Recent records rob Hogs of credit, benefit of the doubt

When a football program posts a 4-20 record over two seasons, it’s not going to receive any credit or the benefit of the doubt from anyone, probably not even its fans.

That’s where the Arkansas Razorback football program finds itself sitting this summer, and it’s a downright ugly position for it to be in.

There’s nothing more Arkansas fans like than for the national media to talk about the Razorbacks. Respect is what Hog fans desire almost as much as winning, although admittedly respect and winning go hand in hand.

2020 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 5 – Nevada
Sept. 12 – at Notre Dame
Sept. 19 – at Mississippi State
Sept. 27 – Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Oct. 3 – Charleston Southern
Oct. 10 – Alabama
Oct. 17 – LSU
Oct. 31 – Tennessee
Nov. 7 – at Auburn
Nov. 14 – Ole Miss
Nov. 21 – Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 28 – Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City

But, right now the last thing Hog fans want to hear is the national perspective on the Razorback football program because it’s as bad as it has ever been because of the stink of the 4-20 record under Chad Morris. He drove what had become a mediocre program under Bret Bielema into a pit full of quicksand.

Fans should expect national pundits, columnists, and reporters to doubt the Razorbacks at every turn going into this season. Without a spring practice to judge — which the Razorbacks and most other programs were denied because of the coronavirus-inspired national shutdown of college athletics in mid March — the only way they can rank and rate the Razorbacks is on what happened the last couple of years under Morris.

Morris’ tenure at Arkansas was almost like receiving the death penalty without having the opportunity to cheat. Morris and his staff did do a credible job recruiting with his second class at Arkansas. It’s the lone ray of hope during two years of confusion, frustration, and bleakness under his hand.

However, even that recruiting work doesn’t shine so bright after seeing new Razorback head coach Sam Pittman and his crew of assistants recruit. They put together a class in less than two months on the job that was even better than the one Morris cobbled together in his second year, and Pittman alluded to even better efforts in the future.

Pittman and his staff have been gathering commitments left and right over the last month to build a foundation for another solid recruiting year despite dealing with the mess Morris left and the coronavirus. Right now the Hogs have 12 commitments with 13 more to go.

So, while the forecast most national and regional commentators will give you remains bleak, I personally think things are looking up for the program.

Certainly, Pittman’s inexperience as a head coach is something critics will point at, and watch many of them go nuts the first time Arkansas has an issue with the clock or any portion of game management this year. Announcers will jump on it quick because it’s low-hanging fruit, but truth be told experienced coaches suffer game management issues every week of the college season. Even great coaches do at times.

Personally, as a fan, I’m enthusiastic about Pittman and grow more and more so as time goes by. No, we’ve not seen him coach in a game or even in a practice for that matter, but so far every move he’s made seems rock solid from the outside looking in.

The experience on his staff is impressive and that has been backed up by their work recruiting last winter and through this spring. Based on interviews with his assistants that are available on YouTube, the coaches were attracted to Pittman because of the way he treats people.

Some of his hires came from programs that were in the midst of a coaching change. In those situations, he cherry picked some very good ones in defensive coordinator Barry Odom (Missouri), offensive coordinator Kendal Briles (Florida State), and offensive line coach Brad Davis (Missouri).

However, Pittman also hired away assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain from Georgia, defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc from Kentucky, and director of strength and conditioning Jamil Walker from Georgia.

If you were going to put a star rating on Pittman’s coaching hires, those guys are all four- and five-star hires. I wouldn’t be surprised if cornerbacks coach Sam Carter, tight ends coach Jon Cooper, linebacker coach Rion Rhoades, and running back coach Jimmy Smith aren’t considered up-and-coming assistants before they are done at Arkansas, as well.

Even Pittman’s decision to retain Justin Stepp as wide receiver coach shows his discerning eye. Stepp was one of the best recruiters on Morris’ staff, and keeping him on no doubt helped keep burgeoning stars like Treylon Burks and Trey Knox in the fold.

Pittman showed his deep concern and support for his African-American players and coaches by joining them at the peaceful protest of police brutality and systemic racism on the Fayetteville square just days ago. No doubt it was a powerful statement to his players who he is still getting to know this early in his tenure as coach.

To me, those are all very positive signs about where the Razorback football program is headed under Pittman.

Now, none of that is going to change the national perception of Arkansas’ program. When the SEC has its virtual football media days next month, all Hog fans should fully expect Arkansas to be picked dead last in the Western Division as well as in the entire SEC.

The Hogs will have to change that perception on the football field itself, hopefully this fall if we can get a break in this virus.

The Hogs’ schedule is daunting. I’m not sure there is a tougher schedule in America, particularly for a team that played so poorly last season. It would be difficult for an objective person to predict four wins.

Of course, as a fan in the offseason, my hope is for the Hogs to find a way to get six wins and a bowl game this season. That’s always my minimum expectation every year. However, I realize it might take a minor miracle for them to accomplish that, maybe several of them.