LOS ANGELES – The whole thing started in the offensive line room. Sam Pittman didn’t realize he said “yessir” a lot. But others did. Then a Georgia staffer thought they would capitalize on it.
Justin Fields, the 5-star quarterback, was preparing to commit, so a recruiting staffer suggested they record Pittman doing his “yessir” into a camera and share it with the world. Pittman, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’ll look like a fool,’ ” Pittman said.
The staffer persisted, pointing to some pompoms in Pittman’s office, which had been left by the sister of a recruit. Pittman sighed.
“So I did it. And looked like a fool,” Pittman said. “But kids like it, so that’s all that matters.”
It wasn’t expected when Pittman was hired by Georgia two years ago that he would record viral social media messages. It was expected, when he signed a lucrative three-year deal, that he would turn around Georgia’s struggling offensive line.
It took a year, but it happened, and it’s a big reason Georgia finds itself in the Rose Bowl, 2 wins from a national championship. At Rose Bowl media day, the laid-back Pittman reflected on the last two years, from his departure from Arkansas to how the Georgia line turned it around.
Last year, despite three seniors in the starting lineup, Georgia struggled to open holes, and the offense struggled as a result. This year, with a true freshman and a redshirt freshman starting, Pittman’s group still saw marked improvement. What happened?
“They got more and more confidence about what they’re doing,” Pittman said. “They started telling what they can do instead of what they can’t do. They started believing it. And, again, I think we had the right guys in the right positions. And we had more competition this year than we did last year, and that’s going to be more amped up next year.
“The character. They’ve got a little dog in them, a little fight in them, that makes them want to excel.”
— Coach Sam Pittman (@CoachSamPittman) December 20, 2017
Pittman is known as one of the top O-line coaches in college football. It was why Kirby Smart wanted him and convinced his administration to dole out a three-year contract at $650,000 annually, unheard of at the time for a position coach. But why did Pittman, who was with Arkansas, make the jump to join a rookie coach?
“You saw all the success they had at Alabama. I wanted to be around a young, energetic guy,” Pittman said.
Recruiting was a consideration, too.
“I knew you could recruit in Georgia,” Pittman said. “At Arkansas we went to California, to Florida, to Minnesota, to Colorado, and here you can go to Atlanta. So I figured that we could eventually develop a good offensive line here at the university because a) we are the University of Georgia and b) Georgia is such a rich state in athletes that we could stay in the state and hopefully get them but get who we needed to win.”
But Pittman’s move left some ill feelings. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema made his bitterness clear, claiming Pittman had assured him he’d never leave so he didn’t need a non-compete clause in his contract. Bielema also said he took the O-linemen to Pittman’s house to make him tell them personally he was leaving for Georgia, a claim that Pittman later disputed.
Bielema replaced Pittman with Kurt Anderson, who had been with the Buffalo Bills, and in the process of praising him at SEC Media Days last year, Bielema took a swipe at Pittman.
“The thing Sam was great in, we’ve been trying to continue those forward. The areas he might have been a little weak in – I wanted a great technician, I wanted someone to really talk about pad level – so I wanted an NFL coach,” Bielema said.
Bielema has since been fired, after Arkansas’ fortunes took a downward turn. Pittman was asked Friday if he and Bielema are good now.
“I think when you’re mad at somebody and disappointed, yeah, we’re good,” Pittman said. “I understand some of the things that he said. I get it.”
It was also hard leaving his players at Arkansas. Hard. Terrible. Awful. Difficult. Those were the words Pittman used in successive sentences to describe leaving the players he had recruited and coached at Arkansas for three years.
“But I just felt like this was where I was supposed to be,” Pittman said. “Whether I was right or wrong, I don’t know, but it feels good right now.”
The upshot: reuniting with Jim Chaney, his offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Tennessee and a good friend. Now that Georgia’s offense has turned it around, Pittman said he is happy Chaney is getting credit.
“Last year he took a lot of heat because we couldn’t block ’em,” Pittman said. “I’m glad this year he’s getting his due as being an offensive coordinator because we’re blocking a little bit better. He’s a good coordinator and a good friend.”
Now comes the Rose Bowl, where the opponent happens to be Oklahoma, the team of Pittman’s youth. He grew up in the Sooner State.
“I was born and raised a Sooner fan – and still am,” Pittman said. “It’s been a fun situation. But bottom line is it what it is, especially on Monday.”