'Dream' redux: Emotional Pittman professes UA love

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Coach Sam Pittman (right) and Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics, pose for pictures, Monday, December 9, 2019 during an introductory press conference in Fayetteville.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Coach Sam Pittman (right) and Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics, pose for pictures, Monday, December 9, 2019 during an introductory press conference in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Sam Pittman grew up about a 21-mile drive from the Arkansas state line in the northeastern Oklahoma hamlet of Grove.

But he's a Razorback at heart.

Pittman, 58, never dreamed he might one day be the head coach at the University of Arkansas when he made the 75-mile drive to a Lou Holtz football camp here in 1979, but that's his new job in his first major college coaching gig.

Six years after taking a three-year job with the Razorbacks as offensive line coach before moving on to Georgia, Pittman was named the 34th head coach at Arkansas on Sunday. He was introduced to a crowd of several hundred fans Monday at the Walker Pavilion.

"When I came here the first time, it was a dream," Pittman told the audience. "Now it's whatever's better than a dream."

[WALLY HALL: Razorbacks hire man who wanted challenge » arkansasonline.com/news/2019/dec/10/razorbacks-hire-man-who-wanted-challeng-1/]

Pittman, known as a tireless and successful recruiter, wore his emotions on his sleeve during the public ceremony, stopping several times to sniffle and even walking away from the podium a couple of times to push back tears.

When his wife, Jamie, called out to him from the front row, "You said you weren't going to cry," Pittman responded, "I'm a wreck. I'm humble and excited to be your coach.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xD0FERMOtE]

"We want our program to reflect the great state of Arkansas. I'm not a big slogan guy or anything like this. We're going to work hard. We're going to be blue collar. We're going to be tough."

UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek's 28-day search, which included deputy AD Jon Fagg and UA board of trustees member Steve Cox every step of the way, took him nearly coast to coast and included brushes with candidates such as Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach, Eliah Drinkwitz and Willie Fritz, but he said Pittman was the only man to receive an offer letter.

[RELATED: Skippers explain how Pittman excels at recruiting » arkansasonline.com/news/2019/dec/10/skippers-explain-how-pittman-excels-at-/]

"It's time for our football program to no longer be at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference," Yurachek said in a news conference after the public celebration. "I think we've found the right man to do that."

Yurachek said he heard during the search how daunting the perception of the Arkansas job is, but he responded that his sales pitch is that the Razorbacks are winning national championships and signing top-five classes in sports such as track and field, baseball and basketball, and football can rebuild into that mode.

"I mean, people see this as a daunting task and some people are just not cut out for it," Yurachek said. "We are at the bottom of the toughest football conference in the country right now, and we've got to fight our way out. You need somebody who wants to get in the trenches and fight.

"Not all head coaches are cut out to have that type of task. Some knew they weren't cut out for it. Some, you have to do some research and find out for yourself that they're probably not cut out for that. So, absolutely it's a challenge. But, it's a challenge that I think Coach Pittman is definitively up for and wants."

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/galleries/28003/album/]

Pittman said he and Jamie's love for Arkansas played a big role in their desire to return after his stint from 2013-15 as offensive line coach and assistant head coach. He went to Georgia as offensive line coach in 2016 and added the assistant head coach title this season.

By landing the Arkansas job, Pittman said he went from the doghouse to the penthouse swiftly with his wife.

"You know Jamie's from Pittsburg, Kansas," he said. "We did not get a divorce when we left Arkansas for a year, but she did not talk to me for a year when I was in Athens.

"She just loved Arkansas. She's like me. When the opportunity came to come back, she was ecstatic and she's still that way, and honestly so am I. It's hard to explain the passion that you have for a program. It's a lot easier to show it."

[MORE: Yurachek touts buyout terms from Pittman's new contract » arkansasonline.com/news/2019/dec/10/yurachek-touts-buyout-terms-from-pittma/]

Pittman had some heavy hitters on his side. A large group of former Arkansas offensive linemen wrote an open letter to Yurachek to tout Pittman for the job. Darren McFadden -- the two-time All-American, Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up -- called to reinforce that letter and advocate for Pittman.

Judy Henry, Pittman's Little Rock-based agent and wife of former Arkansas defensive back Cliff Henry, called Yurachek to pass along Pittman's strong interest in the job.

"I tried to get people to him," said Pittman, joking that no one would give him Yurachek's number.

Pittman and Yurachek had a couple of phone conversations last week. Then the search team flew to Georgia and met with the Pittmans on Sunday to conclude the deal.

"It was my goal to find someone that was a relentless recruiter," Yurachek said. "And we needed a coach that understood how to win a football game in the trenches. Sam Pittman has proven he knows how to win football games in the trenches on both sides of the ball and how to develop a tough, tough football team."

Pittman held his first team meeting Sunday night about 9:30 p.m.

"I told them that they didn't choose me, but I sure as hell chose them," Pittman said. "That I wanted to be here, and I think they felt it. That we have a lot of work to do."

Pittman said he hoped to have a handful of assistant coaches in place by the end of the week, but he pointed out his phone was "blowing up" with coaches who were interested in coming to Arkansas.

"I've had 500-plus messages from coaches you would be shocked, or you might not be, who want to come to the University of Arkansas," Pittman told the crowd. "So it would be very hard for me to believe that if the coaching world wants to come to the University of Arkansas, how come we can't get the players in our state and across the nation to feel the same way? And I believe we can. Honestly, I believe we will."

Interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr., who had the Razorbacks more competitive in their final two losses of the second successive 2-10 season, also interviewed for the head coaching position.

"Barry, during the three or four weeks that he was our interim coach, had earned the right to officially interview with myself and Jon for this position," Yurachek said. "We did that last week. He did an excellent job. He did nothing but improve and enhance his stock as a potential head coach.

"But, in the end, I thought that Coach Pittman checked more of the boxes of what I was looking for in our next head coach."

Pittman said he met with Lunney on Monday morning and that there is a position on staff for him if he wants it.

"Barry and I are really good friends and have been for a long time," Pittman said. "I have high respect for him as a man and as a football coach."

Brad Davis, the offensive line coach at Missouri the last couple of years, could be one of Pittman's first hires. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reported Monday night that Davis, who was the offensive line graduate assistant for Pittman at North Carolina in 2008, is expected to join Pittman's UA staff.

One Arkansas assistant coach who won't be retained is assistant head coach and running backs coach Jeff Traylor, who was announced as the new head coach at Texas-San Antonio on Monday.

One Arkansas assistant coach who won't be retained is assistant head coach and running backs coach Jeff Traylor, who was announced as the new head coach at Texas-San Antonio on Monday.

Pittman, who signed a five-year offer letter at $3 million per year with the chance to earn incentives, will be working with a salary pool of roughly $5 million to hire assistants, Yurachek said.

[RELATED: UA’s Pittman hiring gets rave reviews » arkansasonline.com/news/2019/dec/10/hiring-gets-rave-reviews-20191210/]

"I'm very comfortable with the salary pool," Pittman said. "I think we can do what we need with that salary."

Pittman said he was not daunted by the Razorbacks' back-to-back 2-10 seasons and 19-game SEC losing streak.

"If I didn't think we could put a good product out on that field, then I wouldn't have come to Arkansas," he said. "It's going to be a challenge. We've got a ways to go, but we're going to work at it, we're going to go after it.

"We have to hire a staff that believes in our players and believes in the program. We all go out there and communicate to our players. It's about hard work. It's about toughness. It's about all these things, but the No. 1 thing we have to do is get our players believing we can go win as a group. The only way that's gonna happen is we show them we believe in them. Hopefully we showed that last night to start with."

Sports on 12/10/2019

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