It’s Time Sam Pittman Depends on More, Not Less, Kendal Briles Play-calling Late in Games

Kendal Briles, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

As the Arkansas football coach, Bobby Petrino could chew out his brother – who was also his offensive coordinator – with an angry sailor’s cursing. We also know Paul Petrino’s coordinating successor at Arkansas, Garrick McGee, heard similar invectives from Bobby for part of the two years that followed, until McGee told him it was uncalled for, and Petrino actually backed off.

Houston Nutt, who preceded Petrino as head Hog, tended to ignore his offensive coordinators rather than ever curse them in his 10 years. And Bret Bielema, who followed the Petrino-John L. Smith transition year, no doubt gave Jim Chaney an earful or two a game in his first two seasons before turning over the coordinator role to Dan Enos. Bielema and Enos might have been Razorback football’s most cordial head coach-coordinator relationship since Ken Hatfield and David Lee.

The thing is, Sam Pittman is none of those guys. Now, it did seem he was taking on a lot of the head coaching habits of Bielema this year after two impressive seasons of rebuilding the program’s culture, and in terms of Arkansas precedents he probably leans more toward Nutt in personal style.

But Pittman had never been an offensive coordinator, much less an NCAA head coach on any level, when UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek handed him the Razorback reins in December 2019 after the two-year Chad Morris debacle. At five stops, including Georgia, Pittman held the title of assistant head coach, but that didn’t involve play-calling or running the program.

In a 28-year coaching career in college football, as I see it, Pittman either never desired to improve his lot with a coordinator’s position or was deemed not capable of handling the job through his many stops as a line coach.

Sam Pittman’s Approach with Arkansas Football

At Arkansas, though, he’s chosen to be a CEO-type head coach. For three years, Sam Pittman admittedly leaned on now-departed defensive coordinator Barry Odom, a former head coach at Missouri and now the head man at UNLV, to more or less hold his hand through the ups-and-downs of running a program.

He doesn’t even coach the offensive line, leaving that to young Cody Kennedy, Pittman’s protege. He’s vocal about his suggestions in all phases of the game, for good or bad. And, as head coach, that’s his prerogative. The Pittman era will sink or swim over his decisions.

In the near future, those decisions should allow for more, not less, play-calling from his offensive coordinator when trying to salt away games. 

It appears Pittman overrode Kendal Briles’ play-calling at times in the fourth quarter of the Liberty Bowl vs Kansas, including a third-and-2 at the Hogs’ 43-yard line with 8:30 left. Arkansas needed a first down in the worst way after a series of three-and-outs and, after a KJ Jefferson three-year scramble, the play took a while to arrive.

“They took a lot of time here, I think there was maybe some discussion” between Briles and Pittman, said former Florida coach Dan Mullen as he provided color commentary for the ESPN broadcast. “I think Kendal wanted to take a shot right here down the field on this play and got talked out of it.”

As Mullen was talking, the ball was directly snapped to Rashad Dubinion, who was promptly engulfed by Kansas defenders at the line of scrimmage and well short of the first down mark. 

Watch the sequence here, at the 2:07:24 mark:

YouTube video

The problem with all this was it aired on national TV in prime time, in a contest that kept gaining audience share as Kansas turned a certain whipping into a three-overtime loss, helped no doubt by a few of the most dubious calls and replay reviews any game has had of late.

Putting Handcuffs on Kendal Briles

It appears Kendal Briles had autonomy in the overtime periods, however, scoring almost instantly on the two full possessions from the KU 25 and converted two 2-point plays, the latter eventually deciding the outcome. And, of course, his quarterback and teammates executed the well-designed plays perfectly.

After that game, Sam Pittman assured us that while he may have decided to shut down the offense after Arkansas stormed out against Ole Miss 42-6 on Nov. 19 at Fayetteville – only to see the score cosmetically altered for the Rebels as they scored three unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns and piled up 703 yards of offense on Barry Odom’s defense – he was all for Briles continuing to run his offense in the second half against KU up 38-13 in the third quarter.

With the exception of one possession that showed promise but was halted by a mystery offensive pass interference call against the Hogs early in the fourth quarter, no one who knows Briles – or any offensive coordinator today, really, especially also knowing how the UA defense could instantly vanish given the opportunity – believes any of that. 

On the aforementioned play, Kansas was creeping 11 defenders in the “box.” That attempt, like most of the runs before it in the previous few minutes of playing it safe, never had a chance. KU was stunting the guard-center gaps, clogging up anything on the edge and had a spy on quarterback KJ Jefferson — all in daring Arkansas to throw it, maybe stop the clock on incompletions and maybe quickly get the ball and momentum back down two or more scores. Pittman was back to his style of attempting to run the clock out. I believe if Briles was calling those plays, it was to Pittman’s liking.

Pittman must bull-headedly believe his five-man O-line can open holes against a stacked box. Incidentally, this was also true when he worked under Bielema for three seasons, and he recruited much better linemen then.

And, frankly, if not for a clearly blown fumble ruling at the end of a well-conceived end around for Matt Landers, which would have finished this game with Arkansas up 15 and a new set of downs at KU’s 15 with the clock under 3 minutes, it would have been sound philosophy.

So would throwing to open receivers behind coverage that was equally as shaky as Arkansas’ was at any point from the middle of the third quarter on. Arkansas did exactly that, finally, leading by 15 just before the Landers end-around fumble, when Jefferson made a play-action fake and found Landers in one-on-one coverage for 43 yards to the KU 29 on third-and-3.

I don’t know how many times all the fans around us in Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium said something like, “Well, that should do it,” after that play — and a few others, in fact. Of course, nothing did it, and finally Kansas got a few miracle breaks.

Sam Pittman Says the Darndest Things

The fumble was bad on the stripes’ and the replay review’s part. The botched onside kick recovery was bad in another way – totally on Arkansas’ coaches for fielding a hands team that didn’t seem to know where to line up, much less how to recover the ball. Pittman’s excuse later was having so many other players out (via the transfer portal and opt outs) and not practicing it enough.

Now, I’m not sure Nutt or Bielema would have ventured to say that, though they said some doozies, nor would they say they weren’t sure when to announce a coaching hire because it might hurt another team so close to recruiting, never mind how it might damage Arkansas’ for waiting. But for at least since the season ended, and even at various moments during a disappointing 6-6 regular season, Sam Pittman, who often has striking candor in his press conferences, has said the darndest things.

I once suggested in a column long ago that Nutt might want to place his mom, Emogene, next to him to stop from doing nutty things like putting Clint Stoerner back in the nonconference game while leading late 34-6, and then getting his quarterback’s shoulder separated. Pittman could use some off-the-side suggestions, too — perhaps someone to give the “cut” sign across the neck or a strident “no” shake of the head when things begin to venture out there. In many cases, the Bill Belichick model is ideal for all coaches in the internet age.

In a near mirroring of Bielema from preseason 2016, when Bret said Arkansas would have no problem replacing the great trio of Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight on defense, Pittman said on KATV, Channel 7’s preview of the season in August that the secondary would be the strength of the defense, and he felt good overall about Odom’s defense – one that eventually would rank near or at the bottom in several key categories in 2022.

Of course, injuries hit, starting with safety Jalen Catalon, who probably shouldn’t have come back so soon as he did from having a shoulder rebuilt, but Arkansas was STARTING players in the opener against Cincinnati who had no business playing much in Power Five football. Fortunately for the Hogs in the opener, Cincinnati’s quarterback was mostly poor in accuracy on his deep throws.

Arkansas’ defense made everybody look good, even the teams the Hogs managed to beat.

Knowing that – knowing you had a defense that for much of the year may have been the worst in college football, especially against the pass – why would you EVER sit on a lead even as much as 25 points in the third quarter? A 36-point lead vs. Ole Miss proved to be just enough, with 15 to spare, but still.

Kendal Briles Flirts with Mississippi State

Who knows what was true amid all the internet smoke about Briles’ flirtation with Mississippi State. But here’s my guess: After the Kansas game and Pittman’s press conference, Briles got his agent, Jimmy Sexton (who now happens to be Pittman’s agent, but that’s neither here nor there), to get the ball rolling. Even if Briles wasn’t going to leave – supposedly his family is happy in Northwest Arkansas, and he has Jefferson returning next year at quarterback – a serious job offer, especially from a division rival, was a way to gain some leverage. 

The Mississippi State operators threw out speculation – obviously helped along by Sexton, if you know his methods at all – that Briles would have offensive autonomy for new Bulldogs head coach Zach Arnett, a great defensive mind. The late Mike Leach was making $5.5 million a year as Bulldogs head coach, and Arnett isn’t ready to command that kind of salary in his first head coaching role, hence his $3 million salary, so the Dawgs would have a lot of extra money for coaches salaries to throw around to the likes of Briles, Mike Bobo or whomever to come aboard as OC in Starkville.

Now, like Nutt would have done, we can imagine Pittman in the negotiations to retain Briles promising more control for his play caller and less meddling. And, like we all know with Nutt, that will probably go out the window when the pressure ramps up during the regular season.

But, while Pittman undoubtedly should and will point out to his coordinator that more running game might be needed at a particular moment – similar to the way Pittman noted to his defensive coordinator in a high-scoring win at BYU that allowing ground yardage was smarter in the long run that the quick-striking pass plays for TDs – he needs to cede some of that seemingly scared, play-it-safe, milk-the-clock offensive play-calling against defenses geared with more manpower to stop Arkansas’ strength, the run, and let Briles call his game.

If new defensive co-coordinators Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson somehow fill the Hog defense with SEC-capable difference-makers while recruiting the portal and picking up any other leftovers from the junior college and high school ranks, and if Arkansas makes enormous strides on that side of the ball, then maybe the head Arkansas football coach can afford to sit on leads, a la Nick Saban.

Right now, Pittman is a far thing from Saban, and he doesn’t need to duplicate Saban’s sideline manner with his coordinators while offering little else.


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