Challenging schedule faces Hogs as Pittman era kicks off

The football gods may have smiled on Sam Pittman when the University of Arkansas hired the career offensive line guru away from Georgia to be its head coach last December, but the cost of vaulting up the food chain from offensive line coach to becoming the head Hog is going to be an exacting one thanks to COVID-19.

If the Razorbacks’ schedule wasn’t already difficult enough playing in the SEC West, the league opted to eat its own when making out its 10-game, all-SEC schedule this summer in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The SEC schedulers paired the league’s perceived best squads against the perceived worst with its additions, leaving the Razorbacks with an itinerary that features six members of the current Top 10, once No. 4 Georgia and No. 5 Florida were added to their already taxing schedule.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Georgia
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Oct. 3 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama

The Hogs open their season Saturday at 3 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium against Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs, a team Pittman is obviously intimately knowledgeable of.

What we don’t know is whether that knowledge will be an advantage or just intimidating to the first-time, major-college head coach.

Pittman admitted he was nervous Monday, but he said the anxiety will only prompt him and his staff to have the Hogs better prepared for the Bulldogs.

Pittman, who served as Arkansas’ offensive line coach for three seasons (2013-2015) before jumping to Georgia (2016-2019) for a similar position, has his work cut out for him in rebuilding the Razorback program.

The Razorbacks were at the height of Bret Bielema’s success at Arkansas when Pittman left to be Smart’s offensive line coach and eventual assistant head coach at Georgia, but Pittman’s departure was like pulling the plug on Bielema’s bathwater. Bielema’s time at Arkansas began swirling down the drain the minute Pittman exited.

It was a somewhat bitter departure because of Bielema’s immature shenanigans. He coaxed several of Pittman’s former charges to go over to the departing assistant’s home to tug on his heart strings after the decision had already been made to leave for Georgia.

It was a desperate and somewhat vindictive move on Bielema’s part, but he knew Pittman’s offensive linemen were the heart and soul of his then seemingly burgeoning program at Arkansas.

Not coincidentally, Arkansas took a step back in 2016 and kept stumbling in 2017 for what turned out to be a 4-8 season. In the last third of that season, Hog boosters and the UA Board of Directors made the decision to cut ties with athletic director Jeff Long and Bielema to chase after Gus Malzahn in November of 2017. Of course, that gambit left them holding the bag with Chad Morris as head coach.

The next two seasons of Razorback football proved to be excruciatingly bad with back-to-back 2-10 years. Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek — the one good thing that came out of the booster’s chase for Malzahn — had mercy on Morris and Razorback fans by pulling the plug early last November after an embarrassing 45-19 drubbing at the hands of Conference USA’s Western Kentucky.

Even with a head start in the coaching search, Yurachek had trouble convincing Arkansas’ top coaching targets that Fayetteville was the place to be. Memphis’ Mike Norvell seemed to be at the top of the list, but he picked his poison at Florida State.

Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin was next in line, and he looked to be the Razorbacks’ choice, but Ole Miss came calling after Norvell chose Tallahassee, and Kiffin opted for Hotty Toddy over Woo Pig Sooie.

Personally, I think Arkansas dodged another bullet here. Not that Kiffin isn’t a fine coach, but you have to wonder how content he would have been in Fayetteville, and for that matter now in Oxford.

First-year Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz (then at Appalachian State) and first-year Mississippi State coach Mike Leach (then at Washington State) apparently had some contact with the Arkansas search party before Yurachek opted to look to a man that truly desired to be the Razorbacks’ next head coach, Pittman.

Desire is what attracted Yurachek to Arkansas head basketball coach Eric Musselman when he hired him in his first major hire as Arkansas’ AD, and that desire may be what helps Pittman eventually be a success at Arkansas.

Now, the Hogs are about to embark on what not only is the most challenging football schedule in Arkansas history but also possibly the most challenging one in college football history.

If the Razorbacks had to play Georgia this season, it’s probably good that it came first. Pittman is an emotional man and no doubt this Georgia game brings challenges with it that no other Razorback game this season will offer.

Pittman expressed extreme respect for Smart on Monday, and no doubt the way Smart ran the Georgia program rubbed off on Pittman. Likewise, Smart expressed admiration for his former offensive line coach.

“He always had the traits of a head coach,” Smart said Monday in the Georgia media conference. “No. 1, he’s a great leader; he’s a great person. He commands the respect of a room when he speaks. He can be very emotional, and you don’t always find that with offensive line coaches. They’re usually rough around the edges, and Sam wears his feelings on his sleeve. He’s very open with his players. I think he lets them in more than most O-line coaches do, and that relationship really stands.”

Smart said Pittman’s impact on the Georgia program showed in how the Bulldogs’ reacted to his departure.

“When he got the opportunity to go, a lot of our guys reached out, Smart said. “They were hurt by it, but not hurt like they were mad at Sam. They were thankful for his opportunity, but they were going to miss that relationship.”

Pittman had an impact at Georgia in the way he conducted his business, especially as a recruiter. Arkansas has already seen some similar benefits.

“As far as what kind of mark [Pittman] left on our program, that’s evidenced by the offensive lines we’ve had,” Smart said. “He was a really good recruiter. He was a relationship-driven coach. His players would just love him, and they all enjoyed playing for him. He created that family atmosphere.

Smart also spoke about the how Pittman and his wife Jamie went above and beyond in forming relationship with players at Georgia.

“He and Jamie didn’t have kids of their own, but all the O-linemen were their kids,” Smart said. “Always have been. That came to fruition to me when we hired him from Arkansas. Because you hear every offensive lineman he coached there, he had a real special relationship with, and they tried to keep him there, and we were lucky to get him and he certainly contributed to our success.”

In fact, it was an impassioned letter from a group of Pittman’s former Razorback linemen that first brought his name up as a candidate to Yurachek.

While that letter drafted soon after Morris’ dismissal didn’t stop Yurachek from exploring other sitting head coaches, it no doubt was impactful when the coaching search came to a crossroads.

Though the Razorbacks have yet to play a game, Yurachek has been more than pleased with the leadership Pittman has shown as the Head Hog during what has been an excruciatingly challenging offseason in which coronavirus intruded on every aspect of guiding a football program.

“Sam Pittman has been unbelievable,” said Yurachek, on July 16 about how his football coach had dealt with the abnormalities brought on by the coronavirus. “For someone who’s never been a head coach other than at the junior-college level early in his tenure, he has handled everything that has been thrown at him and his staff like he is a seasoned veteran head coach.”

The odds, of course, are stacked against the Razorbacks having a traditionally successful season this year. There are no nonconference games to pad the schedule, and most prognosticators foresee only a win or two for the Hogs if that many.

I honestly don’t know what to expect, except improvement.

The last two seasons the Razorbacks only went through the motions for Morris and his staff. I think Pittman and his coaching staff will get more out of the Razorbacks than that.

The question remains how much can be expected from these Razorbacks against one of the toughest schedules imaginable?

We’re going to find out in just a few days, and I’m as excited and intrigued as I can possibly be.