Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Pittman's long ago past prepared for present turnaround
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman speaks with ESPN reporter Katie George following a 40-21 victory over Texas on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Pittman’s earliest jobs included construction work and raising hogs with his older brother.
It’s no wonder Pittman has rebuilt the Arkansas Razorbacks’ football program so quickly.
In their second season under Pittman, the Razorbacks have regained their identity as a blue-collar, physical team that is capable of beating nearly anyone on a given day. That was Arkansas football for nearly 20 years before the bottom fell out a few years ago.
It is an identity that matches the attitude of their head coach, who was raised on hard work. As a teenager in Oklahoma, Pittman took delight in being able to earn his own money and not having to ask his parents to fund his activities.
Pittman began roofing houses in junior high. In later summers he added jobs as a mud mixer and fence builder, and would make $20 to saw ricks of wood — all while playing baseball.
“My dad would buy an old house and all of us kids would help fix it up,” said Pittman, the youngest of five, during an interview last year. “Some type of construction has been a big part of my whole life.
“It just taught me that if you wanted something — whether it be material or you just had a goal you wanted to achieve — that you needed to go to work for it, and if you did, good things could happen from that.”
Pittman was hired in December 2019 to reconstruct a program that was probably at its lowest point since it first moved to the SEC almost three decades before.
A lack of physicality — perhaps the trait needed most by an SEC team — ailed the Razorbacks for most of a four-year period beginning in 2016, the year after Pittman left to become the offensive line coach at Georgia. Pittman coached Arkansas’ line from 2013-15.
The Razorbacks were pushed around by nonconference teams the next few years, precursors to mighty struggles in the SEC. Arkansas lost 18 games by 21 points or more over four years between 2016-19, including twice to Conference USA teams at home.
Pittman — one of the great defensive linemen to play at Pittsburg (Kan.) State who became one of college football’s brand-name offensive line coaches — identified line play as a chief issue. The Razorbacks were too small for what he thought a line should look like in the SEC.
So he went to work, building his lines’ depth and physicality through strength training, recruiting and coaching. There were improvements a year ago, but an SEC-caliber line takes years to build.
Pittman’s vision for a line-of-scrimmage team is much further along now in Year 2. Arkansas won the battle of the lines in its 19-point victory over Texas on Saturday night.
Arkansas averaged 7 yards per carry and held Texas to a 3-yard average. The Razorbacks did not allow a sack on offense, sacked Texas three times and recorded 11 tackles for loss.
Nose tackles Isaiah Nichols and John Ridgeway wreaked havoc on Texas center Jake Majors and guards Denzel Okafor and Junior Angilau, creating multiple tackles for loss early. Arkansas center Ricky Stromberg held his own against Keondre Coburn, a 346-pound All-Big 12 nose for the Longhorns.
The Razorbacks’ veteran linebacker corps of Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and Bumper Pool played well and hit hard. Even the backs got in on the action. Dominique Johnson threw a key block to allow KJ Jefferson time to complete a 45-yard pass to Tyson Morris, and Jefferson returned the favor two plays later with a chip block in front of Johnson on a 12-yard gain to the Texas 6.
It did not matter which Razorback unit was on the field, there was physically dominating play.
Arkansas got Texas’ offense off the field so fast, so often that the Longhorns’ defense began to break in the second half. The Razorbacks wore down Texas late, creating big cutback lanes for running backs.
Saturday’s game served as a stark contrast to so many of Arkansas’ games in recent memory, when the Razorbacks gave up a lead after halftime or were too far behind for the second half to matter.
When Pittman returned as head coach, he brought back with him an edge that was missing in those collapses. The Razorbacks played hard and won more games (3) against SEC teams in his first year than they won the previous three seasons (1).
“I’ll tell you what, I don’t want to play them,” ESPN analyst Greg McElroy said as Saturday’s game broadcast came to a close. “That team will punch you and fight you every single snap.”
The Texas game wasn’t as close as the scoreboard said. The Razorbacks settled for three chip-shot field goals and took a knee at the Texas 10 to end the game, and the Longhorns scored 14 of their 21 points in the fourth quarter.
A future Arkansas team might have beaten Texas much worse, able to capitalize on the red-zone opportunities that ended without touchdowns.
Nothing about Saturday seemed to surprise Pittman, who remained calm and confident on the sideline throughout the onslaught. Perhaps he knew the Longhorns were walking into a hornet’s nest — the first sold-out crowd to watch football in Fayetteville in four years.
It was the best-case scenario for Arkansas: an opponent with a first-year coaching staff and a freshman quarterback, playing in a stadium full of fans who haven’t had much to cheer about in a while.
If there was ever a good time to get Texas at home, this was it.
Arkansas is ranked in the top 20 less than a year after it snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak. There is optimism about the program that had been absent for many years.
It might have seemed impossible to someone who did not know how to raise hogs or fix things.
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