Hunter Henry / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
It’s not insignificant that the day after Bret Bielema’s Arkansas football program lost a valued and trusted assistant coach that two Razorbacks earned All-American status from the most prestigious institution that hands out such awards.
On the heels of the news breaking Saturday that Sam Pittman had resigned as the Razorbacks offensive line coach to take a similar position on Kirby Smart’s nascent Georgia Bulldog staff, the Associated Press named tight end Hunter Henry and offensive guard Sebastian Tretola to its first- and second-team All-American squads respectively.
There are nearly a half dozen entities that name All-American teams, but today the AP, the world’s oldest and largest newsgathering service, offers the most respected version of the honor.
While center Travis Swanson, who is doing well in the NFL, made several All-American teams in 2013, Bielema’s first season at Arkansas, he didn’t receive AP honors. Plus, he was a holdover from Bobby Petrino’s regime. Swanson was a key performer at center for Petrino’s Sugar and Cotton bowl teams in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. But Henry and Tretola are basically products of Bielema’s program.
Tretola’s honor is not only significant for him, but also to the rest of Arkansas’ offensive linemen. It truly is an acknowledgement of their work together, because if all of them had not done their jobs well, Tretola would not have been honored.
Barry Lunney Jr. tutored Henry, who won the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, and Pittman coached Tretola. Under Pittman’s guidance, Tretola became a force to be reckoned with as an inside blocker on one the most highly regarded offensive lines in the country.
Tretola, who always had the natural ability, made strides as a Razorback after bouncing around from Nevada to Iowa Western Community College to finally the UA. Pittman obviously played a vital role in his development, but so did Ben Herbert, Arkansas’ strength and conditioning coach, who helped Tretola lose 50 pounds and reshape his body.
Of course, Bielema helped Tretola, too, by deciding to make the offensive line a cornerstone of his program and then promoting that fact every chance he got, including putting a photo of Arkansas’ starting offensive line on the cover of Arkansas’ media guide this season.
Remember, too, it was Bielema who not only designed but also called the play last season in which Tretola first caught the nation’s attention when he threw a touchdown pass on a fake field-goal attempt against Alabama-Birmingham. Unlike quarterbacks, backs and receivers, offensive linemen don’t have official statistics turned in for NCAA records, so a play like that was key in gaining Tretola some notoriety that no doubt played a role in him gaining a spot on the AP’s list.
Sebastian Tretola / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
I point this out not to downplay Pittman’s former role in Bielema’s program. That would be petty and revisionist. Pittman is a great coach, a fine recruiter and a good person. Phonies don’t garner the devotion that developed between Pittman and his offensive linemen. They don’t become the type of colleagues or employees that cause sorrow and even a bit of anger when they depart for another position. Pittman’s departure did hurt Bielema personally, and his departure from Arkansas is a loss.
However, nothing in football is done in a vacuum. Putting together a successful team is like fitting together a puzzle. It all has to mesh for it to work properly. Developing players is also a team process between the player, his position coach, his teammates, the strength staff, the training staff, the head coach and the other assistants. All of them add to the equation. It was no different with Arkansas’ offensive line the last three seasons.
I go back to what Razorback All-American basketball center Joe Kleine said in a great show of leadership following his senior season when Eddie Sutton exited Arkansas to “crawl” to Kentucky to become the Wildcats coach.
“No one person is greater than the program,” Kleine said.
If that applied to Eddie Sutton, it definitely applies to Sam Pittman.
Bielema has shown during the course of his career at Wisconsin and Arkansas that he knows how to make good hires. He didn’t just stumble upon Pittman. He’ll hire another solid assistant coach to replace Pittman, perhaps a better one.
The loss of Pittman, though, could play a role in the decision whether starting junior offensive tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper play their senior seasons at Arkansas. Both were recruited and obviously coached by Pittman. With the lure of the NFL in front of them, would they want to start over with another position coach?
Only Kirkland and Skipper can answer that question, and it’s doubtful they will do it before the Hogs play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2.
Bielema has submitted Kirkland’s name and resume to the NFL to be evaluated for the draft. There is a possibility he could do the same for Skipper, but only three underclassmen from a school can be submitted and Arkansas has used three.
Certainly both will have the chance to make a NFL team, but what they have to consider is whether playing another year with the Razorbacks will possibly improve their draft status enough to risk injury. Also, there is school to consider. How close are they to graduating, and how big of a goal is graduating to them?
While there is a NCAA dead period for recruiting most of the rest of the month, Bielema will have to reconnect with all of Arkansas’ offensive line recruits and commitments to reassure them of their position with the Razorbacks. He probably began that process before anyone outside the program knew Pittman had resigned.
It won’t be like starting over from the scratch, but ground would definitely be lost because Pittman was such a genuine person. Coaches sell themselves as much or more than their programs, and Pittman will likely begin selling Georgia to some of the same athletes he had been recruiting for Arkansas.
One thing Bielema can sell to his offensive line recruits that he hadn’t been able to do before is that the Hogs have had two All-American offensive linemen in Swanson and Tretola in and an All-American tight end in just the last three seasons. That’s impressive.
Bielema can also mention that the Razorbacks had as many All-American selections on the first and second AP teams this season as any SEC school other than Alabama, which placed four on the AP’s first two squads.
Pittman’s resignation, particularly to go to another SEC program, is a downer, but Arkansas’ program is still on the uptick. The two All-American selections on Sunday is proof of that.