian, teacher, adviser, leader, salesman, tactician and CEO, the good ones seem to also require a minor in psychology.

Consider the all-too-common plight of one Houston Nutt.

He has inherited a program with pretty good players, but a team that hasn't had a clue of how to win.

Sure, more depth would be nice, but he's said since midway through spring training that lack of talent would not be the major issue he'd have to face and conquer in the immediate future.

The mentality of the team has been, and remains, chore number one.

Nutt felt all summer the Rebels "had a chance" if he could get them to believe in themselves and overcome adversity when it struck, which it inevitably would.

Well, it hit them squarely in the jaw in the last three seconds of a tight, winnable game at Wake Forest last Saturday.

When the winning Demon Deacon field goal flew through the uprights, the brief jubilation of just minutes before when the Rebs gained a late lead turned to darkness and despair. Sorry if that seems a bit dramatic, but it was definitely a gut shot to those kids.

What would Houston do as he faced a sick, hurting team in the locker room immediately following the sharp point of the dagger, one they had felt before, in their fragile hearts?

Believe me, his reaction at that very moment and the 24-48 hours that followed were critical, perhaps the most critical he has faced since he signed on for this gig.

Even though he was aching inside, wanting that win so badly for his "kids," he had to stand in front of them and smile. Yes, smile.

He had to tell them how proud he was of them for their extreme effort when he was having a hard time holding his disappointment down. He had to tell them to trust him and his staff and they would all work through the heartache and disappointment and together come back stronger than ever. He had to tell them that life is all about overcoming setbacks and learning from all experiences, good and bad.

Basically, he had to give them a mental hug.

I wasn't in there, but I was told that is exactly what he did, but he was also glad, in those circumstances, that he saw some hurt and pain in their eyes. He could help erase that in a few days, but he wanted the initial reaction to be a stinging one, which told him they care. If it didn't hurt them as much as it did him, he was wasting his time.

The pain of defeat, just as the joy of victory, has to be spontaneous, not forced, for it to be real. False emotions are no emotions at all. He saw real emotion. Oddly, a very good sign. If you will, the saying every dark cloud has a silver lining comes to mind.

When the Rebs' silver lining of true disappointment surfaced, there was only one way for Nutt to react, with a stick-together-we'll-get-'em-next-time theme.

The plane ride home was more of the same. Coddling, consoling and encouragement. Why not? They hadn't failed, they had just come up short. No "law" against that.

The team watched the film of the game Sunday and it was not a beatdown session. Mistakes were pointed out, magnified and explained, but in calm, caring voices.

Sunday's practice was just what Houston wanted to see. While still stinging from the loss, the players let a lot of their frustration go and went about the task of correcting what they did wrong the day before. Nutt was happy with their response, he said.

The rest of the week was business as usual. Time to shed the misery for good and get back on the horse. Samford awaits and as history shows, no team can be overlooked in this day and age. The offensive and defensive systems employed today are the great talent equalizers, to some extent, and anyone who executes can do some damage.

Nutt said in his Monday press conference the line between winning and losing is fine. It appears it gets finer every year.

What it all boils down to, in the end, is how you handle it all, the winning and the losing.

From what we have seen thus far, Nutt has a firm grasp on the handle that controls the emotional stability of the team.

Right now, staying positive is his approach. Look for that to continue. One, it's his nature. Two, he knows that's the right way to get the most out of his people in the long haul.

His history shows his teams usually finish stronger than they start. If that holds true with this team, they will have a very good year because the start - despite the loss - has been, overall, one that can be built on.

But in the meantime, Houston is having to teach a graduate course in psychology.

Sometimes he'll have to hug, sometimes he'll have to scold. Sometimes he'll have to cajole. Sometimes, console. Sometimes he'll have to let go and let them learn on their own, through experience.

The good thing is that he appears to know which buttons to push and which ones to leave alone.

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