As a former walk-on who had already played under two different coaching regimes at Arkansas, Morgan did his best to tune out the daily chatter. Then he got word that Arkansas was hiring Sam Pittman, and Morgan’s phone immediately blew up with calls from his older brother, Drew, and other former Arkansas players who played there when Pittman was the Hogs’ offensive line coach.
“They all said the same thing, that ‘you just got the best hire in the nation. He’s not flashy and not one who’s going to come in and blow smoke up your butt, but he’s going to be the one who works harder than every single person who was on that list,'” Morgan recounted. “That’s all I wanted to hear, and that’s what we needed in a head coach. He’s not worried about being flashy or what’s on social media.
“I’d say we chose the right guy.”
Four games into Pittman’s initial foray into the collegiate head-coaching ranks, he’s 2-2 at a place that had lost 19 consecutive SEC games before he arrived. And he’s doing it amid the challenges of a COVID-19 pandemic in which he and his staff had no spring practice with their new players and had to build relationships this summer via Zoom.
And as a bonus, at least for Hog fans, both of Pittman’s wins this season came against coaches whom Arkansas interviewed and met with prior to hiring him — Mississippi State’s Mike Leach and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin. The Hogs also met with Eliah Drinkwitz, who’s in his first season as head coach at Missouri, another school that appears annually on Arkansas’ schedule.
“It’s very public who we talked to about the job, but Sam wasn’t scared of what he was walking into here at the University of Arkansas,” said Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who also talked to NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders about the job.
“Sam didn’t care what our roster looked like. He didn’t care how many games we had won over the last three years. He just wanted to be the head football coach at the University of Arkansas, and he has worked tirelessly to make sure this team is going to be successful.”
A self-described old offensive line coach, Pittman is refreshingly honest and equally humble.
“You’re not going to have a career offensive line coach as the No. 1 guy on your list. You’re just not, and I get that,” said Pittman, who was the Hogs’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach from 2013 to 2015 before joining Kirby Smart on Georgia’s staff.
“I just wanted the job. I didn’t care if I was 100th on the list or first.”
There’s no mistaking Pittman’s stamp on the program heading into Saturday’s contest at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). The Hogs have not allowed more than three touchdowns on defense in any of their four games this season. They’ve been efficient on offense with Florida transfer Feleipe Franks being a steadying presence at quarterback, and they rank eighth nationally in turnover margin at plus-six.
Yurachek doesn’t think it’s any coincidence that the decline of the Arkansas program started about the time Pittman left to go to Georgia.
“Go back and look at some of the offensive lines Sam coached when he was here,” Yurachek said.
Many of those offensive linemen, a few still playing in the NFL, were leading the charge for Pittman to get the job last December. Travis Swanson, Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow were among those taking to social media or other outlets to endorse Pittman.
“Coach Pittman is going to get the maximum out of every one of his players because his players are going to play their absolute heart out because they know how much their head coach cares for them, or in our instance, how much our O-line coach cared about us,” said Ragnow, in his third season with the Detroit Lions. “That’s what you’re seeing now at Arkansas, every player playing lights out — walk-ons, players that aren’t five-star recruits like you see in the SEC, everybody.
“He’s going to simplify it and make sure you’re the most confident and most excited player on the field.”
Ragnow, a first-round NFL draft pick by the Lions in 2018, said he has never been around a coach who connects and relates to his players the way Pittman does. In fact, it was Pittman who helped Ragnow get through his father’s death from a heart attack during Ragnow’s junior season.
And that was after Pittman had already left to coach at Georgia.
“Coach Pittman was one of the first people who called me after my dad died, and he consistently called me,” Ragnow said. “There were a lot of nights through that fall where there wasn’t a lot of sleeping, a lot of struggles and a lot of late phone calls with Coach Pittman even though he was at the University of Georgia. He was always there, and he’s that way with all of his players.”
The 58-year-old Pittman started his coaching career in 1987 as a high school head coach in Princeton, Missouri. In putting together his staff at Arkansas, he wanted to make sure he hired a former head coach from the Power 5 ranks. One of the first two hires he made was former Missouri head coach Barry Odom as the Hogs’ defensive coordinator. The very first hire was offensive line coach Brad Davis.
“Whenever I hung up the phone from talking to Brad, I called Barry,” Pittman said. “I’ve known Barry for a long time. He actually offered me his coordinator job at Missouri when I was at Georgia, and we’ve always wanted to coach together.”
The Hogs’ defense under Odom has been one of the most improved units in the country. It’s fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (25.5 points per game), and that’s after finishing last in the SEC and 124th nationally a year ago (36.8 points per game). Arkansas has forced 13 turnovers in four games and leads the country with an average of 3.25 forced turnovers per game. The Hogs also lead the country with 10 interceptions, including six in the 33-21 win over Ole Miss, two of those returned for touchdowns.
And on offense, first-year coordinator Kendal Briles has helped Franks play some of the most consistent football of his career. Franks has thrown eight touchdown passes and three interceptions while completing 64.1% of his passes and averaging 243.5 yards per game. Pittman has said that Franks has allowed Arkansas to build a program because he’s been so steady, making quarterback — the most important position on the field — an area the Hogs’ staff hasn’t had to worry about.
“Barry is the head coach of the defense. Kendal runs the offense and Scott [Fountain] runs the special teams, and I don’t know what I do,” Pittman joked. “But it’s been fun.”
The Hogs have won two more SEC games in four weeks under Pittman than they did in the past 2½ seasons combined, and they could easily be 3-1 if not for a blown call in the 30-28 loss at Auburn. But Pittman, the consummate no-excuses guy, isn’t going to start whining now just because the Hogs got a bad whistle on the Plains.
“In life, you can only control what you can control,” Pittman said. “The woes of COVID, the call at Auburn … all those things. If you talk about it, you should be able to change it. Otherwise, there’s no reason to talk about it.”
In the win over Ole Miss, Arkansas started three former walk-ons and one current walk-on. That current walk-on, redshirt freshman Hudson Clark, intercepted three passes against the Rebels, and Pittman said Clark would be placed on scholarship in January.
Morgan, who was named the Chuck Bednarik National Player of the Week after recording 19 tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown in the win over Ole Miss, said Pittman has healed the past wounds within the program with his brutally honest approach.
“This is the closest we’ve ever been,” Morgan said. “There aren’t little cliques forming. Everybody has each other’s back, and it starts with Coach Pittman. He doesn’t value anybody more than anybody else. Our senior captains aren’t valued any more than our freshman walk-ons. He sets that standard and we all bought in, and it shows on the field.”
So much so that Morgan said he would consider coming back for another season next year now that the NCAA is allowing all players to have an added year of eligibility given the COVID-19 landscape. Pittman mentioned the possibility recently to Morgan, whose only FBS offer coming out of high school was to Air Force.
“I don’t know. Let me think about it. I’ve never been recruited before and kinda like it,” Morgan said jokingly to Pittman.
It’s that kind of vibe around this team that has been infectious, and as Pittman notes, has created a little buzz in the state of Arkansas, both with fans and recruits.
“I wanted to have a season this year that we could give the recruits in the state of Arkansas a reason to go to the University of Arkansas,” Pittman said. “That’s what I wanted, for them to come here not because their mom and dad have been Razorback fans, but because this is a great place and they’re proud to come here.
“We’re headed that way. We’ve only won two ballgames, but we’re trying to give the kids in our state a reason to go to Arkansas. That’s really what this season was about.”
And as Yurachek watches one of the best turnarounds in college football play out on the field, he keeps drifting back to that Sunday night right after the SEC championship game a year ago when he offered the job to Pittman.
Pittman was sitting at his kitchen table in Athens, Georgia, along with his wife, Jamie, when Yurachek looked Pittman in the eye and told him that he wanted him to be the Hogs’ head coach.
Tears immediately started streaming down Pittman’s face and then Jamie’s face.
“I just went limp,” Pittman said.
The neatest part for Yurachek is that Pittman — who several years ago decided that he wanted to retire to Hot Springs, Arkansas — never even asked what he was going to be paid.
“When Sam and Jamie got done embracing, I said, ‘Do you even care what I’m going to pay you?'” Yurachek recounted. “This was his dream job.”
That next day, Yurachek introduced Pittman to the Arkansas players, a group that had suffered through a 19-game SEC losing streak, not to mention embarrassing losses to San Jose State, Western Kentucky and North Texas, and a group that was looking for somebody — anybody — to believe in them.
Pittman’s first words to his players said it all: “You guys didn’t choose me. I chose you.”
Ragnow is convinced that the best is yet to come, especially once Pittman is able to put down roots on the recruiting trail.
“We’re seeing the success this early, and I’m even more excited about the future,” Ragnow said. “All Hogs are.”