Pittman and Co. revive Razorback spirit under tough Covid-19 conditions

Sam Pittman / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

When you look back at Sam Pittman’s first year as the Arkansas Razorbacks’ head football coach, there is no way to get around the fact it was an odd one.

Covid-19 has made this year odd and in too many cases a tragic one for too many of us, and though a vaccine is being administered, and we hope better days are ahead, 2020 is a year we’re never going to forget for many agonizing reasons.

Football is the least of them for those on the outside looking in.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Texas Bowl vs. TCU
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 31
Where: Houston, Texas (NRG Stadium)

However, when considering Razorback football, I think this year could be remembered favorably as the season when Pittman, his crackerjack coaching staff, and a hard-nosed group of Hogs returned the fight back to Arkansas’ football program.

It’s hard to trace the exact point when it happened, but sometime after Arkansas’ 2016 season the fight, the toughness, the edge to Arkansas’ football program began to erode. Really it might have begun in the final two losses of that season.

It never totally dissipated because it would show up at times during Bielema’s final year and the subsequent two seasons under Chad Morris, but that fight, that Razorback spirit that several generations of Razorback fans had grown accustomed to, just wasn’t there in abundance.

While Arkansas’ program is a proud one with rich history and tradition, even the best Razorback teams over history couldn’t just throw their jockstraps on the field and expect to compete in the SEC or the SWC. Both leagues were too good.

The Razorbacks have always had to fight hooves and tusks to be formidable on the gridiron throughout their history, and unfortunately, that type of guts and heart had become lacking, particularly over the two previous seasons when Arkansas failed to win an SEC game.

While a 3-7 record isn’t exactly something to boast about, the heart, desire, and effort the Razorbacks brought to the field each week this season is, and no doubt Hog fans across the state and nation noticed the difference in the way the 2020 Razorbacks played and competed this year compared to the last few.

While it was the Razorback players who were playing with pride, there is no doubt that Pittman and his coaching staff were instrumental in changing the attitude of the program and its trajectory for the future from the first game of the season.

Yes, Georgia’s cream finally rose to the top for a 37-10 victory, but every Razorback fan who watched from the stands or on TV from their living rooms knew the Razorbacks fought hard to stymie the Bulldogs in the first half to hold a halftime lead. You could see how much harder the Hogs strained and competed from just that one game.

We saw that fight time and time again over this season, unfortunately in more losses than wins. Though Arkansas competed in every game, the Hogs’ lack of depth began to show in the last half of the season, partially due to Covid-19 but also because of the wear and tear of playing a 10-game SEC season. Arkansas’ schedule was truly loaded. It featured the best of the best the SEC — the nation’s undisputed preeminent conference — had to offer.

No team in the nation played as tough a schedule as the Hogs. One could argue no team in history has.

Thankfully the NCAA relaxed its rules, and a winning record isn’t required this season to receive a bowl bid. This Hog team and staff are being rewarded with a bowl trip to Houston — a recruiting hotbed — to play TCU (6-4) in the Texas Bowl.

The game is set for 8 p.m. on Dec. 31, so Hog fans will basically be able to ring in the New Year with an old-time match-up against a former SWC opponent.

TCU coach Gary Patterson also noted Sunday how hard the Razorbacks play when speaking about the matchup in a Zoom teleconference. The Razorbacks have the respect of the Horned Frogs’ coaching staff.

Like every game this season, the Hogs go into bowl as an underdog. The line is 5 1/2 points as of early Monday morning.

Going into to Pittman’s noon teleconference, the big question is will senior quarterback Feleipe Franks and senior linebacker Grant Morgan, a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, compete in the game. Franks played against Alabama while nursing sore ribs, but Morgan hasn’t played since having his knee rolled up against Missouri on Thanksgiving weekend.

Pittman doesn’t like to comment on injuries, but he might reveal in his noon Zoom press conference today if these two Hogs will be available.

The opportunity to gain another victory is huge for Arkansas’ program, but the extra work young Razorbacks are getting in bowl practices is invaluable. Success in those practices creates energy for the off-season workouts that are so vital to a program in the winter leading up to spring practice.

Covid-19 protocols won’t all be gone by spring, but it would seem after playing football this fall in the heart of the virus, the NCAA would allow spring practices to resume.

As much as the Razorback coaching staff accomplished in the limited workouts and Zoom meetings last summer, I’m excited to see what they can do with the team under more normal conditions.