When Arkansas football began having a noticeable abundance of struggles on the offensive line during the 2023 season, Sam Pittman was, rightfully, bombarded with questions from the media regarding the unit’s issues.
Pittman had spent his entire career as an offensive line coach and built the reputation of being one of the best in college football before taking the head job at Arkansas. So, it was reasonable for the media to consistently ask him why that position group was floundering game after game.
Instead of answering head on, Pittman routinely played coy and opted to dance around those questions throughout the year. It was a tactic that frustrated fans and media alike, and led many to ponder whether or not he actually could identify and fix the problems.
It’s obvious now that Pittman knew the extent of his offensive line’s issues. The hiring of new offensive line coach Eric Mateos and three offensive line additions via the transfer portal are evidence of that.
So, that leads us to the question of why. Why exactly would Pittman opt to take criticism and flak from both Razorback fans and media instead of just being completely open and honest about the situation?
Well, according to Little Rock baseball coach Chris Curry, the answer is pretty simple.
Strategy Behind Alluding Media Questions
During a recent appearance on 103.7 the Buzz’s midday talk show “The Zone” with Justin Acri and DJ Williams, Chris Curry gave his opinion on what Sam Pittman’s strategy may have been.
Curry was on to preview the Trojans’ 2024 season and brought up how his veteran players have set the tone this year by taking on leadership roles on the team instead of having that responsibility fall completely on the coaching staff. That prompted DJ Williams to ask how a coach navigates being open with the media about their issues, while also not throwing players under the bus.
Williams used Pittman’s inability to answer reporters directly when asked about the offensive line this past season as his example.
“I think you have to think as a player,” Curry said. “A lot of times, don’t forget, those coaches are speaking, through the media, to the team. You do have to be honest, you want to respect the media guys and give them good information, but your team (is) most important. If I pick one of the two to be mad at me, the media or my team, easy choice.”
As a former Razorback assistant coach under Dave Van Horn, Curry has seen firsthand how a coach is able to find such a necessary balance between speaking candidly and playing things closer to the vest.
He was an assistant at Arkansas from 2009-10, working with catchers and assisting with hitting duties. The Hogs made one College World Series appearance (2009) and an NCAA Super Regional (2010) during Curry’s time in Fayetteville.
While taking the conservative approach is usually a coach’s preferred style, Curry did acknowledge that sometimes you have to fire people up and that can be done effectively through the media. He said that the need to do that can change on a daily basis, and it’s important to realize the best timing for pushing that particular button.
Curry pointed out that if you have a team that isn’t quite talented enough to meet expectations but are working as hard as possible and doing what is expected of them, then maybe it’s not the best idea to call them out.
He reiterated just how hard it is to find that balance between being honest and withholding one’s true feelings.
“It is difficult,” Curry said. “You want to give the right answer and you’re dying to give the honest answer, but there’s a lot of different people listening.”
Potential Impact of Sam Pittman Upsetting Players
Chris Curry’s words are even more pertinent with the backdrop of today’s college landscape. The current state of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) means that coaches have to walk a finer line than ever before.
That fact is true no matter the sport – everyone involved in college athletics is feeling the effects of this “new era.”
If a head coach opts to be honest with the media and call out his or her players, it could result in said players getting upset and feeling as if they’ve been thrown under the bus. Those feelings can lead to players opting off the proverbial bus at season’s end by entering the transfer portal.
Today, it’s easier than ever before for players to move on and we see it happen across the country more and more each year. This past offseason, 23 players from the Arkansas football team entered the portal. In the end, only Bryce Stephens changed his mind and withdrew, leaving the final count at 22.
With those numbers already large enough to fill out a starting roster on both sides of the ball, it’s easy to see why a coach would increasingly choose to be indirect with the media in lieu of saying what they really want to.
Another layer to this whole conversation is recruiting.
Players talk and usually aren’t very shy when they’re upset about something. If a coach alienates enough players, that can have a direct effect on recruiting. Current players could begin to paint a coach or program in a bad light if they were so inclined. It can lead to de-commitments or disinterest from prospective recruits and derail a recruiting cycle.
As we’ve seen with the Razorbacks during the 2024 cycle, it’s already extremely difficult to recruit following a 4-8 season. A season like that already lends itself to enough drama, rumors and outside noise. Calling out certain guys and making your locker room even more unhappy just adds extra fuel to the fire.
Arkansas Football Coach’s Media Strategy Going Forward
Given how hard it is for coaches to walk this fine line with their players and media, there’s no question that Sam Pittman probably chose the route that he thought would be more beneficial at the time.
As Chris Curry said, if he had to choose between upsetting his players or the media, he’s choosing the media. Pittman likely had a similar feeling and that was what caused him to play coy throughout the year.
However, that can also create a situation like where Pittman found himself at the end of last season. His indirect answers led to fans questioning his ability to turn things around and a large segment of fans wanted Hunter Yurachek to make a change.
Yurachek obviously stayed with Pittman, to the dismay of many, and believed the coach could turn things around with the hire of a new offensive line coach, offensive coordinator and through recruiting.
The hire of fan-favorite Bobby Petrino as his new offensive coordinator seems to have cooled the hot seat a bit for now. Many were quick to applaud the move of bringing Petrino back, despite legitimate concerns, and are on board with giving him one more year.
This year will be much different than any of Pittman’s four previous seasons with the Hogs. It’s easily the most pivotal year of his Razorback tenure. If things begin to get rocky and on-field results aren’t there, Pittman might need to rethink his strategy for answering tough questions more honestly and directly.
After all, when he arrived in Fayetteville, his candid and direct demeanor was what endeared him to fans. Through his first few seasons, he upheld that brand of unapologetic honesty and it was a breath of fresh air.
However, as his teams have struggled over the past two seasons, particularly on the offensive line, he’s started to hold back and beat around the bush more often.
Offensive line is where Pittman spent his entire coaching career before arriving in Fayetteville and he built his reputation on being an “offensive line whisperer” of sorts. Arkansas’ struggles up front have basically caused Pittman to go off-brand – not just in the way he’s started answering questions, but also in hurting his reputation as an offensive line guru.
Together, those two things could end up being Pittman’s downfall at Arkansas.
Sam Pittman with Arkansas Football
Here’s a look at Sam Pittman’s record through his first four seasons leading the Arkansas football program…
|SEC West Finish
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