Is It Too Early To Talk About Sam Pittman For SEC COY?
On Oct. 3, Arkansas went on the road and beat Mississippi State 21-14 breaking a gut-wrenching 20-game SEC losing streak dating back to the 2017 season.
The week before Mississippi State had stunned LSU, the defending national champions (44-34), and thus Arkansas was given no shot against Mike Leach and the Bulldogs.
Needless to say, a lot of pain came to an end that night.
In a wild, emotional locker room head coach Sam Pittman, the former offensive line coach who so many doubted outside of the state but whom so many have embraced inside the state, conducted an experiment.
“Everybody was standing so I said if you didn’t play a snap, sit down. Only a few did,” said Pittman, when we talked by phone on Tuesday.
“Then I asked everybody who had practiced with the scout team to help us get ready and a bunch more stood up. Before it was all over everybody had stood up.”
The meaning of the exercise?
“Everybody in the room is important,” said Pittman.
Using that as a rallying cry for a football program that had hit rock bottom when he arrived last December, here is what Sam Pittman has done in his first four games as the head coach of the Hogs:
**--Arkansas opened the season at home against No. 4 Georgia and led 7-5 at halftime. The physically-superior Bulldogs eventually won 37-10 but it was an indicator that there would be no back-down from these Hogs.
**--After scoring 44 points and passing for over 600 yards the week before against LSU, Mississippi State could only manage 14 points against Arkansas. The Hogs picked off three passes from K.J. Costello.
**--On Oct. 10 Arkansas fell behind 17-0 at Auburn. The Hogs fought back to take a 28-27 lead with 5:29 left. An incorrect call by the officials, which the SEC later acknowledged, gave Auburn a chance to kick the winning (30-28) field goal with seven seconds left.
**--On Oct. 17 Ole Miss came to Fayetteville after hanging 647 yards and 48 points on Alabama’s defense the week before. Arkansas intercepted six passes from Matt Corral and won 33-21.
So the Hogs, who few people gave a chance of simply winning just one game in a brutal 10-game SEC schedule, are a bad officiating call from being 3-1.
And for the first time in a long time, the Arkansas fans can call the hogs with a smile.
“There is passion in every state but we are the only Power Five team in our state,” said Pittman. “The passion here is very, very, real.”
And we might as well put this on the table right now. If Arkansas can remain this competitive for the rest of the season and get within sniffing distance of a bowl, Pittman will be in the conversation for SEC Coach of the Year.
Only four chapters have been written thus far for this is a helluva story.
When Arkansas fired Chad Morris and began looking for a new head football coach for 2020, an old offensive line coach was not the way many fans wanted to go. They wanted Lane Kiffin or somebody like Lane Kiffin. They wanted a young, elite offensive mind.
“As an athletic director in the SEC an offensive line coach is not where you’re first focused on,” AD Hunter Yurachek told Andy Staples of The Athletic.
But here he is. He had fallen in love with Arkansas as an assistant in 2013-2015. He only left Fayetteville in 2016 because "working for Kirby Smart at Georgia was too good of an opportunity to pass up."
It turned out to be a great career move. He coached in three straight SEC championship games (winning one) and a national championship game. His recruiting muscles can been seen all up and down the current Georgia offensive line.
But there was no doubt about his answer when Yurachek offered him the job.
He and his wife, Jamie, always knew they would retire in Arkansas. This accelerated that timetable.
“Our heart has always been in Arkansas,” Pittman said.
In addition to keeping his roster pretty much intact, Pittman made two critical moves that gave him a chance of having some success in the first year.
After losing his job to Kyle Trask at Florida, quarterback Feleipe Franks was looking for a new home to play his final season. And Pittman wanted him.
“When I got here we had two quarterbacks on the board,” said Pittman. “We went out immediately to find someone to play right away.”
Franks was named a team captain and through four games this season has thrown for 975 yards and eight touchdowns. He has completed 64.1 percent of his passes. In the loss to Auburn he completed 22 of 30 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
“The fact that he was named team captain after no spring practice tells you everything you need to know about Feleipe,” said Pittman.
Signing Franks, said Pittman, “has given us the ability to build a program. He made us competitive immediately.”
The other important move was hiring his good friend Barry Odom as the defensive coordinator. In 2019 Odom was fired at Missouri, his alma mater, after a 25-25 record as head coach.
“He was the first guy that came to my mind but he was looking at some head coaching situations,” said Pittman. “But then he called me on a Friday morning and said “I’m on my way down.”
Under Odom the Arkansas defense has done it with players like walk-on Hudson Clark, who had three of those interceptions against Ole Miss, and linebacker Grant Morgan, a former walk-on, who had 19 tackles and a pick six against the Rebels.
Pittman and Odom go on walks daily to talk about football and life.
“He’s as good a person as you would ever want to meet,” said Pittman. “Having a head coach on our staff is invaluable. I don’t know where we would be without him.”
Now there is still a long way to go for Pittman and Arkansas. After an open date this Saturday, the Hogs have six games remaining: at Texas A&M, Tennessee at home, at Florida, LSU at home, at Missouri, and Alabama in Fayetteville.
And remember that when the SEC went to a 10-game conference-only schedule, Georgia and Florida were added their slate.
But the final record, while important, is secondary to the fact that after three long years in the football wilderness (8-28 the past three seasons), Arkansas can walk into any SEC stadium feeling that they at least have a chance.
For their part, the players have rallied behind an offensive line coach who turns 59 on November 28 and who keeps preaching the same simple message:
“Everybody in the room is important.”
By the way. Hudson Clark, the walk-on who intercepted three passes against Ole Miss, was put on scholarship by Pittman last Sunday