Line of credit: Ex-players stepped up for Pittman

Arkansas assistant coach Sam Pittman watches Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. during practice at the university football practice field in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Travis Swanson, the former All-SEC center at the University of Arkansas, played just one season for offensive line coach Sam Pittman with the Razorbacks. But as soon as Swanson heard about the firing of Chad Morris on Nov. 10 after the Razorbacks' 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky, he got on the phone with Pittman.

"He just started laughing when he picked up the phone," Swanson recalled. "He said, 'I know why you're calling, and I want it.' I was like, 'All right. I don't know what I can do, but I'll try.' "

"It" was the head coaching gig at Arkansas, where Pittman went to camps as a high schooler from Grove, Okla., in the late 1970s, and where he served as offensive line coach from 2013-15.

Swanson did more than try. He and ex-Razorback offensive tackle Dan Skipper, who played three seasons for Pittman, served as the masterminds of a campaign to get Pittman's name into the public eye.

Pittman eventually swayed UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and other officials with his hunger for the job and his plan for the program, and he was hired Dec. 8.

The role played by Pittman's former proteges in him ultimately taking over as the 34th head coach at Arkansas is debatable, but their emotional investment in the approach is undeniable.

Skipper swiftly put together a letter extolling Pittman's credentials, and he shared it with Swanson and other ex-Razorbacks. The goal was to let Yurachek, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz and the UA board of trustees know about Pittman's passion for the position and get that message out into public forums.

"We all chatted and talked about it and tried to think about what was the best way to try to get the word out, because a lot of fans especially wouldn't think it was serious," Skipper said.

"I said, 'Let's get this thing out. It's gonna get people talking. It's gonna try to get people on board and get the fans excited,' " Swanson said. "Everyone has seen the past couple of years, and it's been hard."

Skipper's letter was sent to, the local website, and published two days after Yurachek fired Morris. At the time, Pittman's candidacy for the top spot felt like a long shot based on his lack of head coaching experience.

Mike Norvell, Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach, Eliah Drinkwitz and other standing head coaches seemed to have stronger momentum and credentials than Pittman, and each of those coaches changed jobs over the winter, with Kiffin, Leach and Drinkwitz all landing in the SEC like Pittman.

Yurachek and his search aides -- deputy athletic director Jon Fagg and board member Steve Cox, a former Razorback punter and kicker -- interviewed Kiffin, Leach and Drinkwitz.

Pittman, in his fourth season at Georgia, was preparing for the Dec. 7 SEC Championship Game against LSU during the most critical week of the search, but people in his corner stayed active. His agent, Judy Henry of Little Rock, had been in contact with Yurachek to apprise him of Pittman's interest.

Pittman's former pupils did what they could in a lobbying effort.

"I don't want to take credit for getting him here or anything," said Swanson, who has started a family with his wife, the former Emily Holder, and is putting down roots in Fayetteville as a financial planner. "I just had some conversations with him ... and me and Skipper and a couple of other people tried to get the fans involved and get them excited again about Arkansas football.

"I put a tweet out the same day Morris had gotten fired and ... me and some of the other guys, we publicly expressed our positive opinion on him."

Out in Southern California, former Razorback guard Sebastian Tretola and tight end Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers talked about the coaching search at the workout facility they share.

"I see Hunter every day, and we talked about it, as soon as that happened, immediately, 'It's got to be Coach Pitt,' " Tretola recalled saying. "He's got the track record. He's got to be the guy. Then that letter came out, and it was really perfect timing."

Tretola brought up Pittman's track record of attracting signees coast to coast and points in between. Denver Kirkland signed with the Razorbacks out of Miami. Tretola is from Southern California and came from Iowa Western Junior College. Skipper is from Colorado, Luke Charpentier from Louisiana and Frank Ragnow from Minnesota.

"Like he was plucking from the corners of the map," Tretola said. "It's crazy.

"Sam Pittman is swag. It's just a Pittman thing, and I think it's going to translate to the head job very smoothly."

Said Skipper: "He's a great coach in the fact that he loves you on the field and he loves you off the field, but he coaches. That's a fine line you know, because it doesn't take a whole lot to go out there and make the guys hate you. But it takes a special person to go out and coach you and tell you when you need to fix stuff and get things better, who knows how to get on you and press you, but at the same time knows when to back off and love you up.

"That's what coach does such a great job with and always has. He knows how to deal with all the different personalities from everyone. That's part of what, in my opinion, made him so successful over the years is he knows how to treat individual players and how to form that bond with them."

In his letter from Nov. 12, Skipper wrote in support of Pittman, "The toughness, grit, and loyalty that are benchmarks of our program are just a few of the qualities he has as a coach. Bottom line at the end of the day when he is coaching, he cares about his players first. He and his wife Jamie treated us like his own kids in good times and bad."

Former Razorback defensive lineman Alfred Davis, a UA graduate assistant during Pittman's first stint at Arkansas, credits Pittman with helping him land his first full-time coaching job at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College with then-Coach Rion Rhoades, who is now linebackers coach at Arkansas.

"He poured himself into his coaches, and he proved himself as a recruiter year after year after year to bring a lot of talent into the program," said Davis, who is now the defensive line coach at Illinois. "For me as a young coach, I was just sitting back collecting my notes.

"Coach Pittman, he earned his reputation is the reason why people feel the way they feel about him. He carries himself a certain way. He handles his business. He's likable. Everybody loves him. His wife is amazing. He's a good person. You want good things to happen to good people."

Current Arkansas offensive line coach Brad Davis -- who played on the Oklahoma offensive line for Pittman, then coached with him at North Carolina -- has said the same things about Pittman. Davis said it was no surprise his former position players formed a pro-Pittman coalition.

"Coach Pittman, I would have followed him to the edge of the earth," Davis said. "Quite frankly, I can't tell you how many programs, how many different kids that he's impacted from different places that have also reached out to me about him. It's amazing.

"Players and coaches, for that matter. When you bring up Coach Pittman's name, there's a smile, there's a warm feeling that comes into the room. The conversation changes when two people realize they have that common connection to Coach Pittman. He has positively affected so many people's lives that you really can't even measure. He's just a good man, and he's the right guy for the job."

Swanson is not concerned about Pittman's jump from offensive line coach to head coach.

"The guy can obviously recruit, and not only can he recruit, he can develop," Swanson said. "I know before this he's only had the O-line room. But there's no doubt in my mind, you put the right coordinators around him, the ones who have had head coaching experience, and it's going to do nothing but just bolster that team.

"I think he can do everything. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to flourish in this role. I know he can take those same principles and standards he would hold an O-line room accountable to and transition that to a team. I'm excited for what they're going to do and the years to come for Razorback football. Just because I have firsthand experience at seeing what he did for me and my family in just a very short however many months I had with him."

Yurachek, at Pittman's introductory news conference, said he never saw the letter written by the former Razorback linemen, but he'd been made aware of it by former Arkansas great Darren McFadden.

"Believe me, Coach Pittman got a number of people that did have my phone number -- I don't know why they didn't give it to him -- who called me on his behalf," Yurachek said after Pittman mentioned he couldn't get Yurachek's number.

Yurachek stressed that Pittman expressed the most enthusiasm for wanting the Arkansas job despite the perception of the program after back-to-back 2-10 seasons.

"From the time that we made a change in the leadership of our football program, people started talking to me about Sam Pittman," he said. "Obviously, he had developed quite a reputation for recruiting and offensive line play when he was here.

"Then I started doing some of my own research and talking to people across the country about Sam, and watching him sometimes on the sidelines and trying to digest any type of videos I could of him and his enthusiasm.

"I mean, people see this as a daunting task and some people are just not cut out for it. 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."

Don't believe it? Just ask his former players.

Sports on 05/17/2020