Where Sam Pittman and Bret Bielema Find Themselves Together Once Again

Bret Bielema, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Illinois Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

It’s prime Kool-Aid season and, after two seasons that both went better than expected, Sam Pittman has given Arkansas football fans reason to drink from the hose on full blast.

There is more preseason excitement for the 2022 Arkansas football season than any season in many years. The Razorbacks feature returning stars on both sides of the ball. The schedule is challenging as always – but manageable. Pittman received a significant raise and extension in the offseason as a result of his success and the direction the program appears to be headed.

Among Hog faithful, Pittman seems to be as close to universally beloved and respected as a football coach can be.

But is Pittman receiving that same respect nationally?

Two writers for The Athletic recently went through the process of breaking down all college football coaches into tiers. They claim to have spoken to “administrators, agents, coaches and industry insiders” to compile this list, so it’s not just simply their opinion based on gut feelings. This certainly isn’t an end-all, be-all national statement of Pittman’s reputation, but it is a sample of how he is viewed by those who don’t wear Hog hats.

Sam Pittman Grouped with Bret Bielema

They split them into five tiers (really six if count Nick Saban’s Tier 1A as a separate level than their 1B tier), and Pittman fell into the third tier. They included a whopping 50 coaches in the third tier (this is something of a cop-out on their part, no? We’re really going to pretend that 50 coaches are all somewhat equal?), so it places Pittman in the same group with several notable names, as well as plenty of names only college football die-hards are familiar with.

For instance, this places Pittman on the same level as his former boss, Bret Bielema. Despite Bielema and his new offensive coordinator, Barry Lunney Jr., thrashing Wyoming in Illinois’ season-opener on Saturday, I don’t think there are many Arkansas fans who would place both coaches on the same planet.

Bielema is still getting extra credit from his run at Wisconsin, of course. Those of us who watched his Razorback teams know his record since then ranges from average-to-bad (with admittedly some pretty great highlights sprinkled here and there). There are other coaches in the tier who, like Bielema, had a short run of success somewhere only to fail or struggle in others.

Should Pittman already be viewed ahead of these types of coaches?

As much excitement as Pittman has brought to the Arkansas program, he has been a head coach for only two seasons. If he had a background as a successful head coach at another school, he might be in that second tier already. Unfortunately, he’s not getting credit for his well-known past as an elite offensive line coach, and The Athletic made a specific effort not to fall victim to recency bias.

All of the coaches in Tier 2 who have more than two years of experience seem to have won conference or division championships at some point in their careers. I feel that Pittman has received a great level of respect for bringing the Arkansas program back to relevancy so quickly from the depths of the end of the Bielema and Chad Morris era (Morris would deserve his own tier at the bottom of the list just as Saban received his at the top of the list if Morris was still a head coach – alas, he’s an analyst at South Florida).

But as much fun as it is to blow out Texas and win the Boot and a bowl game, and as excited as everyone is for this season, it doesn’t quite put Pittman on that elevated level from a national perspective.

I could argue he’s close. There are some names in that second tier who don’t have quite the same resume as others. For example, Billy Napier has only four head coaching seasons at Louisiana (though he was admittedly very successful there) and hasn’t coached a game at Florida yet.

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How Pittman Can Climb a Tier

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is also slated in Tier 2, presumptively because he’s made Kentucky a respected and relevant program over his years in Lexington. He hasn’t won the East, but the Wildcats have been competitive and in the conversation late in the season, which is a vast improvement from the majority of their history.

Stoops’ placement is interesting because it shows that Pittman doesn’t have to win a division or conference title to be perceived in that higher echelon of coaches. If the Razorbacks can continue to grow as a program over future seasons, Pittman will have that respect.

The fact that Arkansas is included in the preseason top 25 polls despite losing talents like Treylon Burks, Grant Morgan, John Ridgeway and others is evidence that people are seeing what Pittman and the Razorbacks are doing and an indication that those watching the program expect it to continue winning. For Pittman, who was the butt of plenty of jokes when he was hired after the 2019 season, to be included among such a tier of coaches – many with significantly more head coaching experience – says a lot about how quickly he’s earning national credibility.

Even if Arkansas stumbles a bit this year – maybe they don’t quite reach the same number of wins as 2021, or some of those coin-flip games go the other way – Pittman has still established himself as a good head coach who has proved thus far to be exactly what Arkansas needed when he was hired in 2019. With only two years of head coaching experience, it’s impossible not to look at Pittman’s short resume without some level of recency bias since his entire head coaching career is recent, but the respect he’s received already is well-earned.

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