Pittman, Razorback staff already building strong bonds with players

With a bit more than three weeks of preseason practice in the books for the Arkansas Razorbacks, and just a bit less than three weeks to go before kickoff of the season on Sept. 26 against the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs, just where do the Hogs stand today?

Honestly, no one outside the Razorbacks’ camp knows for sure, and no doubt Razorback head coach Sam Pittman and his staff still have questions themselves as they continue to work the players and themselves toward the season.

After the past three seasons, there’s not a lot of confidence in the Razorbacks. I guess that has been earned. Arkansas hasn’t won an SEC game since nipping Ole Miss, 38-37, in 2017, and that was the Hogs’ lone SEC win that season.

The last three seasons of Razorback football were the worst stretch of football most fans can remember. It’s certainly the worst three seasons since what is recognized as the modern era of Razorback football that began with the hire of Frank Broyles for the 1958 season.

The SEC’s need to go to a 10-game, all-SEC schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which still threatens the season at this moment, didn’t do Pittman and his Hogs any favors. By nearly all accounts the Razorbacks have the toughest schedule in college football this season.

The Hogs may have the toughest schedule of all time when you consider seven of its 10 opponents start the season in the preseason Top 25. That’s not hyperbole, my friends, it’s just the way it is.

Yep, if this SEC football season was a nature film, Arkansas would be that wildebeest that strayed a little too far from the herd.

Just like in the wild, the SEC fed its “feeble and sick” programs to the lions of the conference for the good of the best programs in the league. It wasn’t a fair move, but for the good of the SEC as a whole, it certainly was the pragmatic thing to do and maybe the best.

With the loss of revenue from reduced attendance and amount of games this season, it makes brutal sense for the league to feed its more feeble programs to the strong to make sure the SEC places at least one and hopefully two teams in the four-team college championship playoff.

If the season were a horror movie, the Hogs would be the guy who tripped over a tree root while running from the werewolf or zombie and is left behind by the others to be eaten alive. Or at least, that’s how I and many others viewed the schedule.

It was heartening to hear from grad-transfer Feleipe Franks, the Razorbacks’ expected starting quarterback, that he and his teammates were not only excited to be opening with the No. 4 Bulldogs but also excited for the all-SEC season.

While we fans have been bemoaning the Razorbacks’ scheduling fate, it seems the Hogs themselves are fired up to be playing the best-of-the-best this year, and no doubt Pittman and his coaching staff will use it to rally the Hogs.

While the players would never say it publicly, they really don’t like playing the directional schools any more than fans like watching those games. Mentally, it’s easier for them to focus on SEC opponents even if it’s more difficult to win.

As every coach you ever had told you, winning starts with an attitude, and one thing that seems clear from the players who have participated in post-practice ZOOM interviews is that the Razorbacks attitudes have transformed in just the short time that Pittman and his staff have been on campus.

How exactly that transfers on the playing field this fall remains to be seen, but as the Hogs continue to work their way through the preseason, it has been refreshing to hear. Dysfunction no longer seems to be the norm with Pittman at the head of the program, and things were certainly out of whack at Arkansas during the past two seasons with Chad Morris at the helm of the program. Some feel Morris’ heart never left Dallas where his family remained for the final two seasons of his son’s high school football career. As the saying goes, home is where your heart is.

No doubt, Pittman’s heart is right here in Fayetteville along with his wife. The couple bought land for a retirement home in the area when he was a member of Bret Bielema’s coaching staff, and Pittman has joked that his wife didn’t speak to him for the first two years they lived in Georgia for having her move from Fayetteville.

While this season stands to be another challenging one for the Razorbacks, the program just appears to be in better hands under Pittman, even though he has never been a head coach on the major college level. No doubt there will be growing pains, but he has put together an excellent staff with plenty of experience, but one that has not been worn down and worn out either.

Pittman’s staff has a nice mixture of experience and enthusiasm on both sides of the ball, and that is heartening after the exit of Morris’ staff, which appeared a bit out of its league on offense, and bit over the hill on defense.

Now, appearances can be deceiving, but it appeared Morris and his staff never truly captured the hearts and minds of the Razorback players. An astute observer told me that Morris lost the players in that first meeting when his first words to his team was from a podium where he told the players to put their feet on the floor and set up straight before ever introducing himself.

In contrast, Pittman met his new players at the door of his first team meeting and introduced himself man to man as the players made their way into the room, based on footage released by Arkansas Media Relations. That personal touch is important.

Pittman’s first recruit was Rakeem Boyd, the Hogs’ star running back. Pittman being able to convince Boyd to remain at Arkansas for his senior year is huge and speaks to the type of relationships he forges with his players and the type coach he is going to be.

More than once this preseason, players in their post-practice Zoom interviews have mentioned that Pittman and his staff treat the them like men and expect them to act and practice with a purpose and maturity that has been missing from the program for much of the last decade. What was said wasn’t coaxed out of them by reporters, but rather it was offered up off the cuff.

Those responses have come in less than a year with Pittman as the head of the program, and they don’t seem coached into players by the PR staff, either, although it is obvious the Razorbacks have been schooled to some degree on what they are and aren’t supposed to mention to reporters.

I would love to sit here and write that the Razorbacks are going to win five or six games this season, but such a prediction is unrealistic considering the schedule the Hogs have in front of them. Under the circumstances, a three- or four-win season would be a strong building block for the future, considering most expect the Hogs to win somewhere between zero and two games.

So far, I like what I’m hearing out of Razorback camp. Pittman and his staff already have gained more trust out of the players than Morris ever seemed to have. That’s promising. It’s something the Pittman, his staff, and players can continue to build upon as they make their way through Pittman’s inaugural season as the Razorback head coach.