Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek has told the story that when he offered Sam Pittman the job as Razorbacks head coach, Pittman did not even ask about salary. He just accepted on the spot.
It has been fortunate for the Razorbacks that he did.
What Pittman, a career assistant who had never even reached the coordinator ranks at a major program, has achieved in his first head job has been astounding. He has the Razorbacks ranked No. 16 in the nation heading into a CBS showdown with No. 7 Texas A&M on Saturday. And he remains as humble as he’s been his whole career.
“I’m just the guy, the head coach. Everybody else does all the work,” Pittman said this week. “I’ve thought about us being ranked No. 16. I’d be lying if (I said) I hadn’t. We’re proud of that. But there’s not a whole lot of time to think about it. The biggest thing I’m proud of is the state of Arkansas is proud of this football team. That means a lot to me, and the players and the coaches.”
Included in Arkansas’ 3-0 start is a 40-21 dismantling of Texas in Week 2 that indeed had the state buzzing. Arkansas pushed around its former Southwest Conference and future Southeastern Conference neighbor for 333 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
After the game, Arkansas earned a $100,000 fine for allowing fans to rush the field at Razorback Stadium, one that likely didn’t cause too much distress in the Arkansas athletic department.
The Pittman hire was not exactly universally embraced when it was announced in December 2019 after the search saw multiple coaches pull out. Dennis Dodd, the top college football writer at CBSSports.com, graded it a C-minus. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic handed out a C, while Al.com senior sports editor and SEC Insider John Talty issued this verdict:
There always has to be one Power 5 school that makes the worst hire of the cycle. Arkansas is FAR and away the leader in the pack for that award already https://t.co/1aZnIWvzrz
— John Talty (@JTalty) December 9, 2019
Pittman’s resume did not scream “SEC head coach.” He played at Pittsburg (Kan.) State and then waited 35 years to lead a college program. He had spent the final eight of those years as an assistant in the SEC as an offensive line coach at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia before moving back to Fayetteville as the head man.
But Pittman quickly won over the fan base with his enthusiasm and energy, and he made two key hires — Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator and former Missouri coach Barry Odom as defensive coordinator. He hit on both counts.
Taking over a team with a 19-game SEC losing streak, and facing a first season that included no spring practice to implement new systems and a 10-game SEC schedule, the odds were long that Pittman would get off to a good start. Yet the Razorbacks won three SEC games under those circumstances, and they lost to Auburn by two, LSU by three and Missouri by two. In a season that figured to be another miserable run through the nation’s toughest conference, Pittman’s Razorbacks exceeded expectations.
Year 2 has been more of the same. A new quarterback was taking over for Feleipe Franks and Arkansas was picked to finish last in the West at SEC Media Days last summer. But three weeks in, Arkansas sits smack dab in the heart of the best division in the nation and is No. 8 in the nation in rushing at 282 yards per game.
Running backs Trelon Smith, Raheim Sanders, Dominique Johnson and AJ Green have all totaled at least 100 yards on the season and average at least 5.1 yards per carry. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson, who Pittman admitted this week was one of his preseason concerns due to his limited experience, is averaging 7.5 yards per carry with his bullish, 245-pound frame.
Arkansas will certainly have its hands full in Dallas with the Aggies, who have won nine straight in the series. But Arkansas enters with more than a puncher’s chance, which is a far cry from the preceding Chad Morris era that included losses to Western Kentucky, North Texas, Colorado State and San Jose State.
“They are loaded with talent,” Pittman said of Texas A&M. “Hopefully we can get healthy and go down there and put a good show on.”
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