In December 2019, the southeastern part of the United States was the epicenter of college football coaching madness.
The most exciting job was Florida State, a tradition-rich program that quickly got rid of Willie Taggart but was close to winning a national title under Jimbo Fisher. There were scheming jobs open at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, both of which hit the reset button after their fan bases consulted with Matt Luke and Joe Moorhead, respectively. Even Missouri seemed like an attractive opportunity for someone to take the next step, as Barry Odom had done a decent job but got stuck around .500.
And then there was Arkansas, which was considered the Insane Coaching Carousel Prize. Of course, the Hogs had money, facilities, and a passionate fan base. But after only two years of Chad Morris, the Razorbacks looked like one of the most desperate teams in the country. Trying to rebuild in SEC West with Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn on the schedule every year seemed like a daunting proposition.
As Arkansas officials flew across the country to be rejected by the likes of Lane Kiffin and Eli Drinkwitz – who ended up taking on some of those other SEC jobs – Sam Pittman pulled every lever he could get into. the mix.
At 58, Pittman had never been a Division I head coach or coordinator. He was an offensive line coach and renowned recruiter, but wasn’t even really mentioned as a candidate for any of the deserving openings. to be discussed. But now, just over a year after starting his tenure at Arkansas, he looks like one of the best coaching hires of the past decade.
Go figure it out.
After another terrific performance, this time beating No.5 Texas A&M 20-10, the No.18 Razorbacks are 4-0 and appear to be heading for the Top 10. More importantly, the way they are doing it with. defense, with the physique, with confidence and speed seems very real.
Are Arkansas a college football playoff contender? Probably not. We’ll learn a lot more about the Razorbacks’ position relative to true elite teams next Saturday when they go against No.2 Georgia.
But what Pittman did in a short period of time, the way he completely turned the energy around this program and coaxed the improvement of players who were beaten by everyone a few years ago, is a great role model. for admins who need to do coach hires – and, frankly, a warning for those of us who comment on them moments after they happen.
Pittman wasn’t a hot name on the coaching carousel. He did not have the kind of pedigree that most people look for to advance to top coaching positions. He is neither young, nor stylish, nor elegant, and he was not represented by one of the reputable agents who make their clients talk in these circles. In those articles that come out each season to note coach hires, Pittman didn’t really get a lot of A’s.
He just turned out to be a great head coach who managed to get a locker room full of downtrodden but talented players to buy, play really hard and improve a lot.
Even Arkansas cannot claim to have seen this coming. Track and Field Director Hunter Yurachek chased all the names Missouri and Mississippi schools were looking for, but couldn’t get them across the finish line. Literally the day before they moved to Pittman, Arkansas officials were hoping to attract Drinkwitz. In some ways, Pittman ended up with the job because they were tired of being told no.
But Pittman, who had been in Arkansas as an offensive line coach under Bret Bielema and who is from Oklahoma, saw the possibilities there. It’s worth remembering that prior to 2012, Arkansas had been one of the SEC’s most consistently good programs for a long time under Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino.
It’s not always easy in Arkansas because you have to go to Texas and other surrounding areas to find talent, but there is something to be said for being a program with no competition in other state. large collegiate or professional teams. Arkansas isn’t the largest state, but its people care deeply about the Razorbacks and almost unanimously support them.
And now, just two years after going winless in the SEC and losing to people like San Jose State, they have legitimate reasons to be excited.
In a game played annually at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium, Arkansas appeared to be on track to overtake Texas A&M with a 17-0 lead after just 16 minutes. Then massive 6-3, 245-pound quarterback KJ Jefferson left the game with a knee injury, the offense stalled and the Aggies came back in a touchdown before the fourth quarter.
But one of the best decisions Pittman made when he got the job was to hire Odom, the former Missouri coach, as the defensive coordinator. Odom may not have been a great head coach, but he’s one of the best at designing defenses and adapting throughout games.
Arkansas, which pretty much stifled Texas’ passing game a few weeks ago, did the same to the Aggies by limiting them to 272 total yards and just 151 assists.
Without Jefferson, Arkansas kept things fairly conservative – the Razorbacks only threw the ball 19 times on Saturday – but never let the game get out of hand. Arkansas were more physical than Texas A&M, played smarter than Texas A&M, and legitimately looked better than a Texas A&M team that hadn’t lost to anyone outside the Top 10 since Nov. 3, 2018.
A year ago, there were signs Pittman was on to something when Arkansas picked up early wins over Mississippi State and Ole Miss and played fairly competitively against Auburn and Texas A&M. Now, it looks like Arkansas got lucky in a hiring that really changes the program. And it turns out he’s a journeyman offensive line coach that no one else would have even designed to give the SEC a head coaching job.
It’s not just a great story, it’s a lesson for the entire industry.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College Football: Arkansas Starts 4-0 Under Coach They Didn’t Want