Hiring Sam Pittman to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks — was it an amazing stroke of genius by Razorbacks athletics director Hunter Yurachek? Is it the best hire seen in the college football in years?
Allow us to be a little leery jumping to such quick conclusions, especially concerning coaching hires within the dog-eat-dog Southeastern Conference. You’re gold one day, and lead at the bottom of the pond the next.
Does the name Gene Chizik ring a bell? A national title in year 2, fired after year 4. Or his successor, Gus Malzahn? A national title game appearance in Year 1, and couldn’t be ushered out of Auburn fast enough in most of the subsequent years.
Consider, however, that Sam Pittman jumped aboard what appeared to be the Titanic, sheered in half and in a sudden plunge into the icy Atlantic. He has turned the Razorbacks football program around in 14 games, which makes Pittman’s job seem incomparable to any in college football coaching in recent years.
Two Different Approaches to Razorbacks Football
Certain parts of Sam Pittman’s coaching style can be perceived as “old-school,” given that he’s deeply familiar with legendary Razorback coaches of the past like Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz and the way he publicly preaches the process of training well and with intensity over schematics (fortunately, he has two great coordinators who can do the heavy lifting there).
Pittman also has shown an amazing, if paradoxical, ability to both forswear trendy buzz phrases and catchphrases while at the same time embrace his own little signature slogans with “Yessirrr!” and “Turn up that damn jukebox!” — phrases that in themselves have an old-school feel to them.
In some ways, though, Pittman is the very essence of an effective modern coach — warm and personal with players for the most part, but able to light into them when need be. He and his staff build schemes and game plans to meet their players at their appropriate level of development, then work to motivate them to meet the (realistic) standards set.
For all the schadenfreude sent the way of Sam Pittman’s predecessor, and the rolling of eyes that ensue whenever Chad Morris’ slick talk of “Full Tilt Boogie” is brought up, it’s often lost that Morris was in some ways a more old-school coach than Pittman.
Not that it translated into most conventional definitions of success, mind you.
For instance, in the locker room the custom under Chad Morris was for coaches and players to refer to themselves by their last names. Under Pittman, Razorbacks are back to using first names, the father of current Razorback Zach Williams said.
Zach Williams’ father, Rickey, also pointed out this critical difference between the locker rooms under the two coaches:
“In the past they wanted to get out of their locker room as fast as they could and get back to their places and get away from the team. Now they’re hanging out in the locker rooms, working together after practice on different techniques and different skills.”
The reason, of course, goes deeper than using last names over first names.
When Chad Morris took over the Razorbacks program from Bret Bielema in December 2017, it appears he came in with a “my way or the highway” approach that might have worked decades ago when players had limited options for leaving but proved to be cyanide in the modern college-football climate.
Morris, in short, preferred cleaning house to see how he could accommodate what he had inherited. He demanded things his way, but most Bielema holdovers didn’t understand his way to begin with. They quit on him, twice in two seasons. Culture, as it were, bottomed.
Everyone realized there’s more to football than putting away the soft drinks, phones and planting your feet on the floor in meetings with the coach.
Culture Change Under Sam Pittman
Pittman, in contrast, gave everybody a fair shake when he took over in December 2019. He showed a capacity for patience that Morris — in his over-caffeinated zeal for turning Arkansas into Clemson 2.0 — seemed to lack. Pittman’s style coming in was not to show the no-counts the door. Players could stay, or they could hit the transfer portal; it was up to them, as he told R.J. Young in recent interview.
The rules were laid down for everyone. They were easily understandable.
Pittman and his staff hit the portal for immediate help, and Arkansas’s three wins last year might not have been possible without Florida quarterback Felipe Franks finishing his college career at Fayetteville. Franks gave the offense a far better chance than it ever showed under Morris and his crew.
Franks’ tutelage of his backup, KJ Jefferson, is also showing up now.
This year, the transfer portal has made its biggest difference for Arkansas in the defensive line. End Tre Williams and tackle Markell Utsey, who played for Hogs defensive coordinator Barry Odom when he was head coach at Missouri, came south for their final seasons.
Massive John Ridgeway, who developed at Illinois State, is proving there are FCS-level players quite capable of making the jump to Power 5; Ridgeway has been wrecking offensive lines since week 2 against Texas, when he took the field just two weeks removed from an appendectomy.
Odom’s starting linebacker crew is made up of super seniors Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry, both originally walk-ons, and fourth-year senior Bumper Pool. The experience obviously matters – try to recall the struggles these veterans had as youngsters in the Morris years. Then again, don’t. Enjoy what’s happening today.
Having talented players matters, and Arkansas has some talent and a whole lot of heart and want-to among this squad, and they’ve fully bought in to Pittman’s way. Pittman’s easy yet-at-times-demanding demeanor seemingly has brought everything possible out of the Hogs through last season’s growing pains and this year’s first four games.
Even with the way the Razorbacks are rapidly improving, finishing with more than 8 wins this season will be a very tall task.
Consider the No. 8 Hogs face nearly a weekly murderers’ row of powerhouse programs: then-No. 7 Texas A&M; at No. 2 Georgia, followed by a trip No. 17 Ole Miss…
When the Hogs finally get home for the first time this month, it’s to play ranked Auburn on Oct. 16. Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri are on the other side of a late October open date. Only a Little Rock matchup with UAPB on Oct. 23 seems like a sure thing. Depth has always been an issue for Arkansas, even among its greatest teams, dating back to a breakthrough year in the 1950s under Bowden Wyatt.
It will matter again, even more so, against this high level of competition.
Fortunately, Morris recruited a lot better than Bielema in his last years. Give the man some credit for that.
Today’s Razorback secondary is full of his recruits. Walk-ons early in his program are now upper-class leaders. Center Ricky Stromberg, lightly recruited out of Tulsa, was a Morris find who leads the offensive line, along with left tackle Myron Cunningham.
Wide receiver Treylon Burks signed with Morris, but most would say he was always destined to be a Hog. Trelon Smith, the senior leader of the four-headed running back attack, transferred in under Morris’ staff.
Jefferson was promised the quarterback job at Arkansas by Morris when every other team was recruiting him out of north Mississippi as an athlete, and probably headed to defense. Morris saw something that reminded him of Deshaun Watson, his recruit at Clemson who went on to greatness.
This talent gave Pittman a bit of running start that he has taken full advantage of. They don’t hand out the national Coach of the Year trophy after week 4 in the season. But Sam Pittman would be a runaway winner if they did.
Note that more than a handful of national commentators on radio and TV have already said this week that Pittman and Arkansas have the two best wins of any college team so far this season.
Most of them had conceded those games as losses when September started.
Most weren’t even noticing Arkansas. They are now.
Sam Pittman Part of Bigger Cycle in Razorbacks History
What Pittman has going in Year 2 isn’t foreign to the Razorback football program.
Go back to the early 1950s and a previous generation of Razorback fans had their very own version of Chad Morris: Otis Douglas.
Douglas went 2-8, 5-5 and 2-8 in three seasons. His hiring was one of the biggest mistakes by former Razorback athletic director John Barnhill, even though — like Morris — he did recruit OK (one recruit, Lamar McHan, was taken No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft).
In 1953, Barnhill hired Bowden Wyatt to replace Douglas. Wyatt had been a the Tennessee Vols star and Gen. Bob Neyland protégé who had at least coached briefly at Wyoming.
Hiring Wyatt was nothing for the football experts to sneeze at. He was already building a successful head coaching resume. He had a pedigree. As Arkansas fans would find out a few years afterward, though, he was simply taking the training wheels off at Arkansas before Neyland would hand over the reins at Knoxville.
But, in his first year at Fayetteville, Wyatt had to instill a new culture in Fayetteville. Some simply refer to “culture” as winning, but it’s more than that. It’s always more than that. It’s accountability. It’s toughness. It’s the belief you can depend on the man next to you, and vice versa, and that you can believe in your position coach and the head coach that he has your best interests at heart and will have you in position to succeed. After that, it’s still up to what’s inside you.
Bear Bryant notoriously ran off more than 100 Aggies in 1954 preseason practices at Junction, Texas, a story that’s been the focus of books and ESPN specials. Wyatt had his own “Junction,” just on campus rather than a day’s bus drive away under a hot sun in drought-ravaged farmland. Wyatt ran off enough players who weren’t committed to be Razorbacks that the move created the locally famed “25 Little Pigs.” Outside of “The Razorbacks” by Orville Henry and Jim Bailey, there hasn’t been near enough written or said about them, but it’s certainly its own good story.
Wyatt’s first team went 3-7 (ahem). The next one would go 7-3 in the regular season, before losing to powerhouse Georgia Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Arkansas fans went wild that fall. Old Gazette articles kept on microfilm are fun to review now.
A victory by the No. 7-ranked Hogs in Little Rock over No. 5-ranked Ole Miss, 6-0 on a surprise pass from Buddy Bob Benson to Preston Carpenter (another future NFL star), shook the nation about the way Arkansas’ win over Texas did on Sept. 11. It appears that Hog team went as far as it could go before fading at the finish, even losing to a weak LSU squad 7-6 in Shreveport and not having enough to match Georgia Tech.
But it was THE year that first created the Razorbacks as we know them and led to Frank Broyles coming as head coach four years later, and all that history put Arkansas on the national college football map and made it WHY it’s still important today, even if Arkansas has mostly struggled for nearly a decade.
It’s why the 4-0 start had all of Hog Nation excited again. Without that era, Wyatt followed by Broyles, Arkansas might be playing alongside the dregs, relegated to whatever is left of the Big 12 in the coming years, rather than competing in the best conference in America and raking in big money each year.
Broyles, by the way, started his first season (he had replaced Jack Mitchell, Wyatt’s successor, who could manage only 6-4 three straight years before deciding his odds were better returning to Kansas) with six straight losses. He wondered aloud to chief assistant, Little Rock’s Wilson Matthews, if Arkansas could ever win games in Texas.
Plus, he had Ole Miss, a national powerhouse at the time, on the schedule right after the Texas game. And Texas was just becoming the powerhouse Texas we know now, thanks to Darrell Royal.
But Broyles won his last four games in 1958, then 9 of 11 games in 1959, including the Gator Bowl over his alma mater, Georgia Tech (an SEC title contender throughout that decade). So, like Wyatt, he broke through in his second year, when his great freshman class became eligible as sophomores and provided star power and depth to the good upper class led by Wayne “The Hammer” Harris and runner Jim Moody.
Sometimes it all comes together for a new coach right off the bat, and it has at Arkansas. You can bet the cupboard wasn’t bare, though, and the culture wasn’t in the pits. Lou Holtz did not inherit a bare or even half-filled cupboard in 1977 when he took over from Broyles. He had speed and size, a lot of it recruited by Broyles assistant Jimmy Johnson, and his offensive acumen blended perfectly with the defensive genius of coordinator Monte Kiffin in one of Arkansas’s greatest seasons ever in 1977.
When Ken Hatfield replaced Holtz in 1984, the talent level of the late 1970s and early ‘80s had fallen off somewhat and there were some attitudes in need of adjustment or a new home, but Hatfield’s conservative approach on both sides of the ball, and the uncannily abilities of quarterback Brad Taylor that season, resulted in a surprising, fun 7-4-1 season.
Even Jack Crowe, who is generally maligned by fans when they talk Hog history, showed vast improvement in his team from year one (a shocking 3-8 after Hatfield’s back-to-back SWC titles) to year two (6-6, and a 9-point loss to Georgia in the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl).
Unfortunately starting year three with a 10-3 loss to The Citadel ended Crowe’s Arkansas career. Danny Ford, though, coming aboard to help interim coach Joe Kines in 1992, had a competitive if not great first two years as head coach, then broke through with a SEC West Division championship that stunned the rest of the league, and he recruited well off that success, too. The talent influx didn’t immediately help him in 1996-97, and Broyles as AD saw little hope that it would improve fast enough to appease the fan base, so he dumped Ford for Houston Nutt.
Nutt, the Arkansas native who had spent just one year as a Division 1 coach at Boise State after major success at 1-AA Murray State, didn’t need two or three years to build things. The talent and toughness Ford left jelled under Nutt’s enthusiasm and again shocked the rest of the SEC with a tie for the West title in 1998, which also included a heart-breaking loss to eventual national champion Tennessee. In fact, by Nutt’s third year, it appeared the talent and the program were back to mediocrity, but a guy named Matt Jones and a few other future NFL players would change that over 2001-03.
Petrino’s first team went just 5-7 but improved mightily through the last half of the season, then won 9 games in year 2, before the great run of 2010-11. After the motorcycle fiasco, Petrino’s firing and John L. Smith’s smiling through his interim 4-win year of 2012, Bret Bielema had a rough first year in a rebuilding position, losing every SEC game. But the squad also was playing very hard by the finish, and in 2014 had a 7-6 breakthrough that for all the world looked like a possible 9- or 10-win season that was left on the field with heartbreak in three games (including a 14-13 loss to Alabama and overtime loss to A&M).
In fact, it was yet another promising second year in a rebuilding job, one that led to a big raise and extension and …. Well, let’s skip the next three seasons, those jaw-dropping losses to the likes of Toledo, or the blown losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech in ’16 that began the end for Bielema, or the joke of the next two seasons with Morris.
This piece first appeared on BestofArkansasSports.com.