ATHENS — When I think of Sam Pittman, I’m reminded of a little tiny Yorkshire terrier named Jax.
Not that Georgia’s beloved offensive line coach looks anything like a Yorkie. Hardly. If ever an individual personified the University of Georgia’s English bulldog mascot, it’d be the heavy-set, round-faced Pittman. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
Jax is the family dog of Isaiah Wilson. I remember encountering the fiercely protective Jax on a visit with Wilson and his family two years ago for a Next Generation piece I was writing. Like a lot of terriers, Jax was cute as could be, but he bared teeth and came after folks who dared darken the door of the Wilson home on 99th Street in Brooklyn. To this I can personally attest.
But by the end of Wilson’s recruitment as the No. 5 offensive tackle in America in 2017, little ol’ Jax barely paid Pittman any attention when he came to the door. That’s what the Wilsons told me. Pittman had become so familiar from all the in-home visits, and was so attentive to Jax, that he just won over the furry fellow.
Surely we have all taken notice by now, Pittman has a way of winning over mean dogs. Tate Ratledge is the latest example.
Georgia landed Ratledge, a 6-foot-6, 311-pound tackle, on Monday when the 4-star prospect from The Darlington School in Rome gave the Bulldogs’ his verbal commitment. He joins 5-star tackle Broderick Jones and 4-star guard Akinola Ogunbiyi as commitments in UGA’s rapidly growing Class of 2020.
Pittman was the recruiter of record for all three players, as he is for all offensive linemen considering Georgia these days. And lately that tends to be the most elite of the elite.
Ratledge’s pledge is non-binding, of course, but assuming he follows through and signs with the Bulldogs as expected, he will become the 19th offensive lineman to decide to play for Pittman at Georgia. You can probably expect one or two more before the final signing day next February, Jeff Sentell tells us.
Now we all know that recruits sign with the school and not the position or head coach. But it’d be naive to say that’s not a factor, if not the most important one. Accordingly, to a man, these offensive linemen all cite playing for Pittman as pivotal to their decisions. That went for Ratledge as well.
“It was probably Coach Pittman, first and foremost,” he told reporters after his announcement Monday. “I’ve built a relationship with him over three years that just got better and better. That’s when I realized I would be most comfortable being around him and the people in his room.”
The “people in his room” means Georgia’s other offensive linemen.
Funny, but Wilson told me almost the exactly same thing sitting in his living room in Brooklyn nearly three years ago.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say playing time played a role in my decision,” Wilson said then. “But a lot of it had to with Coach Pittman. He coaches his players hard but does it in a loving way.”
That’s a common sentiment that one hears from Pittman’s charges. They love him and they’re fiercely loyal to him, but it’s not just because they have awesome cookouts at the pool behind his house (and they do, by the way).
Pittman also has the difficult task of managing egos and expectations. After all, when you’re recruiting 5- and 4-star recruits in significant number every year, it’s impossible for all of them to start and often quite of few of them don’t play at all.
By my count, Pittman has landed a total of 19 offensive linemen since arriving at Georgia. Fifteen of those — or nearly 80 percent — were 5- or 4-star prospects. Five were consensus 5-star rated via the 247Sports.com composite.
Only one of those offensive linemen is no longer with the program. Former 3-star signee Chris Barnes is now at UT-Chattanooga. Only one other of those signees is no longer playing offensive line. That’d be former 4-star prospect Netori Johnson, who was switched to defensive line late last fall.
Otherwise, they’re all still suiting up for the Bulldogs. And that offensive line is a big reason Georgia is carrying a Top 5 ranking into this coming season. All five of the starters coming out of spring practice were recruited to UGA by Pittman. Interestingly, only Wilson at right tackle was a 5-star. The others are right guard Ben Cleveland (2016 4-star), left guard Solomon Kindley (2016 3-star), left tackle Andrew Thomas (2017 4-star) and center Trey Hill (2018 4-star).
Which is not to say that Georgia is not getting what it expected out of its 5-star acquisitions. Sophomore Cade Mays has started and everybody expects Jamaree Salyer — currently the Bulldogs’ sixth man — will eventually.
This is nothing new, mind you. I first learned of the legend of Sam Pittman when I traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., in the spring of 2016. That’s before any of us knew all that much about Kirby Smart or this staff he was assembling in Athens. But in interviewing those fine folks up in Tar Heel country, I found out that they were still talking about last offensive line he assembled at UNC. Six of them — not just the starting five — wound up on NFL rosters.
Remember how mad Bret Bielema was when Smart plucked away Pittman from his staff at Arkansas that first year? Well, there was a reason for that. Pittman was bringing the same pedigree of offensive linemen to Fayetteville, such as Frank Ragnow, drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions in 2018.
The difference now at Georgia is the number of elite linemen Pittman is bringing in at a time. That’s why Pittman always ends up with the titles of assistant or associate head coach wherever he coaches. Smart made him associate head coach of the Bulldogs after last season and gave him a raise and salary to match.
— Coach Sam Pittman (@CoachSamPittman) May 13, 2019
Now Georgia really has something going with this former O-lineman from tiny Pittsburg State in Kansas. Georgia fans nowadays can’t wait to see Pittman’s signature “Yessir!” videos go up on social media soon after the latest blue-chip offensive lineman announces his plans to become a bulldog.
Right on cue, Pittman posted one on Monday, just a few minutes after Ratledge made his announcement public. That sent the Dawgs everywhere a-barking again, maybe even a little Yorkie up in Brooklyn.