When Charlie Weis was hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in 2004, he boasted to his players that his bounty of football knowledge would produce a “decided schematic advantage” against every opponent the Fighting Irish faced.
He had reason to be confident. He was coming off three Super Bowl wins with the Patriots (with a sixth-round draft pick at quarterback, no less). Surely, his ample genius, honed at the highest levels of football, would make itself evident against college competition.
Turns out, it did not.
The man who found so much success in the NFL couldn’t sustain it in South Bend, and after two strong seasons to begin his tenure, he led Notre Dame to its first nine-loss campaign in program history. Midway through 2007, the vaunted offensive mind was overseeing a squad that ranked dead last in the NCAA in total offense and second to last in scoring. Through eight games, they averaged 1.1 yard per carry. After two more mediocre years, he was done.
I don’t think Weis suddenly forgot how to design offenses or call plays, and I wasn’t there to witness the downfall, so I can’t confidently report on its underlying causes. But it feels reasonable to conclude that — at the very least — he underestimated the football savvy of his NCAA colleagues.
Possibly worse: it seems like he may have fundamentally misunderstood what makes a winner.
So, the epitome of the “home-run hire” struck out, and after an ill-fated stint at Kansas appears to have hung up the headset for good with a record of 41-49.
Though it could be argued he brought some of it on himself, it’s not my intention here to lob darts at a coach who retired seven years ago. New coaches who were once hailed as sure things fail all the time and for myriad, sometimes inexplicable reasons. Scott Frost at Nebraska and Mike Norvell at Florida State, two of the most sought-after names during Arkansas’ last two coaching searches, appear to be in the midst of doing so right now.
The point here is that the guys who wow us in the introductory press conference and the maestros of Xs and Os don’t always win the most games.
Which brings us to Sam Pittman, the plain-spoken antithesis to Weis’ haughty New Jersey bluster. The longtime assistant nobody seemed to take seriously as a viable head coach. The guy who was in tears when he was finally offered the job at Arkansas, a position reportedly nobody else wanted. The guy who accepted that offer before even bothering to haggle over contract details.
The guy who has said multiple times, unprompted, that this will be his last job.
The guy who wanted to be here.
And that matters, maybe more than anything else a coach can bring to bear.
That’s not to imply Pittman doesn’t know his way around a whiteboard. Xs and Os are the nuts and bolts of football. You won’t win much without understanding how to set up and exploit advantages in personnel, alignments, etc., and after spending the wide majority of his career coaching in the trenches, Pittman knows how to get under the hood of a game plan and twist a wrench.
But that’s only part of why he got the job.
It’s not why his former players vocally advocated for him when Chad Morris was fired a little less than two years ago, and it’s not why Arkansas football is back in the national rankings after the darkest five-year span in program history.
It certainly looked like the Hogs were the better prepared team during a 40-21 beatdown of Texas on Saturday, but more than any scheme, what stood out most was the decided *emotional* advantage Pittman’s players held over the Longhorns.
And in the game of football that’s no small thing.
Coaches and commentators often talk about building the right culture, about players showing fight or heart. We hear those words so often, sometimes it feels like the meaning has been wrung out of them.
But there’s a reason those words get said. Those things matter.
Football is a game which rewards unfettered, visceral emotion like no other.
There’s a thing that happens to a football team when its leaders have lived through the darkness, been pushed around, beaten up, and come out the other side to taste success. When a team truly loves every part of the game and each other. When they start to believe. When the goal becomes not just to stop the ball carrier, but to push him backward — by any means available. There is a selflessness that comes to the fore, a swarming, multiplicative strength in numbers, a sum greater than its parts. One player gets into the backfield and suddenly his teammates seem to appear exponentially. Any ugly block, tackle, or run is valued over the prettiest if it nets one extra inch. Players damn caution and sacrifice their bodies. They feed on the physicality of the game, seeking out opportunities to assert dominance.
Watch Trey Knox, a former four-star recruit at wide receiver, embracing his role on special teams.
Watch Joe Foucha leap over a pair of 300-pounders to get in on a tackle.
Or Montarric Brown fight through a block on his hands and knees to blow up a screen pass.
Or Hayden Henry shooting a gap like he’s been shot out of a cannon with no regard for his own well-being.
It starts with the coach, filters down to the players and finally culminates in the sound of 76,000 exorcising a decade of pain all at once.
That emotion can’t be faked and can’t be coaxed through false methods.
They are a direct reflection of the culture instilled in the last 21 months.
Make no mistake, the Arkansas team is still a work in progress. As dominant as they were at the line of scrimmage against Texas and as cathartic as it felt, it was not a flawless game, and the Hogs (finally) benefitted from some breaks going their way.
But progress is the operative word here, and the progress this team continues to make is dumbfounding.
When Pittman met with his new players for the first time in December 2019, it wasn’t his advanced schemes or his recruiting prowess or his past successes that led his message.
This was an all-but-broken group, losers of 19 straight conference games, many of which weren’t competitive. So he gave them the message they needed.
“You didn’t choose me, but I’m damn glad I chose you.”
I don’t know how the rest of the season will play out. I don’t know if this team is ready to be competitive with Alabama. I don’t know if they’re ready to snap the nine-game losing streak to Texas A&M. I don’t know if they’ll suffer a letdown after last week’s high and we’ll all be much more nervous than we’d like to be when Georgia Southern visits this weekend.
But regardless of what awaits over the next three months and beyond, I feel pretty confident in this much: Sam Pittman understands perfectly well what it takes to make a winner in college football and he’s building one right before our eyes.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.