Tom Murphy is a sports 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. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pittman: Focus on FIU, not job status
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman talks with players on the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman understands his seat is hot heading into the final two games of the season.
One week after Pittman orchestrated the football program’s first win at Florida and appeared in good shape to return for a fifth season, his Hogs stunk up Reynolds Razorback Stadium in a stunning 48-10 loss to Auburn.
The third home loss in a row for Arkansas (3-7) heading into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game against Florida International (4-6) has rankled fans and placed Pittman on one of the hottest seats in college football. The odds of him being the next FBS head coach to be fired were 6 to 1 as determined by sportsbetting.ag, tied with Indiana’s Tom Allen as the second-best odds behind Baylor’s Dave Aranda at 5 to 1.
“Obviously we’re disappointed we didn’t have even a good showing for them on Saturday,” Pittman said at his weekly news conference Monday. “But we believe that we can get this thing turned around and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Razorbacks broke a six-game losing streak with the win at Florida, meaning the loss to Auburn, which gave Arkansas an 0-6 record against the SEC West this season, made it seven losses in the last eight games.
Pittman said he and his coaching staff spent a good number of hours on Sunday communicating with recruits and parents to fend off speculation he would not be retained.
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Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek voiced public support for Pittman last Thursday at a Hawgs Illustrated Sports Club lunch, saying “I have all the faith in Sam Pittman as our head football coach.”
Yurachek also said, “I know we’re 3-6 and we’ve lost some close games. We’re also in the SEC. Do we have challenges and some areas where we need to improve? Absolutely. But this is not where we’re at a make or break having to win the last three games or anything here down the stretch.”
Yurachek and Pittman talk on a weekly basis, including since the disappointing showing against Auburn dropped Arkansas to 2-3 at home.
“I know what’s going on and Hunter Yurachek knows what’s going on, but really nobody else,” Pittman said. “It’s opinion. They don’t really know what’s going on. But it affects our recruits, so we spent a long time yesterday with that as well.
“My job is to get ready for FIU. I’m not worried about my job security, at all. And I think I’m the guy for the University and I want to stay here for a long time.”
Pittman was asked later about the conversation he had with Yurachek after the loss to Auburn.
“You’d have to ask him about the conversation,” Pittman said. “But I haven’t really expressed to you what our conversations have been over the four years. I don’t think today’s a good time to talk about that either.”
Pittman has a 22-24 record at Arkansas. For calculating the terms of the buyout included in the contract he negotiated after a 9-4 season in 2021, the 3-7 record of his first season of 2020 is excluded due to the covid-19 pandemic and not having spring practices.
That makes his record 19-17 for the buyout language, meaning the worst he could be after 2023 is 19-19.
Pittman’s contract calls for a buyout of 75% of the remaining salary he is owed if he has a .500 record or better, meaning the UA would owe him a little over $16 million, plus retention bonuses of about $1.9 million. If Pittman had a record below .500, his buyout would be 50% of his remaining salary in addition to his already earned retention bonuses.
However, his buyout numbers are subject to mitigation, meaning he would have to seek employment commensurate with his status as a veteran coach. The mitigation lasts only until Pittman, who turns 62 on Nov. 28, turns 65.
But Pittman has made several references this season that his salary and buyout terms are far less important to him than connecting to, coaching and developing players.
Pittman was asked if he was coaching for his job the next two games, with the Battle Line rivalry game against Missouri on tap for Nov. 24 following the Florida International game.
“You’re always trying to win,” he said. “So honestly, it doesn’t feel a whole lot different than what it does every week. We want to win and coach for our players to be the best they possibly can be.”
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Pittman was also asked if the firings of SEC West coaches Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M and Zach Arnett at Mississippi State since Saturday “increased the noise” on his job status.
“That’s a good question,” Pittman said. “I think it’s hard, obviously, to block out all noise. You know what I mean? We’ve got a job to do. That is to get prepared each and every week. Jamie [Pittman’s wife] and I, when we got here, we were planning on coaching here until whatever that date was that we were going to go down to Hot Springs and call it a day.”
The Pittmans own a house on Lake Hamilton and Pittman has said that’s where he plans to retire when his time at Arkansas draws to a close.
“I’m not close to that year right now, and the plan is to get this program back to where it deserves to be and stay here as long as we possibly can,” Pittman said. “But it’s hard to block out noise.”
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