Back-to-back losses by Arkansas football, including a 49-26 beatdown in front of a large home crowd for its 16th straight loss to Alabama, has probably already rekindled an unwanted familiar feeling for at least a portion of the fan base.
After all, it’s a tune Arkansas fans know all too well – a song heard a thousand times in Fayetteville. It goes: A good, promising season followed by mass media and fan hype. Talks about and excitement for a breakout year are heard all offseason. The next season finally arrives, and everyone is ready and thrilled that “this is the year.” When the dust settles, though, the breakout never happens. A season that launched with so much expectation and hype ultimately lands with a thud of mediocrity.
This song isn’t just unique to football, either. Every time fans think the music has changed, regardless of sport, this “Song of the Never Ending Cycle” keeps on playing. What they don’t want to happen is for Sam Pittman’s journey to follow a similar path as former basketball coach Mike Anderson.
Anderson brought promise and stability to a team that needed it, but could never take that next step. Is Pittman destined to become the Mike Anderson of the football world, or will he eventually break through to that next elite level?
Mike Anderson’s Pattern at Arkansas
In March of 2011, Mike Anderson left Missouri – where he said he would stay “a long time” and “retire at” – to return to Arkansas as the head coach. He had spent 17 seasons as an assistant for the Razorbacks under legendary coach Nolan Richardson.
When Anderson took over, the Arkansas basketball program had been in disarray for the better part of the previous decade. The Razorbacks had not advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament since 1996, and the program as a whole was a shell of its former self. Anderson was brought in to fix the situation and bring Arkansas basketball back onto the national stage.
His first season did not bring much of anything, failing to improve on the record of his predecessor. In the seasons that followed, Anderson further stabilized the previously delicate situation around the program. For the fans however, Anderson’s tenure at Arkansas was an intense, emotional rollercoaster.
Promising seasons were ruined by late-season collapses and inconsistency plagued Anderson’s teams. In 2013-14, Anderson led the Hogs to a 22-12 record, but an ugly loss in their regular-season finale and losing in the first round of the SEC Tournament led to Arkansas missing the NCAA tournament.
The next season was arguably his best at Arkansas, finishing the year 27-6. Arkansas finished second in the SEC and went into the NCAA Tournament as a 5 seed, but lost 87-78 to No. 15 North Carolina in the Round of 32.
Anderson had a couple of seasons at Arkansas where he seemed poised for a breakthrough, ready to take the Hogs into the national spotlight. He was able to make the program respectable again, never finishing under .500, but could just never take those next steps toward elite status. Every season, fans would hear the humming of that old, familiar song – the song of disappointment and letdown after so much excitement and hype.
It ultimately resulted in Anderson being fired in 2019 after an eight-year run at Arkansas in which the Sweet 16 drought reached 23 years.
Pittman was faced with a similar situation, taking over a football team that was in a downward spiral and tasked with reviving a dead program. He, like Anderson, was also a previous assistant coach at Arkansas and there was a sense of “coming home.”
For the sake of Arkansas fans, that is hopefully where the parallels end. If fans get what they want, Pittman will “turn that damn jukebox on” and dance to his own tune in Fayetteville.
Drawing the Parallels
Similar to the situation Mike Anderson faced when he arrived in Fayetteville, Sam Pittman was thrown headlong into a program in desperate need of a leader. Both were able to quickly turn their programs around by starting with intense cultural change.
An example of Anderson’s culture change was the increase in graduation success rates, preaching success on and off the court. Pittman built the football program with a blue-collar mentality that fully embodied and embraced what it meant to play for the Razorbacks.
Both coaches managed to achieve a level of success and dug their programs out of a hole. In the many years of Arkansas football before Pittman, there was a string of coaches who were good, but never elite.
Houston Nutt and Bret Bielema had talented rosters and high hopes, but never achieved that next level of success. The one exception would be Bobby Petrino, who had Arkansas on the verge of becoming an SEC powerhouse before his infamous motorcycle wreck. Pittman replaced Chad Morris, who did not even survive two full seasons as head coach.
In his first season, Pittman helped snap the Razorbacks’ lengthy SEC losing streak and made them competitive again, despite a 3-7 final record. He followed it up with a 9-4 campaign capped by a win in the Outback Bowl, which landed Arkansas in the final AP Poll for the first time in a decade.
Bringing it to the Present for Pittman
Going into Sam Pittman’s third season, Arkansas retained most of its coaching staff, including all three coordinators, and returned its star quarterback and four of five starting offensive linemen. On top of that, the Razorbacks were able to grab several prolific players from the transfer portal.
The Razorbacks were poised for a big season, and the hype from national media and fans was the highest it had been in a decade. Cut to present day and Arkansas is 3-2, with a disappointing loss to Texas A&M and a beat-down by Alabama. The team has regressed in several areas where they were expected to have grown and improved.
So far this season, Arkansas has collapsed in several crucial situations. It has one of the worst pass defenses in the country and has continually allowed teams to stay on the field in third-and-long situations. Exhibit A would be allowing Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Milroe to scramble for 77 yards on a crucial third-and-15. This play essentially ended the momentum that had been swinging heavily in Arkansas’ favor for the previous quarter.
A parallel can be drawn between Arkansas’ defense this season and Mike Anderson’s teams of the past. Although two completely separate sports, similar feelings and patterns emerge. Anderson preached fast basketball, staking his name on an aggressive defense that capitalized off turnovers. Despite this philosophy, defensive lapses and inconsistency were something that plagued Anderson’s teams’ every year. A pattern had been established, and it drove Arkansas fans mad.
This was almost an annual habit for Anderson’s teams and habits are hard to break. This is what Pittman must avoid with his own team – establishing this same pattern and building bad habits. The Razorbacks can not afford to fail and collapse on either side of the ball. Consistency is key. Both offense and defense must play at a top level each year to compete for top spots in the conference and threaten teams like Alabama.
Player growth and development is something that must be addressed, as well. Anderson never seemed able to fully exploit and capitalize players’ progression. Sam Pittman cannot afford to do the same. Under Pittman’s leadership, players ultimately must progress and not regress. Last season, star quarterback KJ Jefferson had a fantastic year. Everyone expected KJ to have an even better year in 2022 and some even considered him a Heisman dark horse contender. So far this season, that has not been the case.
In some ways, it looks as though Jefferson has regressed from last year. His completion percentage has dipped from 67.3% to 66.1%, which isn’t a huge drop, but Jefferson has consistently missed passes he was seemingly completing with ease last season. Of course, it’s only fair to mention that his favorite target from a year ago, Treylon Burks, is now in the NFL.
Jefferson played a big role in the Razorbacks’ 3-0 start, which included a win over a Cincinnati team currently ranked No. 24, but he has also had ball security issues that never really showed last year – including on the poor decision to leap from the 3-yard line against Texas A&M. If Pittman’s teams are going to take that next step towards greatness, his star players must do the same.
Pittman vs Anderson – The Takeaway
Familiarity and parallels can be drawn between Mike Anderson and Sam Pittman. Ultimately, it’s too early in the season and in Pittman’s tenure to make any clear-cut statements about the future of his team.
Pittman still has the vast majority of Arkansas fans in his corner. It matters that in the Outback Bowl vs Penn State, he delivered a win over a big-name opponent, as the lack of such postseason signature wins were a big criticism against Anderson. Granted, the beginning of 2022 has shown some regression from last year, but seven games remain in the season – and a lot can happen in just seven games.
Patterns of collapse and bad habits must not be allowed to fester inside the program. Mistakes like allowing three runs of 70-plus yards in a span of six plays against Alabama, or like not chasing down the ball carrier during the 97-yard fumble return against Texas A&M, can’t happen.
Mediocrity and “almost” can not be allowed to become normal. Mistakes similar to these are part of the reason Anderson’s teams could never reach that next level. In the SEC, one can define elite as winning the conference, which means beating Alabama and Georgia. If Sam Pittman is to truly succeed at Arkansas, then ultimately his teams must one day be able to step forward from good to elite.
See Mike Irwin chime in on the Anderson/Pittman comparison at 28:00:
Sam Pittman on Arkansas vs Mississippi State
Excerpts from an Oct. 5 Arkansas football press conference:
“We’re trying to get healthy. Don’t know exactly the status on several of our kids yet. But we’ll be ready to play. We’re excited to go to Starkville and play Miss. State. They’re playing extremely well. Obviously Will Rogers is a great quarterback. I love their receivers. They’re playing great. And Marks and Johnson are really fine running backs.”
“Their O-line is playing well as well. Defensively, with Johnson and Wheat and Pickering and then the back end with Green and Matthews and those guys they’re playing extremely well. Special teams they are outstanding. A lot of challenges that they give for us but we’re excited to go down there and play them.”
On KJ Jefferson:
“Yeah, he’s been in all meetings. He’s been to both practices. We’re just waiting to see if he’s able to practice. In all honesty, I don’t have that answer right now as we’re sitting here. If he’s able to practice, then we’ll certainly practice him. If he’s not, then we won’t. That’s certainly not my call. But whatever that is, then we’ll look at them and go from there.”