ATHENS — Sam Pittman was still getting settled in as Arkansas football head coach when his Razorbacks took a 7-5 lead over No. 4-ranked Georgia into halftime of both teams’ season-opening game last season.
Kirby Smart said the first half felt like an extra-innings baseball game, but he wasn’t surprised by Pittman’s ability to motivate, having seen it in his meeting rooms for three years and coaching against him while at Alabama.
“His kids believe,” Smart said, “and I know from trying to start the program at Georgia, it starts with that fight and competitiveness.”
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Pittman revealed during last Friday’s Ingles on the Beat Special that Smart approached him about working together long before he was hired by Georgia — while Pittman was working on Bret Bielema’s Arkansas staff.
“Two years before I went to Georgia, we had played Alabama, and after the game, Kirby said ‘I’m going to get me a head coaching job and I”m going to make it hard for you not to come with me, “ Pittman said. “I said ‘You better go back and look at the tape, you may not want me.’
“I told my wife, ‘I don’t want to leave here, but Kirby played at Georgia, and if he gets that job I’m going to look at it. I thought about writing him a note to tell him I enjoyed visiting, but I didn’t.
“I believe you do the best job where you’re at, and good things will happen.”
That’s exactly how it played out.
Smart hired Pittman away from Arkansas to help anchor his first staff. Pittman rewarded him by building arguably the greatest offensive lines in the school’s history.
“I always had a thing for Georgia,” Pittman said. “Always, since Herschel Walker.”
Fast forward to the 2020 opener, and Georgia was facing an inspired Razorbacks’ team that looked nothing like a team that had lost 19 straight SEC contests dating back to 2017.
The Bulldogs ultimately prevailed, but not before Arkansas served notice there was a different attitude and approach to football in the huddle.
Pittman’s team proceeded to record wins over Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee. The Razorbacks might have had another win if not for a controversial call that went against them in a 30-28 loss to Auburn.
Pittman, a well-traveled offensive line assistant with no head coaching or coordinator experience, was looking like a lock for SEC Coach of the Year before catching COVID and running into the teeth of the Hogs’ brutal schedule.
Not only did Arkansas draw Georgia and Florida from the East Division — “not a Christmas gift,” Pittman said — it closed with LSU, Missouri and Alabama before its bowl game with TCU was canceled.
To say Pittman was a success last season would be an understatement
“I just am who I am,” Pittman says modestly, asked about his universally likable personality and authenticity.
One regret Pittman had at Georgia was not getting an opportunity to say goodbye to his players in person because of the suddenness of his hire the day after the SEC Championship Game.
“I wanted to make sure they understood why I was taking the job at Arkansas,” Pittman said. “I texted the whole group and told them what I thought of them.”
Pittman also talked to Georgia offensive line recruits who were committed to Georgia but not yet signed.
“I was able to call a few and say, ‘let’s don’t think about another school, you committed to Georgia, you didn’t commit to me,’ “ Pittman said. “Georgia was a good place for all those kids, and they needed to stay there.”
And, Pittman said, Smart hired a good replacement in Matt Luke to coach up those players he recruited.
“Oh yeah, what a super nice guy, really good football coach,” Pittman said. “I knew they were in good hands.
“But it goes back to Kirby. He’s in Georgia, he’s going to find whoever he wants.”
Georgia fans would all agree, they are thankful Smart hired Pittman. Indeed, many of those Dawg fans have also become secondary Hog fans strictly on account of Pittman.
It’s worth noting Georgia plays host to Arkansas on Oct. 2, and the Razorbacks are bringing back 10 seniors and 20 starters.
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