By the end of a head coach’s fourth season, the trajectory of a college football program should be known.
With Sam Pittman, we’ll know the nature of that arc soon enough. Through three seasons, in terms of recruiting and on-field performance, it’s been mostly up, with that niggling, annoying fact of last season’s downturn.
Pittman’s 3-7 debut in the 2020 covid all-SEC season, of course, captivated Arkansas and should have been 4-6 but for an egregious officiating error admitted by the SEC. Heady stuff after Arkansas’ 1-23 in the SEC from 2017-2019.
Then, the 9-4 team of 2021 enhanced excitement that was abated a bit by the 7-6 2022 campaign.
Obviously Pittman’s momentum would have really surged had the 7-6 season preceded the 9-4 one. Still, Pittman starts his Season Four with lasting potential.
Sam Pittman’s personality seems unlikely to undo him in success, as it did in the cases of predecessors Lou Holtz and Bobby Petrino. He’s maintained a solid relationship with Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek and developed amazingly well what Chad Morris left behind, augmented by tirelessly solid recruiting and using the transfer portal.
Sam Pittman and Transfer Portal
That transfer portal provided one reason Sam Pittman walked up to longtime Razorback broadcaster Mike Irwin last Sunday at the Arkansas football practice with what we can only imagine was a smile on his face.
Pittman couldn’t contain himself. He just had to share how pleased he was with how Criswell, a transfer from North Carolina, was throwing the ball, Irwin said on a recent “Ask Mike” episode.
Criswell had been in lockstop with the starter KJ Jefferson since spring ball as both learned the system of new offensive coordinator Dan Enos. That synchronicity means Criswell has essentially become like a Jefferson 2.0 who should be able to take over the reins pretty seamlessly if need be. Pittman said Criswell “is night and day from where he was [in the spring] because he’s now doing all the checks and doing all the things. He understands the offense.”
Ultimately, this means less wasted time in practice if Jefferson gets dinged up. Last year, when a backup quarterback needed to play, the team “had to spend extra time coming up with a different game plan, which means different plays and wasting time in practice in order to make that happen,” Irwin said. “And then when that guy gets on the field, you don’t move the ball and you lose.”
Quarterback is one position that appears deeper than last year. The secondary, defensive line and running back do as well, based on the first week and then some of fall camp.
It’s easy to get excited about cherry-picked highlights, but the exact nature of Arkansas’ weaknesses and strengths isn’t yet known even to the coaches. At least not initially, in the heat of the fall camp moment.
Sam Pittman on Problem with Press Conferences
That’s the second thing Sam Pittman told Irwin on the sideline, in response to Irwin telling him “the difficulty I had of watching five minutes of something and then trying to put it on the air and trying to explain to people ‘Don’t get too excited about this.’”
“What about me?” Pittman replied. “I go into a press conference after a practice and I’m answering your questions. And then I go back and look at five hours of video of that practice breaking it down… By the time I’m through with that, I’m realizing a lot of my answers weren’t necessarily accurate.”
Sure, it’s nice to see pads pop here and there, but it’s still talking season. Given Pittman’s excitement about Criswell, it’s hard to see him failing, but take with a grain of salt all the expectations of improvement across the board from everybody. The actual game will reveal plenty soon enough.
Pittman’s fourth season kicks off Sept. 2 vs. Western Carolina at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. It may soon be possible to get the best odds about that game and especially European soccer at JeffBet.
In honor of Pittman making it this far, let’s look at how his Arkansas football predecessors did in Year 4 and the immediate aftermath.
With the ample help of longtime Arkansas sportswriter Nate Allen, we’ll start smack dab in the middle of the 20th century with John Barnhill, a former head coach who as athletic director established the Arkansas blueprint building statewide relationships and contributions and hiring Arkansas people in key positions.
John Barnhill and Frank Broyles
Let’s start with John Barnhill, who was a hot commodity when he arrived in 1946 as athletic director-head coach after a successful Tennessee interim head coaching while Volunteers coaching legend General Robert Neyland served in World War II. He more than lived up to it opening with a stunning 5-1 Southwest Conference championship among a 6-3-2 overall season closed with a scoreless tie vs. LSU in the snow at the Cotton Bowl.
However with injuries afflicting subsequent 6-4-1, 5-5, 5-5 teams (all sub .500 in the SWC) the athletic director version of Barnhill sensed the Arkansas football faithful becoming less enamored with the football coach version.
He could have continued coaching. But symptoms, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, increased and he sensed a likely boost in spirits and financial contributions with a coaching change. So Barnhill hired the first of his four football head coaching hires and concentrated on being AD.
In that position, he established the Arkansas blueprint building of statewide relationships, expanding a statewide radio broadcasting network and hiring Arkansas people in key positions. It’s the Barnhill blueprint that Hall of Fame athletic director Frank Broyles from 1973-2007 followed and expanded building the Razorbacks into a nationally renowned all-sports program.
Barnhill hired the future Hall of Fame coach and he went 144-58-5 from 1958-76. His 1961 Season Four 8-3 marked a 6-1 Southwest Conference championship tie, the third of four consecutive years either tying for or outright winning the SWC title. His teams would eight times win outright or share SWC titles. Broyles’ 1964 and ’65 Hogs rolled unbeaten in the SWC. The 11-0 ’64 Hogs won the national championship.
As AD, Broyles hired five head football coaches. Only one, Jack Crowe, 1990 through one game of 1992, lasted less than five years.
The first, Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, lasted seven years but did not wear well from Season Four on. After spectacular 11-1, 9-2-1 and 10-2 seasons from 1977-79, including the ’77 team’s epic 31-6 Orange Bowl upset of Oklahoma and a 1979 SWC co-championship, Holtz in 1980 overreacted to the Hogs kicking off the decade vs. Texas on Labor Day night in Austin. He increased August two-a-days to three-a-days during record heat. The Hogs lost the game and their spunk, overworked and injury prone during a drearier than recorded 7-5 season.
Lou’s one-liners and magic tricks, big hits in 1977, would later serve him well in as a quirky ESPN commentator. In the early 1980s, though, they had gone stale. Broyles and boosters tired of Holtz’s constant drama and courting by other schools. The state’s high school coaches felt ignored by the Arkansas coach and seemed less enthused to encourage their best to head to Fayetteville.
Though his ’81 Hogs would stun No. 1 Texas 42-11 and his ’82 Hogs go 9-2-1, Lou’s genie was out of the bottle. The 6-5 record for his ’83 Hogs really wasn’t that bad. But considering Holtz’s past achievements, outcry was scant when Broyles fired him.
Ken Hatfield’s Arkansas Football Era
Ken Hatfield, the Razorbacks’ punt returning hero of 1964 and successful Air Force Academy coach, posted the Razorbacks’ best coaching percentage ever by going 55-17-1 from 1984-89. His fifth and sixth 10-2 seasons were his best, netting SWC championships. Yet his departure dye was cast in Hatfield’s 1987 Season Four.
Broyles never thought the Hatfield assistants he brought from Air Force were up to snuff. The AD became all the more critical when Miami, coached by 1964 Razorbacks nose guard/former Broyles defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, romped Hatfield’s ’87 Hogs by a score of 51-7 in Little Rock. A last-play loss to Texas and early struggle to overcome winless New Mexico in November added fuel to the fire.
Rumors flew in Fayetteville as the 9-4 Hogs finished the regular season in Hawaii.
Hatfield stood by his staff and stayed on, but the chasm between coach and AD didn’t shrink.
With an unsigned Arkansas contract at hand, Hatfield took the Clemson football job vacated by Danny Ford.
Thankfully, upon Hatfield’s return to Arkansas as an ever-present Razorbacks booster upon his coaching retirement, Hatfield and Broyles so reconciled that the Broyles family asked Ken to eulogize at Frank’s funeral.
Following Crowe, fired after the 1992 season-opening loss to The Citadel, and Joe Kines, the 1991-92 defensive coordinator, became 11-games 1992 interim head coach, Clemson national champion legend Ford became Arkansas’ head coach.
Ford was available, having been forced out of Clemson in 1989 after losing a dispute with Clemson’s chancellor.
A Hall of Famer initially first 1992 brought to Arkansas by Kines as an offensive consultant, Ford upon named head coach proclaimed himself in charge of everything football from “socks to jocks.”
It didn’t work as planned.
With successive 4-7s for his fourth and fifth years in 1996 and ’97 so diminishing the surprise 8-5 SEC 1995 SEC West championship dimmed by that campaign closing with three consecutive losses, Ford was fired.
Despite his official 26-30-1 record, Ford accomplished much at Arkansas recruiting well and toughening players post their 1992 turmoil. He bequeathed a rugged squad needing only pat on the back encouragement.
Moving into Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino
Houston Nutt (1998-2007) fit that requirement perfectly, enthusiastically debuting 9-3-1 with a 1998 SEC West co-championship.
Nutt’s 7-5 Year Four in 2001 ended in the Cotton Bowl and did not factor in his complicated 2007 exit prefaced by 2006 controversy even as Arkansas went 10-4 winning the West.
Broyles, who thrust Gus Malzahn upon Nutt as offensive coordinator for a divisive 2006 situation ultimately unfair and uncomfortable to all parties, was in Nutt’s 2007 corner. But Broyles’ 2008 effective AD retirement with corporate style new AD Jeff Long already lurking proved Nutt’s last Arkansas straw. The 2023 Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor honoree accepted a buyout then coached Ole Miss.
Long hired Petrino, whose superb offensive mind was exceeded only by his ego and lack of character during previous experiences head coaching Louisville and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Going 10-3 and 11-2 while intimidating his AD boss proved Petrino’s undoing. Without consequence, he behaved boorishly in the closing 2011 SEC loss at LSU. Throughout the week of Arkansas’ Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State, Petrino repulsed Cotton Bowl officials who had been long friendly to Arkansas. Lying about the circumstances of his motorcycle accident and relationship to the accompanying woman he had hired to his support staff over more experienced applicants forced Petrino’s April ouster.
Bret Bielema, with great credentials coaching Wisconsin and a 2011 post-Petrino letter to Long praising the AD, was 2013 hired after the 2012 preseason Top-10 Hogs collapsed to a 4-7 record under interim coach John L. Smith.
Bielema, with Pittman as his 2013-15 O-line coach, was allowed a first-year 3-9/0-8 SEC mulligan, and improved in 2014 to 7-6 with a Texas Bowl victory over Texas and 8-5 in 2015 with a Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas State. But with Pittman gone to Georgia, the beginning of Bielema’s end occurred the last two games of his 7-6 2016 Season Four. Bielema’s Hogs compiled 24-7 and 24-0 leads over Missouri and at the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech then lost both, 28-24 and 35-24.
They never recovered. A 4-8 overall/1-7 SEC 2017 with Long already November fired sealed Bielema’s fate.
The leaderless Arkansas regime hastily hired SMU Coach Chad Morris before hiring Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek.
Yurachek 2019 canned Morris with two games left of Chad’s second 2-10 overall, 0-8 SEC fiascos.
Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman, folksy, popular and effective as Arkansas’ past O-line coach with UA alum linemen he mentored lobbying on his behalf, became Yurachek’s surprising head coach. Pittman was immediately appreciated for unabashedly seeking the Arkansas football job that others (*cough* *cough* Gus Malzahn) coyly pursued on the back-burner while weighing other opportunities.
Nate Allen significantly contributed to the above feature
See more from Irwin on his sideline discussion with Pittman at 15:00 here:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…