Even as an Arkansas fan, you are pardoned if you lack awareness about the name Ben Sowders. Strength and conditioning coaches typically only infiltrate football-fan conversation when they are initially hired or when they’re fired. Every so often, when a writer needs an offseason article during the doldrums, the name may leak out, too.
Anyway, Sowders is Arkansas’ strength and conditioning coach. He just finished his first full season with the Razorbacks, though it’s nigh impossible to see his effect. Sowders was hired in late 2022 in the stead of Jamil Walker, who after three years was excused for convenience. In other words, Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman didn’t much care for where the strength and conditioning program was headed under Walker’s watch, so he fired him and replaced him with Sowders, an old friend from Georgia. Walker, too, worked with Pittman at Georgia, but the point is about familiarity.
Could you tell the difference when it came to on-the-field results? Of course not. Presumably the rest of the coaching staff could, though. Nothing has been bandied about Sowders’ job being in danger after the Razorbacks’ worst season of Pittman’s tenure.
The Situation with Michigan Football
Up in Wolverines Land, however, S&C coach Ben Herbert is a bit more on the tongues of Michigan football fans. It helps, certainly, that Michigan won the national title, so assistant coaches are in the news a bit more often because of the possibilities of landing elsewhere. According to Andy Staples at On3, though, Herbert isn’t just another cog in the Wolverines machine. He’s the sort of coach Michigan needs to keep in hopes of staying on top of the college football world.
Arkansas had him once. Herbert coached the Razorbacks in strength and conditioning during the Bret Bielema regime. When the university administration chose to wash its hands of just about everyone affiliated with that, Herbert was out the door, basically earning a promotion by landing the same job at Michigan. Lucky him.
Herbert is considered such an important piece, the only person Staples argues is more valuable is Sherrone Moore, the man who served as interim head coach for Jim Harbaugh during that whole rigmarole that befell the Wolverines in the fall. Staples says Michigan should hire Moore as its next head coach now that Jim Harbaugh is returning to the NFL to coach the Los Angeles Chargers.
Reports indicate Moore will stay. That will lead to the Wolverines retaining both players and a valuable assistant in Herbert, Staples argues. Michigan would, in turn, avoid the issues that Alabama faced when Nick Saban retired. The Crimson Tide were left holding the bag, so to speak, and have seen a lot of players enter the transfer portal.
That’s not necessarily because they looked outside of Tuscaloosa for Saban’s replacement, but hiring a coach who doesn’t already know the players can only exacerbate transfer portal losses. At least 10 Alabama football players have entered the transfer portal in the just-over-two-weeks since Saban’s retirement, and the dominoes that the Crimson Tide coaching turnover set in motion may finally be toppling into Arkansas soon.
Bringing Things Back to Arkansas Football
What else does any of this have to do with Arkansas? Well, you should have guessed by now, because the biggest offseason move the university made wasn’t with portal additions or subtractions. The hiring of Bobby Petrino, former Hogs head coach turned Hogs offensive coordinator, was seen by some onlookers as the athletic department hiring its head coach-in-waiting if Pittman doesn’t get things turned around in 2024.
In the era of the transfer portal and NIL, continuity can be massive, even more than in years past. We have seen it with the Arkansas basketball team this winter. Coach Eric Musselman landed one of the best transfer portal classes in the country in the offseason – just as he had the two previous years, as well – but the Hogs have scuffled to a 1-4 start in SEC play and are in danger of having their worst season in almost a decade. One of the biggest reasons for the struggle isn’t a lack of talent. It’s a lack of communication. Unfamiliar faces don’t always familiarize themselves at the same rate.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that disaster strikes on-field with the Arkansas football team for a second straight season. Whether you, Joe Public, would ethically agree or disagree with Bobby Petrino becoming Arkansas’ next head coach isn’t the point. Arkansas, the school, has already established it will let bygones be bygones with their hiring of Petrino in the first place. Assuming his relationship with players is solid, or at least becomes solid, Hogs brass naming him as Pittman’s replacement would limit exodus. Yes, some players would still leave. They always do. But, given what Alabama has shown, and what Staples surmises, is that fewer players would leave Arkansas if Petrino takes over.
Impact of the Transfer Portal
Had Sam Pittman been fired and his replacement come from outside Fayetteville, does Landon Jackson return for another year? Does the whole receiving corps? How about freshman tight end Luke Hasz, who had said during recruitment that Pittman was a big reason he chose the Razorbacks?
It’s a safe bet that in such a scenario, the number of Razorbacks entering the transfer portal certainly would have been higher than what actually happened. The Hogs would be staring at a deeper abyss now than they would have had Pittman been excused.
Maybe Pittman is back on his game in the fall and the program can kick the can down the road. But the reality is that Arkansas will be picked near the bottom of the SEC, regardless. With Texas and Oklahoma entering the fold, things aren’t getting easier in Fayetteville any time soon. This conversation very well may be taking place again in late November and early December.
That’s probably the next time you’ll hear about Ben Sowders, anyway.
More coverage of Arkansas football and Bobby Petrino from BoAS…