Pittman’s battling Razorbacks brings back fond memories

Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s in West Memphis, I had a lot of heroes.

I read Superman and Spider-Man comics and couldn’t wait to watch old Tarzan and the Lone Ranger movies on TV during the weekends.

I also loved watching Dr. J do his thing on the basketball court. Johnny Bench was my favorite baseball player, and I was a Green Bay fan because my dad’s best friend Dave “Hawg” Hanner had played for the Packers before I was born and was their defensive coordinator when I was in elementary school.

I wouldn’t call them heroes, necessarily, but you couldn’t grow up in the Memphis area during that period and not watch ‘rasslin’. The Saturday morning studio wrestling show featuring Jerry Lawler got better ratings in Memphis than the ultra-popular Friday-night soap opera “Dallas” in its hey days.

But my favorite heroes of my youth played for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Throughout elementary school and into junior high, I thought the Hogs were the greatest. I know I had a skewed view, but I doted on the play of guys like Ike Forte, Scott Bull, Bo Busby, Dennis “Dirt” Winston, Ron Calcagni, Ben Cowins, Greg Koch, R.C. Theilman, Dan Hampton, Jimmy Walker, Steve Little, Dale White, Greg Kolenda, Kevin Scanlon, George Stewart, Gary Anderson, Billy Ray Smith Jr., Richard Richardson, Steve Korte, Alfred Mohammed, Jay Bequette, Tom Jones, Marcus Elliot, Brad Taylor, Jesse Clark, David Bazzel, Danny Walters and so many others.

I was so eaten up with the Razorbacks that I’d take Arkansas press guides to school to read the bios of the players and other historical information and stats when I got bored.

For whatever reason teachers didn’t get as mad at me for reading those press guides or Sports Illustrated in class as they did when I pulled out a comic book.

That time I took the Cheryl Tiegs swimsuit issue of SI to class was a whole different story, though. If you don’t know what I’m referencing, Google it, but not at work.

But I digress.

As a kid, though, I loved the Hogs and their players, and while I realize that that hero worship was certainly immature and maybe even a bit misplaced at times, there was nothing like being a fan of a football team and getting the chance to go to Razorback games and enjoy their success with innocent eyes.

If I were throwing the ball around with friends, I pretended I was Bull, Calcagni, Scanlan, Jones or Taylor. If I were punting or kicking, I’d try to do it like Little or Steve Cox. Playing defense, I wanted to be the next Hampton or Smith or Richardson.

I was lucky in a sense that my childhood coincided with one of the best eras of Razorback football. The Hogs weren’t as strong in the the mid to late ‘70s and early ‘80s as they were in the hey days of the 1960s, but top 10 teams weren’t out of the norm, and the Razorbacks were always relevant on the college football scene during that period.

Unfortunately, that’s not been the case much of the last decade. Yes, the last decade started off spectacularly with the height of Bobby Petrino’s success at Arkansas with 10-3 record and a No. 12 ranking in 2010, and a then an even better 11-2 mark in 2011 and a No. 5 finish, the Hogs’ first top-10 finish since 1982.

However, when Petrino drove his motorcycle into the ditch, he took the program with him. Brett Bielema had a couple of promising seasons, but the departure of then offensive line coach Sam Pittman for Georgia foreshadowed another drop in the program that left some well-monied fans chasing after Gus Malzahn but only managing to catch Chad Morris.

Morris almost two-year tenure with the Razorbacks was a disaster. While he did recruit fairly well — better than Bielema’s last couple of classes — the Hogs just wouldn’t thrive under his leadership or lack thereof.

That’s what is so stunning about the Razorbacks’ turnaround this season under Pittman and his excellent staff. The Razorbacks are playing like, well, Razorbacks again, and it’s a sight to behold.

It’s a pleasure to see the Hogs play with excitement and enthusiasm once again, and as a team. Their performances have been far from perfect, but I and many other Arkansas fans had almost forgotten what it was like to see the Razorbacks compete and succeed.

While we all know the Razorbacks should be 3-1 at this juncture, 2-2 still is a great start to the Pittman era of Razorback football. The Hogs have already matched or exceeded the expectations of most media members who cover them, and while the back half of Arkansas’ schedule is a true murder’s row, optimism is running high among Hog fans. That’s not been the case this late in October for at least four years.

Pride among Hog fans is swelling. They love seeing Feleipe Franks’ pass to Treylon Burks for a
Baryshnikov-type catch picked as the play of the day on ESPN, and hearing about freeman Hudson Clark being named SEC Freshman of the Week for his three picks against Ole Miss and earning a scholarship starting next spring. Similarly, they are thrilled that Grant Morgan was honored as SEC co-Defensive Player of the Week for his 19-tackle performance, which included three stops behind the line of scrimmage and a big-time insurance score on a Pick 6.

That’s the kind of play that makes Hog fans “stick out their chests” as Pittman said and burst with pride over their Razorbacks.

Now, the Hogs more than have their work cut out for them in their final six games, which begins on Halloween in College Station against No. 5 Texas A&M. The Aggies (3-1) are ranked No. 7 this week as they enjoy an open date just like the Hogs. The Aggies will be the best and most well-rounded team the Hogs have faced since Georgia. They gave Alabama a test for a half before the Crimson Tide blew the game open in the second half for a 52-24 victory. They bounced back to outscore then No. 4 Florida, 41-38, at Bryant Field in one of the better games of the season. While Georgia may still be the best team the Hogs have played this year, the Aggies stand to be the most well-rounded team.

While the Razorbacks own the series lead 41-32-3, the Aggies have owned the Hogs since they joined the SEC winning eight consecutive games, which is the second-longest winning streak in the series. The Razorbacks won nine consecutive games from 1958-1969 when Frank Broyles was the head Hog.

The Aggies will be favored going into the game by a touchdown or so I would guess. The Aggies may well be the most balanced team the Razorbacks have played this season, which presents an interesting situation for Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom and his shock troops, but I wouldn’t put it past him to devise another excellent plan that will give the Hogs a chance.

Offensively, the Hogs have been up and down in Kendal Briles’ up-tempo scheme. The further development of a running game would probably help iron out the kinks. Rakeem Boyd still looked a little off from his injury in the the Hogs’ 33-21 victory over Ole Miss. Maybe the extra week of practice will help the Razorbacks iron out some of those kinks.

The better the Razorbacks are able to run the football, the more opportunities Franks and UA receivers will have. The kinks will come out as the Hogs’ offensive line continues to mold into shape. Seven different Hogs have started in the five spots as offensive line coach Brad Davis searches for the right mixture among his charges.

After performing well off the bench against Auburn, Dalton Wagner and Ty Clary started and played well against Ole Miss. It will be interesting to see which five that start at College Station after two weeks of work.

While as a fan, I wish there were another game this week, the open date came at a good time for Pittman’s Hogs, who can use this week to get refreshed while in a positive frame of mind after the victory.

As improved as the Razorbacks have been, the back half of this schedule is brutal. After the aforementioned game against the No. 7 Aggies (3-1), comes Tennessee (2-2) at Fayetteville on Nov. 7, at No. 10 Florida (2-1) on Nov. 14, LSU (1-2) at Fayetteville on Nov. 21, at Missouri (1-2) on Nov. 28, and then the Hogs finish up with No. 1 Alabama (4-0) on Dec. 5.

My first thought when reading through that list is “wouldn’t it be great if the Hogs were able to go 3-3 in those final six games.” Such a thought was unthinkable by most in the summer, but after four games and the improvement Pittman and his staff have made in the Razorbacks, I think it’s possible if not reasonable.