State of the Hogs: Pittman teaching old lessons in new way

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, February 26, 2021
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman with his team before the start of the Razorbacks game against LSU during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman with his team before the start of the Razorbacks game against LSU during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

There was once a time when sports editors wrote novels and they ran in newspapers. It was a fascinating time in sports journalism.

My father, Orville Henry, seemed to write about almost every play during the time Frank Broyles led Arkansas to the college football mountaintop in the early 1960s. Bill Connors was doing similar stuff with his long game columns in the Tulsa World.

And, now and then, Connors would dive into a series of stories that might last for an entire week. His five-part series on Broyles when the Arkansas coach was at his pinnacle arrived in my mailbox this week, courtesy of Hawgs Illustrated subscriber Don Warr.

The Connors columns started on the front page, jumped inside and filled up another page. There were five parts in the series with comments from Broyles and most of his top aides. There must have been 10,000 total words.

It was wonderful stuff at a wonderful time in Arkansas football. It ran two weeks after the Hogs wrapped up their second straight perfect regular season in December 1965. They had won the national title in 1964 and had won 22 straight games ahead of a loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl.

Warr had written an email from his home in Midland, Texas, asking for my home address. I’m thankful for his attempt to find a home for a treasure trove of great stories – both by Connors and my father.

They arrived the night before my spring advance phone interview with Sam Pittman, now the second-year Arkansas coach. I couldn’t wait to relay to Pittman a few lines from the Connors columns on Broyles.

Broyles had been given a raise that year to $25,000. Pittman’s salary (not counting a 10% cut accepted by coaches because of budgetary moves related to covid-19) is $250,000 each month.

Told what Broyles made, Pittman was stunned. All he could think was that Broyles is responsible for what UA coaches are paid today.

“What I know is that they don’t put a statue in front of a building named for you unless you earned it,” Pittman said. “What a great person, what a great leader. I was around him briefly a couple of times as an assistant coach here (from 2013-15). Oh, what a great aura you got from him.

“I count myself as fortunate to have been around him those two times. You look around here and think of all the things he did. It’s obvious when you see his name on the field and his name on the complex where our athletic offices are located. The complex is named after him.”

Connors interviewed Barry Switzer, then a Broyles assistant, to learn some of the inner workings of the UA practices and game management. Switzer explained that detailed execution was the Broyles key. Simplicity was a strength, but technique was always perfect.

Broyles felt pride after a 31-0 victory over Rice when the opposing coach shook his hand and told him, “You beat us with four plays. That’s all you ran today.”

“That was a compliment to our execution," Broyles said.

Pittman said the game has changed with more complexity, "but it still comes down to execution. There is just so much more detail schematically today.”

So how many plays are in the UA playbook?

“I’m not sure it’s just the number of plays that’s different,” Pittman said. “You might have four running plays out of one schematic look, then four out of another. Also, you run one play four different ways. You have four different protections for one pass. You may have four different route structures out of one play.”

That wasn’t the case in 1965.

The other major difference between 1965 and now is the size of the players. The Hogs won with small, quick players in 1959-62, but began to get bigger linemen and backs to set up the string of 22 straight victories. Tackle Glen Ray Hines was massive at 6-7, 260 for the championship Arkansas teams in 1964-65, but would be small today. However, Hines was as mobile as he was big, the key to the Arkansas success then.

Jim Lindsey and Harry Jones, the wingbacks on the 1965 team who both played in the NFL, were 200-pounders with great speed and quickness. They were bigger than the linemen who won for Broyles five seasons earlier.

Under Broyles, the Hogs evolved from light and quick to big and quick — and that was in the lines and the backfield.

“We would not play a big man who could not move,” Broyles told Connors.

Bingo, said Pittman, the former offensive line coach who wants massive players as a head coach, but will not play anyone who can’t move.

“Quickness is so important,” Pittman said. “It’s 100% true today. You have to be able to move your feet. I want our team to get bigger, but not without maintaining quickness.”

There was a reminder from Pittman that Charlotte transfer Ty’Kieast Crawford is over 350 pounds “and can still move his feet.”

Pittman said the 6-5 sophomore is working at right tackle as the Hogs prep for spring practice. He is expected to be granted immediate eligibility with the high probability the NCAA will pass new one-time transfer legislation in April.

“We think Crawford looks like a right tackle,” Pittman said. “I like big guards and he can play there, but we’ve got him at tackle.”

Myron Cunningham, who accepted the NCAA’s offer of a second senior season, is still at left tackle. Pittman said there was never a thought of moving him to right tackle, as some fans speculated this winter.

“Maybe playing right tackle would have shown some versatility (to NFL teams) and his draft stock would have gone up some,” Pittman said. “But it will go up more if he keeps improving at left tackle. That’s the spot everyone is looking at (for great players).”

Like all the Razorbacks this winter, Cunningham keeps getting bigger, but has not lost any speed. If anything, he’s quicker and faster.

“He was 285 when we got here,” Pittman said. “He’s at 330 now and just bigger and faster. I’m so glad he came back (for a fifth year of college). I think he’s going to rise above the projections (from NFL inquiries).”

Pittman said he’d “rather not say” what those projections were, but it was the consensus “from the 16 NFL teams we called. We gave that to Myron. We want what’s best for our players, but I think he made the right decision based on where we think he can get to with another season.”

Cunningham remains as a fit in the Broyles model, a big man who can move.

“He’s moving faster and better,” Pittman said. “When you add weight, it takes a bit to adjust. He’s got his feet under him now. He’s got experience and confidence now. He carries his weight better.”

Like linebacker Grant Morgan, Cunningham is a returning captain.

“I call that bunch (of 10) who came back our super seniors,” Pittman said. “We’ve got some leadership in that group and some others like Treylon Burks emerging as leaders.”

As for big guys who can move, insert center Ricky Stromberg into that group. The Tulsa Union product is now up to 315 pounds. Pittman said it’s questionable whether he would have taken Stromberg out of high school.

“I do recall seeing his tape from high school,” Pittman said. “From what I remember, he was 245. I think by the time he got here and played, he was 270.

“Is he a surprise? No, because he’s playing now exactly how he played in high school, just at a bigger weight. He played like his high school tape two years ago as a freshman at Arkansas. Would I have taken him if I’d been at Arkansas? Well, if I didn’t take him, I would have been wrong.”

In Connors' 1965 series, Broyles said he was wrong for some of his decisions in his early years at Arkansas. Among his notable poor judgments:

• If he had a chance to coach Lance Alworth again, he would have played him at quarterback so the ball could be in his hands more.

• After losing the first six games in his first season at Arkansas, Broyles thought he would be unemployed soon. Watching a much bigger Texas A&M team warm up in game seven with line coach Dixie White, Broyles said, “I was so worried about A&M’s size that I wondered if we could ever win enough to hold our jobs. Dixie said, ‘I’m afraid not.’” The Hogs won that day and three more to end the season and they were soon dominating the Southwest Conference.

• Broyles resisted when defensive coordinator Jim Mackenzie wanted to move to the press box after the victory over Texas in 1964. Mackenzie talked his way off the sideline and into the booth. The Hogs shut out their final five opponents in the regular season.

• Coaches thought Arkansas won on defensive scheme, but Broyles said they were wrong. Pointing to different systems at Georgia Tech and Alabama. He said, “Tech, Alabama and Arkansas do it with different defensive systems, but they play the same way. They use quickness to swarm the ball.”

There was some Bear Bryant in the Arkansas schemes. That was because Broyles hired Jerry Claiborne from Bryant’s Texas A&M staff to coordinate his Missouri defense. Claiborne insisted that Mackenzie should be hired from a junior college in Bryan, Texas — the best package deal ever, wrote Connors.

How big? I’ll borrow a fabulous Connors quote. He said it was the “biggest bonus since a theatrical agent discovered George Burns was not as funny as his wife.”

While the youngsters try to figure out the Burns spouse, here’s another thank you to Connors (my mentor) for yet another gift, and to Don Warr for mailing it.

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