Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pittman wins over locker room
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman speaks to the crowd during a basketball game between Arkansas and Tulsa on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The length of Sam Pittman's tenure as head coach at the University of Arkansas is a story that will unspool in the coming years.
The quality of Pittman's tenure? Now that's another matter worth some evaluation as he nears his seventh month on the job.
Pittman has not conducted one practice as the Razorbacks' 34th head coach, but he's already made the kind of connections with players that can pay short- and long-term dividends.
"He's definitely a player's coach," receiver Trey Knox said this spring. "I love Coach Pittman and the way he approaches running this team. From the first day he was there he's like, 'This is not my team, this is your guys' team, and you need to take charge and self-police yourselves because I'm not going to do it for you.' "
Pittman's suggestion of everyone's ownership in the program has come across as reassuring for players who struggled to become fully vested in the short-lived Chad Morris era. The Razorbacks have three consecutive losing seasons, a 19-game SEC losing streak and an 8-28 record since the start of 2017.
Tailback Rakeem Boyd credited Pittman as a major factor in his decision to return for his senior season, and he gave the longtime offensive line guru a significant stamp of approval last week.
"He was at Georgia, so he knows what winning is like," Boyd said. "That's why I came back. I trusted in him, and I trusted in the guys on the team already.
"Obviously, a guy like that, I know what we have on the team. Some outsiders don't know what we have, but people are going to see that Pittman is the guy."
Junior cornerback Montaric Brown said Pittman is a "straight-up" guy.
"During the coaching change, when we found out Coach Pittman was going to be the coach, there was no mind of me transferring," Brown said. "I knew I was going to stay because Coach Pittman is a great guy, and he was here previously."
Pittman was the Razorbacks' offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Bret Bielema from 2013-15, then held the same post at Georgia the past four years.
Added Boyd: "Honestly, Pittman is a straight-up dude. He's going to give it to you like it is.
"Coming in, I knew he was a real dude. Most coaches aren't going to give it to you straight on a plate. They're going to sugarcoat everything. With Pittman, he's going to set you straight.
"He's going to tell you. You're going to get it done, and if you don't there will be consequences. You know what I mean? He's kind of an old-school type of coach. I really like it."
Pittman's interactions with the team, which have been very frequent on Zoom chats and basically non-existent in person, also exhibit a level of trust, which he talked to reporters about in regard to dulling the threat of covid-19.
"We have gotten better and better at social distancing as we continue to go through these weeks," he said. "We've gotten a lot better. You can see it outside the building, you can see it coming in the building.
"The education has worked, but to sit here and say Fourth of July, I mean come on. You're either going to say, 'We trust you as being as social distancing as you can,' or you're going to say, 'You can't go anywhere, including any place out of your apartment.'
"I mean, you can't do that, and so we choose to believe that ... you know, what's the difference in the Fourth [of July] and last weekend? I mean, the kids are off. And so we choose to trust and believe in our team and that they're grown men, because otherwise: A, I think that's the way you should do, and B, it would wear you out. It would wear you totally out if you were worried if they had their mask on at a restaurant or not."
Pittman's trust that players would stay in shape and follow weight-gain or weight-loss plans between mid-March and early June appears to have been rewarded.
Speaking on a video conference last week, Pittman could not comment individually on the players who have shown progress as leaders during the return to organized strength and conditioning and agility work the last three-plus weeks.
However, he passed along general impressions from what strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker has thought of the team.
"I think they're really pleased with what's going on and how the kids returned," Pittman said. "I think that's the biggest thing. I think we're in pretty good shape for where we're at right now. We've got a much bigger football team than we had in mid- to late March."
Pittman specifically pointed out weight gains by offensive linemen, a position he wanted to see grow from the time he took over Dec. 9.
"We're big right now," he said. "You won't believe it, but we've got a pretty good-sized line. Right now we're very pleased with the size of our offensive line. Obviously, you know I like big, and we're certainly going to continue to try to get bigger."
Pittman pointed out Myron Cunningham in particular. Cunningham, a junior-college transfer last season, started the final four games at left tackle after Colton Jackson's retirement with injury problems.
"Myron Cunningham was about 285-287 [pounds], and he's about 319 now," Pittman said. "He needed it. It's hard to set [versus] the bull when you don't have enough butt to set it with. So he needed it.
"I had a nice conversation with him, and I'm thinking he's going to have a nice season. But he worked hard at gaining that weight and staying in shape."
Pittman's approach to the rally for changes in policing in Fayetteville also played well with the Razorbacks. Pittman and other staff members made a low-key appearance at the event, which also attracted many players.
"He just handled the situation well, I think," Brown said.
"As a head coach, I wouldn't know what to do, but I thought he was probably one of the best coaches that handled it well," Boyd said. "He represented his team well during that time. During that time, I was very proud of Pittman. He reached out to a couple of players. That's big."
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