It was a decade that was forgettable for Razorbacks fans. The opening decade of the new century was not good to the Arkansas football program. In fact, Razorbacks fans have endured a decade of perennial losing seasons with the exceptions of a few years under Bobby Petrino that ultimately ended in disgrace and put the program into a tail spin in which it has yet to recover. Add to all of this the loss of its long time football coach and athletic director, Frank Broyles, it was the worst of times for Arkansas football.
So, at Arkansas, once again, a new head football coach springs eternal optimism for a fan base that is starved for success. Not unlike Spring Training in major league baseball where every team is optimistic about the upcoming year, another change at the helm of the Razorbacks program has given Arkansas fans renewed hope that maybe the program is back on a solid foundation and is headed in the right direction.
Given the lack of success over the past ten years in the Razorbacks football program, and an added background that has seen an athletic director, it’s men’s basketball coach, and it’s most recent football coach (fired after two seasons), all fired in the past few years, a search for a top-level football coach was faced with many obstacles that made it almost impossible to hire a top-five coach on most athletic directors’ short-list of desired candidates.
Given all of this, the Razorbacks have made a great hire in Sam Pittman, a man who has a track record of success in the SEC, and who actually wanted to come to Arkansas. Perhaps his biggest addition to this program will not just be his track record of success in recruiting top athletes, but his reputation as a players coach. In fact, his best recruiting trophy so far may have been his success in convincing senior running back Rakeem Boyd to return to Arkansas for his senior year. Since that time, Pittman has flipped some high profile recruits from other SEC programs and is in the running for several uncommitted, top shelf players that remain unsigned going into the traditional college football signing period.
Coach Pittman appears to be a coach of traditional values and methods. He is not big into slogans and some of the trendy things you hear coming from today’s younger generation of coaches. But, from all appearances, Pittman appears to be loved by his players. And as I stated from my coverage of the WKU game in November that turned out to be Chad Morris’s final game as the Arkansas coach, this will be an important first step in rebuilding the Razorbacks program. By outward appearance, it seemed that Morris had lost the team. My impression of this was forged in the reaction of the Razorback players at mid-field after the loss to WKU. It was one thing to be kind and classy with Ty Storey after the loss, but the laughter and kidding around immediately after the loss seemed to be how you would think a team would have acted following a big win, not an embarrassing loss. I surely can’t tell you that I know this for a fact, but my impression was that the Hogs players didn’t seem to care that they had been dominated at home by a Conference USA team. I surely don’t mean any disrespect to a very good WKU team that won eight games this year, including an impressive bowl win, but, I can’t visualize any other SEC team taking a loss like this as lightly as Arkansas seemingly did. And in the team culture of the Georgia Bulldogs, I surely can’t see them reacting that way following an embarrassing loss. I know Arkansas is not Georgia, but, I do believe in pride in the Razorbacks program that must be reinstated, and I believe Sam Pittman is the man to do the job. In the borrowed words of a dear friend who is very close to this situation, “We have ourselves a ball coach!”
Pittman immediately began to assemble his staff, and the first hire was to target a Razorbacks defense that has been dismal over the past several seasons. Pittman went to his long time friend, Barry Odom, who had just been fired as head coach of the Missouri Tigers. Odom, prior to his ascendance to head coach, had built his reputation as an outstanding defensive coach and recruiter. Now, with just eight days after being hired as the Razorbacks head coach, Sam Pittman had a defensive coordinator on his small staff, yet recruited aggressively and landed some top recruits and “flips” from previously committed programs.
Next on Pittman’s radar was the selection of an offensive coordinator. Pittman was faced with the challenge of finding a coordinator that would mesh with the talented receivers that had been signed by Chad Morris, as well as someone who would be an effective recruiter nationally of offensive talent. After a fairly lengthy interview process, Pittman selected Kendal Briles, former offensive coordinator at Florida State, and who was available from the dismissal of his head coach, Willie Taggert. You may recognize the name, as Briles is the son of former Baylor coach, Art Briles, who had prolific offenses at Baylor that included former Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Giffin III. Kendall Briles has a reputation of being a very good recruiter and someone who could make a big difference in the development of the Hogs sophomore quarterback, K. J. Jefferson.
Pittman is continuing the process of filling out his staff and if he completes the process as strongly as he started with the two coordinator hires, Arkansas may have assembled the best coaching staff from top to bottom that it has had in several years. One may have to go back as far as the late 1970s when then Arkansas coach Lou Holtz attracted such assistant coaches as Monte Kiffin, Jesse Branch, Larry Beightol, Don Breaux, Ken Turner, and graduate assistant and now Seattle Seahawks head coach, Pete Carroll.
The next step for the new staff will be recruiting for the national signing day on February 5. Arkansas must find recruits that can address several key areas such as quarterback, offensive and defensive lines, and also not to forget a replacement for kicker Connor Limpert who graduated last season. The Hogs recruiting season is off to a good start given the very short time Pittman has been on campus, but he must continue to press hard to land as good of a recruiting class as possible to go with the young team he inherits and must develop during the spring and summer.
Arkansas’s first football schedule of the new decade will include an away game at the University of Notre Dame. The two teams will play for the first time in South Bend, Indiana on September 12. The Razorbacks home schedule will include games at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium against Kent State, Charleston Southern, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Louisiana-Monroe. The Razorbacks will play road games at Notre Dame, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Missouri. Arkansas will again play a neutral site game against Texas A&M in Dallas.
The schedule is daunting for a first year head coach that takes over a program that has seemingly hit rock bottom over the past two to three years. Arkansas will again be young and will be in a rebuilding mode. A season in which the team becomes bowl eligible would be a tremendous accomplishment for this team. Arkansas must show a desire to play and to play hard as a first step. I believe Sam Pittman will embed a new sense of pride to this program. Arkansas was a bad team last year, but was not as bad as they played. There is too much talent in the program to lay down and quit the way this team seemingly did at the end of last year.
Under Sam Pittman’s leadership, let’s hope that the next decade will be much better for the Razorbacks than the first ten years of this century. It has been a long time since 1964 when Arkansas won its last national championship, and on that day in December in 1969 when Arkansas experienced its most devastating loss in program history, losing a heart breaker to Texas in Fayetteville for the national championship, the program has not achieved long term, consistent success ever since.
It is time to get over the 1969 loss to Texas and move on to a brighter future. I was ten years old when Arkansas lost that fateful game, and for people my age, it is time for another heyday at Arkansas.