Sam Pittman kicking off Arkansas football with cookies, charisma and Catfish Hole coachspeak
ATHENS — Sam Pittman is right at home settling in at a place called “The Catfish Hole” in Fayetteville, Ark., for his head coaching show.
The former Georgia offensive line coach is as well-liked and well-traveled as they come, and this is the start of his head coaching legacy.
The 58-year-old Pittman has no head coaching experience or coordinator experience at the college level.
But, he was the one coach the Razorbacks’ power brokers could agree on that would accept the most challenging head coaching job in the SEC.
Pittman shared preseason coach-speak with WholeHogSports.com on the scene, overlooking a menu that in addition to mudcat features frog legs, okra and homemade fried pie.
“We don’t take reps at practice — these are game situations to us,” Pittman said, determined to set a tone for a program that’s at its lowest point in 127 years of Razorback football.
“Every play has to be like it’s going to be in the football game.”
Pittman can only hope the results are different than the recent Arkansas contests.
The Hogs coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons, losers of 19 straight SEC games dating back to a 38-37 win over Ole Miss in 2017.
The Razorbacks haven’t won a home game against an SEC opponent since shocking then-No. 10 ranked Florida, 31-10, on Nov. 5, 2016. The win came amid a 7-6 campaign in Bret Bielema’s penultimate season at the helm.
So now it’s on Pittman, with help from former Missouri head coach and current Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom, to somehow get the Razorbacks turned around.
Pittman, like his former boss Kirby Smart, has appealed to his players’ pride and sense of duty to give maximum effort.
“If we have our fans come to the game and they leave, what do you want them to say about us?” Pittman said, per the WholeHogSports.com report.
“It would be execution, it would physical, how hard we play, how disciplined we are — I didn’t say it, (the players) did.
“We’re trying to breed confidence in our team, but the fundamental, sound values in your program are what get us to be able to compete with Georgia; that’s running to the ball, tackling, blocking, physicalness, discipline.”
The word that’s missing — in Pittman’s speeches as well as the reality of Arkansas football — is “talent.”
Here’s a look at the past five recruiting classes, that make up the players on the roster, and where they ranked among SEC teams (national rank in parenthesis):
2016: 9th (23rd)
2017: 10th (27th)
2018: 14th (45th)
2019: 10th (23rd)
2020: 11th (30th)
It doesn’t and won’t do Pittman any good to belabor the point, but Arkansas is a very overmatched program that appears in dire straits regardless of who stands on the sideline.
There’s plenty of good tradition, but the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC in 2012 has taken bite out of Arkansas.
Prior to the Aggies’ and Tigers’ entry Arkansas was among the closest gateways to the SEC for players from talent-rich Texas who wanted to compete at the highest level.
Putting that into further perspective, Banner Society data on most 2020 blue-chip recruits per state showed only Florida (59) produced more 4- and 5-star talent than Texas (54), ahead of Georgia (36) and California (30).
Arkansas produced fewer blue chip FBS prospects than any other SEC state, resting in a six-way tie for 28th in the nation with just 2.
Cookies and comfort
Can Pittman’s charisma and charm turn it around?
The warm plate of cookies Pittman’s wife, Jamie, set up for his in-home job interview with Arkansas the day after Georgia’s 37-10 loss in the SEC title game helped him land the Hogs’ gig.
But can cookies and comfort convince top-notch recruits to set up shop in an area known best known as Wal-Mart’s headquarters?
Could anything less than the $524 billion wholesale retailer going all-in on future Name-Image-Likeness endorsement deals — rules permitting, of course, with NIL passage seemingly inevitable — lure stars to Northwest Arkansas to pursue their NFL dreams?
The 58-year-old Pittman, who has coached at 10 FBS schools, is being paid $3 million a year to boldly state “I really believe that Arkansas is the greatest job in the country,” which he did on the SEC Network.
There’s much to be said for opportunities being what you make of them, and Pittman has been here before with the Razorbacks as part of Bielema’s staff from 2013-2015.
Pittman, working on an offense staff headed by Jim Chaney, saw Arkansas improve from 0-8 in the SEC in 2013, to 2-6 in 2014 and then 5-3 in 2015.
Smart was obviously impressed. He hired Chaney and Pittman to his first Georgia staff in 2016 to help build the Bulldogs into national championship contenders.
Chaney cashed in his Georgia stock to double his salary and become a part of Jeremy Pruitt’s rebuilding project at Tennessee after the 2018 season.
Pittman fulfilled his ambition to become a head coach and secure his retirement with the accompanying head coaching salary at Arkansas last December.
Chips on the table
The so-called “Pit Boss” will play his cards on the table against the stacked Georgia football roster next Saturday.
Arkansas transfers like QB Feleipe Franks and RB Rakeem Boyd face the tall (impossible?) task of finding success against a Georgia defense that returns 80 percent of the production from a unit that led the nation last year in scoring defense and rushing defense.
A linebacker named “Bumper Pool” is one of six returning starters on a defense that must force turnovers to give the Razorbacks any hope.
Georgia is expected to put redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis under center of a completely made-over offense, with Pittman having great knowledge of the personnel.
The Bulldogs are more than a three-touchdown favorite, and it would likely be more if pass-happy redshirt sophomore JT Daniels (knee) were projected under center.
But if anyone deserves a break, it’s Pittman.
Particularly after the SEC office saddled him and his Hogs with what Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek referred to as “the most challenging schedule in the history of college football.”
A considerably more winnable game awaits the Razorbacks in Week Two, at Mississippi State.
A considerably more losable game awaits Georgia back in Athens in Week Two back in a socially-distanced Sanford Stadium.
It wouldn’t be surprising the Razorbacks and the Bulldogs have game plans inclined to keep their play books limited and the clock running on Saturday.
Pittman, like Smart, will be judged more on how he finishes this season than how he starts it.
“Our goal, in all honesty, is to make the people of Arkansas proud of Arkansas football. Because this is a proud damn state.”
— The Hog Pod (@thehogpod) December 9, 2019
Sam Pittman’s challenge
1) .167, 2019 (2-10)
1) .167, 2018 (2-10)
2) .200, 1950 (2-8)
2) .200, 1952 (2-8)
4) .222, 1932 (1-6-2)
4) .222, 1943 (2-7)
6) .250, 1905 (2-6)
6) .250, 1938 (2-7-1)
6) .250, 2013 (3-9)
9) .273, 1990 (3-8)
Georgia football preseason
Why Georgia should start D’Wan Mathis