In the context of recent Arkansas football history, Sam Pittman’s tenure with the Razorbacks has been a major success so far. He’s amassed a 19-17 overall record since arriving in Fayetteville in December 2019 and is 2-0 in bowl games.
Criticism of Pittman grew over the course of a disappointing 2022 season – and some of it is warranted – but it’s hard to make a logical argument against his success in getting the Razorbacks back to a competitive level.
Dismissing how tall of a task was ahead of him when he was hired is silly and ignorant. That’s without mentioning the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic provided as a first-year head coach. Whether you choose to agree that Pittman’s done a successful job in the three seasons or not, the one thing that everyone should agree on is that his tenure won’t last forever.
While it may not be the most fun thing to think about at this juncture, there will come a day that Sam Pittman is no longer the head coach at Arkansas. That is an inescapable reality. In an episode of “Ask Mike” earlier in the offseason, longtime Razorbacks analyst Mike Irwin discussed this for a few minutes and had some interesting insight.
Irwin specifically addressed a fan question that said how there was a segment of the fanbase that was complaining about Pittman’s new contract last offseason and the move to a new high-powered agent, Jimmy Sexton, that preceded it. Those fans also insinuated that Pittman’s raise was the cause of the 7-6 season and that “he suddenly got money hungry.”
“It’s never been about the money and it’s never going to be about the money,” Irwin responded. “It is about being here and he’s not going to go anywhere else. Those are the important factors.
“When he changed agents and got Jimmy Sexton, [fans] all said ‘Jimmy Sexton? This means he’s a jerk and like everyone else and just wants money.’ The 7-6 season certainly didn’t have anything to do with ‘Oh I suddenly got money now, so I don’t have to coach as hard’ or anything like that.”
Irwin went on to mention that the cause of the disappointing season had more to do with injuries at key positions than anything coaching-related. He also dropped some interesting nuggets of information about Pittman’s future plans after speaking to people who know him personally.
“Coaching is a very demanding business and he’s found out – since he’s become the head coach [at Arkansas] – that it’s a lot harder to be even a head coach than an assistant coach,” Irwin said. “It’s a lot of work, especially someone that works as hard at recruiting as he does because he demands his other coaches to recruit, but he does too.
“He does not plan to be Frank Broyles and coach at Arkansas for 19 years. I don’t think [Pittman] is going to coach for 10 years. I think his goal is to turn this program around and make it relevant in the SEC and leave it – for the next coach – in much better shape than he got it.”
Making Sense of Mike Irwin’s Intel
Sam Pittman’s goal of leaving the Arkansas football program in a better place than where it was when he took over shouldn’t come as a major surprise when you really think about it. Pittman is 61 years old and has been coaching since 1984.
To Irwin’s point, it’s a lot of work and added stress to be the head coach of a Division I football program. That work and stress is amplified more when you’re a head coach in the SEC.
A big factor in all of this which shouldn’t be dismissed is how much the landscape of college football – college athletics as a whole, for that matter – has changed in just the last few years. The two biggest engines of change have been the transfer portal and rules allowing student-athletes to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL).
The ability to recruit talented high school prospects and develop them used to be the most important trait for a college football coach to have. Recruiting the high school ranks was the main component in building and sustaining a successful program. That was one of the reasons why Pittman’s hiring was looked at so positively by Arkansas fans and former players. He’s a great recruiter and forges genuine relationships with his players.
However, traditional recruiting has been turned on its head in recent years.
The NCAA loosened its transfer rules in 2018 to allow some student-athletes to receive a waiver for immediate eligibility when transferring to a different school and it has since erased them all together, granting everyone a one-time transfer. In 2021, profiting from NIL was legalized, allowing players the ability to receive payments and enter into any endorsement deals they would like.
Separately, the transfer portal and NIL are great for college athletics, but together they have presented a whole new set of challenges when it comes to running a program. At this point, tampering from coaches at other schools, players receiving false promises and shady dealings leading to kids being left without a school appear pretty much like an open secret. Not enough is being done to address these issues.
On top of that, the calendar for coaches in college football is more year-round than it’s ever been with traditional high school recruiting periods, transfer portal periods, practices, camps and then the actual season. It’s more of a grind than it’s ever been.
Simply put, this is not the college football that Sam Pittman spent his first 36 years coaching in.
Could the pressure and stress of having to adapt to the “new” college football on the fly as a first-time head coach be something that ultimately causes him to step away? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean just because things are much more difficult that Pittman is phoning it in and cashing in on his one good season.
I find the part where Irwin discusses Pittman wanting to make this program relevant and leave it in much better shape than he found it to be interesting for two reasons.
First, it doesn’t exactly sound like a coach who is comfortable with a subpar, 7-6 season after winning nine games the year before. Second, the fact that Pittman privately cares about the program’s health after he’s gone should speak volumes and resonate with fans. That is much different from almost every other modern Arkansas head coach before him, with the exception of the legendary Frank Broyles.
There’s no ego with Pittman. He just wants to do the best job possible and make success at Arkansas sustainable after his coaching days are over. It’s hard to ask for more from your head coach, success aside.
Using History to Estimate Sam Pittman’s Tenure
Naturally, the question that has crossed the minds of many is: how long will Sam Pittman be Arkansas’ head coach? Like Irwin said, we don’t know that. It’s likely that Pittman himself doesn’t know the answer to that. There’s no way to accurately predict something that has so many different variables surrounding it.
However, history can at least be used as a good barometer to make an educated estimate at how long the average coach has spent at Arkansas.
There have been 33 head coaches in Arkansas football’s history including Sam Pittman. If we go back to John C. Futrall – who became the first Arkansas head coach in 1894 – we can calculate the average tenure of every head coach in school history. Since Pittman’s tenure is still going, his numbers aren’t being used in this average.
Thirty-two Arkansas head coaches have coached for a total of 126 seasons, meaning that the average tenure lasts about four seasons (3.9 to be exact). Now, many people say that Frank Broyles helped put Arkansas football on the map and helped make it what it is today. So, if we wanted a more recent barometer of coaching tenures, we could start after Broyles’ historic 19-year run ended in 1976.
Including his successor Lou Holtz, Arkansas has had 9 head coaches for 43 seasons, which means the average tenure since then has been almost five seasons (4.8 to be exact).
If we go a step further, we can look at the current landscape of FBS college football coaches and average tenures across the board, but the numbers are very similar to the historical averages. Entering last season, the average tenure for all 131 FBS head coaches was just under four seasons (3.7 to be exact).
Pittman is entering his fourth season as Arkansas football coach in 2023, meaning he’s right around both of those historical averages and the current national average.
Does that mean he’s going to get let go if this season doesn’t go well? Highly unlikely. Arkansas football experienced an extreme amount of turnover in the offseason, both on the roster and the coaching staff. Despite hiring coaches with a very high recruiting acumen and the transfer portal being able to alleviate a mass exodus of contributors, it will take some time to fully see the returns from a lot of these changes – though we’re already starting to see some.
Theoretically, that should give Pittman more time as a head coach, but as I mentioned before, the coaching profession revolves around, “What have you done for me lately?” Once a head coach is past that third and fourth year, it’s very easy to fall out of favor with fans and administration after a string of disappointing seasons.
This year is going to be an inflection point for Sam Pittman’s Arkansas tenure. For a portion of the fanbase, the honeymoon phase with Pittman has ended. Another subpar season and those disgruntled complaints will begin to grow even louder, warranted or not. Only time will tell how much longer Pittman will lead the Razorbacks. His tenure will probably outlast the averages that were previously mentioned, but the coaching hires this offseason will ultimately be what decides that.
More from Irwin starting around 5:30 here:
Arkansas Football Success & External Honors
One thing that would definitely buy Pittman a few more years of goodwill would be a 10-win season. While that has proven to be an exceptionally difficult thing for the Arkansas football program to accomplish in the SEC era, the fact that KJ Jefferson is a front-runner for first-team All-SEC honors going into 2023 season does matter when looking at the last 17 years.
As USA Today’s Blake Toppmeyer points out, since Vanderbilt’s Jay Cutler won first-team All-SEC honors in 2005 despite his Commodores finishing with a losing season, quarterbacks who win that honor (including Tyler Wilson in 2011) have combined to produce a record of 197-35. That’s a win rate of 85%. Plus, “only twice during that 17-year span did a team with a first-team All-SEC quarterback finish outside the Top 25.”
Other strong contenders to consider for the honor in 2023 are LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Mississippi State’s Will Rogers and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler. It’s hard to discount whoever Georgia or Alabama (eg. Carson Beck or Jalen Milroe, respectively) ends up throwing out there, as well.
Regardless of who ends up with the preseason or postseason honors, don’t discount the motivation those selections can have on players like KJ Jefferson. It was in the offseason just two years ago, after all, he was ranked dead last by 247Sports among the SEC’s 14 projected starting quarterbacks.
That list fueled Jefferson’s work ethic going into the year.
“My mom made sure she reminded me,” Jefferson told Toppmeyer in 2022. “There would be times when I’m tired or I didn’t feel like working out or didn’t feel like doing this, and she’d send that list to me. And right then and there, I felt like, ‘I got you.’”
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