Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek has to feel better and better about his choice for the Razorbacks’ head football coach day by day.
Sure, nothing has happened on the field yet, not even a spring practice after the NCAA closed down college athletics this spring in an effort to help flatten the infection curve of the coronavirus, but Sam Pittman continues to show his experience, leadership, and understanding of the big picture during a time when his on-the-field coaching has been limited to practically nothing.
When you look at what Pittam and his staff did in recruiting, pulling in a top-25-ish recruiting class with just two months of work, his meaningful but not showy support for his players Tuesday night during a protest of police brutality on the Fayetteville Square, to joining staffers Thursday to sing happy birthday to Razorback super-fan Canaan Sandy, Pittman has shown that even though he has never been the head coach of a four-year college program before, he more than understands the role he plays in leading a program.
Contrast this with the situation Florida State athletics director David Coburn faces today with his new head coach Mike Norvell. The former Memphis and UCA coach — whom many say topped Yurachek’s initial list of coaches to replace Chad Morris — created an unnecessary crisis for himself that could ultimately see him lose his job by overstating how he addressed the George Floyd tragedy with his players.
Norvell told a reporter from “The Atlantic” that he had “back and forth” conversations with his players about the issue of police brutality and Floyd’s needless death at the hands of Minneapolis, Minn. police officer Derek Chauvin while three other officers stood by.
it WAS @CoachSamPittman at the Fayetteville protest last night! apparently the picture I took is going around social media; all I ask is that you crop out the faces of the other demonstrators if you’re sharing. pic.twitter.com/NbxcB6oikh
— Olivia Paschal (@oliviacpaschal) June 3, 2020
However, Florida State star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson disputed Norvell’s description in a tweet Thursday writing, “Man this s–t did not happen mane (sic). We got a generated text that was sent to everybody. There was no one-on-one talk between us and coach. This is a lie, and me and my teammates as a whole are outraged and we will not be working out until further notice.”
That is a mess right there, one that can’t be easily cleaned up.
I’m not really sure how something like that can be soothed over. When an established star player — really the face of the program at the moment — calls a new coach out in such a public manner over a topic that is an open wound that goes to the very bone of our society and culture, I’m not sure how a coach whose relationship with his players was still in the very earliest stages overcomes that. I’m not sure an apology will do?
We Arkansas fans know exactly what happens when there is a lack of leadership at the head of a football program, and when coaches are unable to gain the support of their players. It looks a lot like 4-20 over two seasons.
Maybe, Norvell was planning to talk to his players individually about the Floyd tragedy and got ahead of himself with the reporter, but he no doubt was trying to shine a light on himself with those comments.
Again, contrast that with Pittman’s actions. He went to the protest to support the players on his team as well as his African American staff members, and friends.
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) June 4, 2020
The UA did not announce that Pittman would be there. Pittman didn’t tweet about it or shoot a selfie to post on Instagram or Facebook. He was just there in support of the people he cares about.
Someone did take a photo of him, and it circulated around social media on Wednesday. The only thing showy at all was that there was a little red Razorback on the black mask that he wore.
This is what Pittman said Wednesday about his participation in the protest during a Zoom teleconference with media. The teleconference, by the way, wasn’t about him attending the protest, either. The subject was about student-athletes returning to campus Monday to begin strength and conditioning training. Pittman just answered the questions asked of him.
“The protest was powerful, and I’m glad I had an opportunity to go down there,” Pittman said. “A lot of the kids on the team, were there, as well. We had asked them not to be there late. But we certainly were not in any shape or form asking them not to go down there. I wanted to go down there. I was very honored to be a part of it and was glad I was able to go down there along with others on our coaching staff and our football team.”
Pittman explained further why he attended.
“Because I felt like I needed to go,” Pittman said. “I felt like in my heart I wanted to go. I wanted to support our football team. I wanted to support the protest. That’s what I believe in. I felt like, for me, the best way for me to address the situation, was to go be a part of what could be a solution. I didn’t go down there for someone to take my picture. I went down there because I wanted to support the players on our football team and their families.”
That is the genuineness that Arkansas got with the hire of Sam Pittman. That’s the kind of leadership college players can respect and will rally to support.
Pittman was asked if he discussed the Floyd tragedy with his players, and he said that he and his staff had since the event occurred on Memorial day, but what was said would be kept private within the team.
Again, Pittman didn’t take the question as an opportunity to showboat. He didn’t try to exploit the situation for his own benefit.
Rebuilding Arkansas’ football program to respectability within the SEC isn’t going to be easy, and no doubt there is a learning curve that a first-year head coach like Pittman will have to navigate.
But Pittman has already shown that just him being himself and doing the right thing for the right reasons is a great way to start any plan.