How Arkansas coach Sam Pittman engineered school soccer’s most inconceivable turnaround

Grant Morgan, Arkansas’ fifth-year senior linebacker, heard all of the “flashy names” throughout the Razorbacks’ teaching search final December.

As a former walk-on who had already performed beneath two totally different teaching regimes at Arkansas, Morgan did his finest to tune out the every day chatter. Then he obtained phrase that Arkansas was hiring Sam Pittman, and Morgan’s telephone instantly blew up with calls from his older brother, Drew, and different former Arkansas gamers who performed there when Pittman was the Hogs’ offensive line coach.

“All of them stated the identical factor, that ‘you simply obtained the most effective rent within the nation. He isn’t flashy and never one who’s going to return in and blow smoke up your butt, however he will be the one who works more durable than each single one who was on that record,'” Morgan recounted. “That is all I wished to listen to, and that is what we would have liked in a head coach. He isn’t fearful about being flashy or what’s on social media.

“I would say we selected the fitting man.”

4 video games into Pittman’s preliminary foray into the collegiate head-coaching ranks, he is 2-2 at a spot that had misplaced 19 consecutive SEC video games earlier than he arrived. And he is doing it amid the challenges of a COVID-19 pandemic by which he and his workers had no spring apply with their new gamers and needed to construct relationships this summer time by way of Zoom.

And as a bonus, at the very least for Hog followers, each of Pittman’s wins this season got here in opposition to coaches whom Arkansas interviewed and met with previous to hiring him — Mississippi State’s Mike Leach and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin. The Hogs additionally met with Eliah Drinkwitz, who’s in his first season as head coach at Missouri, one other college that seems yearly on Arkansas’ schedule.

“It is very public who we talked to in regards to the job, however Sam wasn’t terrified of what he was strolling into right here on the College of Arkansas,” stated Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who additionally talked to NFL Corridor of Famer Deion Sanders in regards to the job.

“Sam did not care what our roster seemed like. He did not care what number of video games we had received over the past three years. He simply wished to be the top soccer coach on the College of Arkansas, and he has labored tirelessly to ensure this staff goes to achieve success.”

A self-described previous offensive line coach, Pittman is refreshingly sincere and equally humble.

“You are not going to have a profession offensive line coach because the No. 1 man in your record. You are simply not, and I get that,” stated Pittman, who was the Hogs’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach from 2013 to 2015 earlier than becoming a member of Kirby Good on Georgia’s workers.

“I simply wished the job. I did not care if I used to be one centesimal on the record or first.”

There isn’t any mistaking Pittman’s stamp on this system heading into Saturday’s contest at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Community). The Hogs haven’t allowed greater than three touchdowns on protection in any of their 4 video games this season. They have been environment friendly on offense with Florida switch Feleipe Franks being a steadying presence at quarterback, and so they rank eighth nationally in turnover margin at plus-six.

Yurachek would not assume it is any coincidence that the decline of the Arkansas program began in regards to the time Pittman left to go to Georgia.

“Return and take a look at among the offensive traces Sam coached when he was right here,” Yurachek stated.

Lots of these offensive linemen, a couple of nonetheless taking part in within the NFL, have been main the cost for Pittman to get the job final December. Travis Swanson, Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow have been amongst these taking to social media or different shops to endorse Pittman.

“Coach Pittman goes to get the utmost out of each one among his gamers as a result of his gamers are going to play their absolute coronary heart out as a result of they understand how a lot their head coach cares for them, or in our occasion, how a lot our O-line coach cared about us,” stated Ragnow, in his third season with the Detroit Lions. “That is what you are seeing now at Arkansas, each participant taking part in lights out — walk-ons, gamers that are not five-star recruits such as you see within the SEC, all people.

“He’ll simplify it and be sure to’re probably the most assured and most excited participant on the sphere.”

Ragnow, a first-round NFL draft choose by the Lions in 2018, stated he has by no means been round a coach who connects and pertains to his gamers the way in which Pittman does. Actually, it was Pittman who helped Ragnow get by his father’s dying from a coronary heart assault throughout Ragnow’s junior season.

And that was after Pittman had already left to educate at Georgia.

“Coach Pittman was one of many first individuals who referred to as me after my dad died, and he persistently referred to as me,” Ragnow stated. “There have been a number of nights by that fall the place there wasn’t a number of sleeping, a number of struggles and a number of late telephone calls with Coach Pittman though he was on the College of Georgia. He was at all times there, and he is that means with all of his gamers.”

The 58-year-old Pittman began his teaching profession in 1987 as a highschool head coach in Princeton, Missouri. In placing collectively his workers at Arkansas, he wished to ensure he employed a former head coach from the Energy 5 ranks. One of many first two hires he made was former Missouri head coach Barry Odom because the Hogs’ defensive coordinator. The very first rent was offensive line coach Brad Davis.

“At any time when I hung up the telephone from speaking to Brad, I referred to as Barry,” Pittman stated. “I’ve identified Barry for a very long time. He truly provided me his coordinator job at Missouri once I was at Georgia, and we have at all times wished to educate collectively.”

The Hogs’ protection beneath Odom has been one of the vital improved items within the nation. It is fourth within the SEC in scoring protection (25.5 factors per sport), and that is after ending final within the SEC and 124th nationally a 12 months in the past (36.8 factors per sport). Arkansas has pressured 13 turnovers in 4 video games and leads the nation with a median of three.25 pressured turnovers per sport. The Hogs additionally lead the nation with 10 interceptions, together with six within the 33-21 win over Ole Miss, two of these returned for touchdowns.

And on offense, first-year coordinator Kendal Briles has helped Franks play among the most constant soccer of his profession. Franks has thrown eight landing passes and three interceptions whereas finishing 64.1% of his passes and averaging 243.5 yards per sport. Pittman has stated that Franks has allowed Arkansas to construct a program as a result of he is been so regular, making quarterback — crucial place on the sphere — an space the Hogs’ workers hasn’t needed to fear about.

“Barry is the top coach of the protection. Kendal runs the offense and Scott [Fountain] runs the particular groups, and I do not know what I do,” Pittman joked. “However it’s been enjoyable.”

The Hogs have received two extra SEC video games in 4 weeks beneath Pittman than they did prior to now 2½ seasons mixed, and so they might simply be 3-1 if not for a blown name within the 30-28 loss at Auburn. However Pittman, the consummate no-excuses man, is not going to start out whining now simply because the Hogs obtained a nasty whistle on the Plains.

“In life, you possibly can solely management what you possibly can management,” Pittman stated. “The woes of COVID, the decision at Auburn … all these issues. In case you speak about it, you need to have the ability to change it. In any other case, there isn’t any purpose to speak about it.”

Within the win over Ole Miss, Arkansas began three former walk-ons and one present walk-on. That present walk-on, redshirt freshman Hudson Clark, intercepted three passes in opposition to the Rebels, and Pittman stated Clark could be positioned on scholarship in January.

Morgan, who was named the Chuck Bednarik Nationwide Participant of the Week after recording 19 tackles and returning an interception for a landing within the win over Ole Miss, stated Pittman has healed the previous wounds inside the program along with his brutally sincere strategy.

“That is the closest we have ever been,” Morgan stated. “There aren’t little cliques forming. All people has one another’s again, and it begins with Coach Pittman. He would not worth anyone greater than anyone else. Our senior captains aren’t valued any greater than our freshman walk-ons. He units that commonplace and all of us purchased in, and it exhibits on the sphere.”

A lot in order that Morgan stated he would take into account coming again for an additional season subsequent 12 months now that the NCAA is permitting all gamers to have an added 12 months of eligibility given the COVID-19 panorama. Pittman talked about the chance just lately to Morgan, whose solely FBS provide popping out of highschool was to Air Drive.

“I do not know. Let me give it some thought. I’ve by no means been recruited earlier than and kinda prefer it,” Morgan stated jokingly to Pittman.

It is that sort of vibe round this staff that has been infectious, and as Pittman notes, has created a bit buzz within the state of Arkansas, each with followers and recruits.

“I wished to have a season this 12 months that we might give the recruits within the state of Arkansas a purpose to go to the College of Arkansas,” Pittman stated. “That is what I wished, for them to return right here not as a result of their mother and pop have been Razorback followers, however as a result of it is a great spot and so they’re proud to return right here.

“We’re headed that means. We have solely received two ballgames, however we’re making an attempt to provide the children in our state a purpose to go to Arkansas. That is actually what this season was about.”

And as Yurachek watches among the finest turnarounds in school soccer play out on the sphere, he retains drifting again to that Sunday night time proper after the SEC championship sport a 12 months in the past when he provided the job to Pittman.

Pittman was sitting at his kitchen desk in Athens, Georgia, alongside along with his spouse, Jamie, when Yurachek seemed Pittman within the eye and instructed him that he wished him to be the Hogs’ head coach.

Tears instantly began streaming down Pittman’s face after which Jamie’s face.

“I simply went limp,” Pittman stated.

The smartest half for Yurachek is that Pittman — who a number of years in the past determined that he wished to retire to Sizzling Springs, Arkansas — by no means even requested what he was going to be paid.

“When Sam and Jamie obtained completed embracing, I stated, ‘Do you even care what I’ll pay you?'” Yurachek recounted. “This was his dream job.”

That subsequent day, Yurachek launched Pittman to the Arkansas gamers, a gaggle that had suffered by a 19-game SEC shedding streak, to not point out embarrassing losses to San Jose State, Western Kentucky and North Texas, and a gaggle that was in search of someone — anyone — to consider in them.

Pittman’s first phrases to his gamers stated all of it: “You guys did not select me. I selected you.”

Ragnow is satisfied that the most effective is but to return, particularly as soon as Pittman is ready to put down roots on the recruiting path.

“We’re seeing the success this early, and I am much more excited in regards to the future,” Ragnow stated. “All Hogs are.”

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