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Regrading the SEC Coaching Carousel: Sam Pittman had the right oinkment for ailing Arkansas

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If you think I’m apologizing for that, you must be new here.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This week we’re regrading the 2020 Coaching Carousel in the SEC. This weekend, we covered Eli Drinkwitz and the Missouri Tigers. While not a splash hire, his work points to incremental improvement and steady program-building. You can read that here.

Today, we look at the Razorback’s Sam Pittman, a career position coach tapped to take over a toxic Arkansas program stuck in its historical rut. It was a hire that widely panned at the time, and we were not alone in condemning it...though we were a bit harsher than most.

After one year, it appears we may have been wrong.

Sam Pittman (Arkansas)

2020 SEC Record (3-7)
2019 SEC Record (0-8)
2020 Bowl — None
2019 Bowl — None

What we said:

Given the state of the program, if Pittman wildly overachieves and posts some Ron Zook results, that would qualify as a minor miracle and indeed seems to be wildly optimistic. Meanwhile, “anything better than Ole Miss Orgeron” has to count as a success at some level.

Make no mistake: this is not a risky hire at all.

The program literally cannot get any worse than it is now. Arkansas has set a dubious SEC record by going winless in the conference in back-to-back years. They have won one SEC game in three years; four total in four years.

The offensive line is softer than baby shit. The defensive line is a bunch of turnstiles. The Hogs were dead last in scoring defense, dead last in total defense, dead last in rushing defense. The only reason they weren’t dead last in passing defense is because Arkansas gave up 5.5 yards a carry and well over 2000 yards on the ground. The Hogs were next to last in scoring offense, posting just a gross 21 PPG; and they were 11th in rushing, 11th in passing, and 13th in total offense. #HammerDownLeftLane my ass, Chad.

Hope he can upgrade the talent to a respectable level. Hope he can put some butts in seats for a stadium that has been at 30% capacity for a year. Hope his teams can play with a little more toughness and consistency. Hope he can win a few games. Hope he can make a bowl game over the next few years. Hope he can hire a good staff and surround himself with program-builders. Hope he can right the ship for the next guy to take over.

Make no mistake, administratively this has to be seen as killing time until all that buyout money comes off the books and Arkansas can go back to the drawing board. And, if those are the aims, and everything works to-plan, it may merely be a mediocre hire.

However, it won’t be enough and things rarely go to-plan. That is simply not going to cut it: Not with that fanbase, not with that school, and not in the SEC. And viewed through that lens, and Arkansas’ history, then there is no other way to frame this other than as an abysmal failure.

Yikes. Tough room.

Was this an actual SEC team again?

It’s not that Arkansas was winless in the SEC for two straight seasons before Pittman’s arrival that was so ghastly; it’s how they lost. The Hogs were absolutely not even competitive in most contests. Chad Morris was an awful fit at the time and was hired out of reasons relating to the always-present tussle of Walmart Boosters vs. Everyone Else. Everyone Else won that round, and it was a disaster.

So, if your goal is to make modest improvements, then just being competitive would have to be the first step in measuring Pittman’s success. That’s the bottom line: did Arkansas actually resemble an SEC team, even if only sporadically?

Resoundingly so.

The Hogs not only broke a 20-game SEC losing streak just three weeks into the season, Arkansas had two epic screwjobs cost them wins in the waning moments. They picked up their first road victory in almost five years and their first win over a ranked team in five seasons.

True, the Razorbacks were not competitive against most of the ranked squads they faced, but Arkansas finished the season with the No. 1 SOS — in addition to a full SEC West slate, they drew No. 4 UGA and No. 6 Florida. Half of their tossup games were on the road, and Arkansas lost to Mizzou and Auburn by a combined four points.

On defense, the Razorbacks absolutely suffocated average, run-of-the-mill bowl-type teams, and gave up no more than 21 points in their three wins; in two of those, they allowed just two scores. This was a team that could, and very well should, have been sitting at .500.

Ignore the blowouts to ‘Bama and Florida: Arkansas stuffed UGA for a half and went into the locker room with a one-score game. They went toe-to-toe with Aggie in the Hate Barn, and only some late score-padding made that score look respectable from an A&M POV.

This was a team reborn hard by season’s end, when the ‘Rona decimated its rosters.

Alabama v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Deliverables?

The scoreboard is nice, but does it tell the complete story? Was this team an illusory 3-7?

Not one bit. Instead, what we see is a team that outperformed its record, in fact.

Arkansas leapt to 8th in scoring (up from 13th), 10th in scoring defense (up from dead last), it went from next to last in total offense to 8th, from last in YPP to 6th, from 11th to 9th in rushing, and from 11th in passing to 8th. It went from -5 in TOM to + 5, and jumped from next-to-last in forcing turnovers to 5th in the SEC.

But it’s not all hog heaven.

Where Arkansas got worse, and demonstrably so, was along the lines — it was not good at generating pressure or TFL; and on the other side of the ball, it gave up way too many TFL and sacks. They were downright terrible at times. That is as much a function of Chad Morris’ failures that anything though. The slapdick from slapout was a miserable recruiter, and after he had exhausted Bret Bielema’s group, he simply did not get enough quality beefy dudes on both sides of the ball.

Speaking of recruiting...

Pittman was a great recruiter at programs like Georgia. Did that carryover to his first stint as a head man?

You betchya.

Chad Morris finished last and next to last in the SEC in recruiting during his two years in Fayetteville. Despite inheriting perhaps the worst SEC program I’ve literally every seen, Pittman immediately ignited the crootin’ trail. Arkansas had not finished above 50th in total recruiting before his arrival, nor had they been higher than 13th in the SEC. In his first year, Pittman landed the No. 25 overall class, good for 9th in the SEC. And there’s no reason to think he can’t improve on that after showing mamas and coaches that he is competent coach...and importantly, there’s plenty of playing time to be had.

Bottom Line

On the off-chance that you’re reading this, Coach Pittman, I am so very sorry. I am happy for you and your family and for my Arkansas friends that I was so wrong too. The lineplay is still garbage, there’s still not enough talent (particularly in relation to elite programs), and there is a mountain of work that remains to be seen. Those can be remedied. Arkansas didn’t get in this shape in one year, and it can’t unf*** itself in 12 months either.

But, you didn’t embarass yourself; you acquitted yourself. The players didn’t mail it in as we have too often seen; they were outplayed, not out-willed. The staff you put together is SEC calibre, especially at the coordinator spots. And rather than face-planting on the recruiting trail, you have turned it up several notches.

It may be too early to think about a bowl in 2021, but you are are plainly putting it all together and getting Arkansas on the path to respectability again.

Considering where Arkansas began, and what you had in the cupboard, versus where the Hogs ended the season is why I voted for you as the 2020 SEC Coach of the Year.

Now, it’s time to take the next step. I was sow wrong on this one.

Final Grade: A-

Poll

After Year One, what grade would you give Sam Pittman?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    A+ — How you went 3-7 is beyond me
    (135 votes)
  • 30%
    A/A-
    (115 votes)
  • 22%
    B+
    (85 votes)
  • 6%
    B/B-
    (24 votes)
  • 3%
    C-ish
    (13 votes)
  • 0%
    D-ish
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    F — You still went 3-7
    (4 votes)
377 votes total Vote Now