It isn’t only Arkansas fans who recognize the importance of this coming football season for Sam Pittman.
Near the end of a disappointing 2023 season, athletics director Hunter Yurachek announced that the Razorbacks were sticking with their head coach for a fifth season.
Not much beyond that is guaranteed, though. In fact, Pittman is the first coach mentioned by Adam Rittenberg in his “college football coaching hot seat” piece that ESPN published Wednesday morning.
The senior writer for ESPN even went so far as to essentially put a minimum win total for Pittman to retain his job.
“Pittman made it to Year 5 despite a 4-8 record last fall that included just one SEC win,” Rittenberg wrote. “Anything resembling that mark will ensure a change in Fayetteville… Athletic director Hunter Yurachek hired Pittman and likes him, but probably needs to see a bowl appearance to move forward with the 62-year-old.”
There you have it: Pittman needs to win at least six games to save his job, according to Rittenberg. Some fans may argue he needs more than that, but that’s probably a fair assessment by ESPN.
After all, Pittman inherited an absolute dumpster fire from Chad Morris and needed only two years to turn Arkansas into a top-25 team. Since the nine-win 2021 season, though, the Razorbacks have regressed.
Injuries played a major factor in them falling back to a 7-6 mark in 2022. This past year, Arkansas lost a bunch of close games early before the wheels fell off late on the way to a 4-8 record.
If the Razorbacks drop to three games below .500 at any point next season, Pittman’s buyout decreases from 75% to 50% of his remaining contract, so that could be something to keep an eye on.
Even the UA has acknowledged the possibility of Pittman not being the head coach in 2025, as shown in the unique language of new wide receivers coach Ronnie Fouch’s contract.
History Doesn’t Favor Pittman
With Bobby Petrino back in the fold as their offensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach in Eric Mateos, though, the Razorbacks are expecting a big bounce back year in 2024.
However, history is not on their side.
Since 1990, there have been 37 different head coaching tenures of at least five years in the SEC. Of those, only 14 saw a clear and obvious dip from Year 3 to Year 4, similar to what Sam Pittman experienced from 2022 to 2023.
Only four of those 14 coaches rebounded with clear improvement in Year 5 — and three of them have national championships on their resume.
In his third season at Alabama, Gene Stallings won a national title with a 13-0 record in 1992. He followed that up with a “down” year in which the Crimson Tide went 9-3-1, but then bounced back with a 12-1 record in his fifth season.
It was a similar situation for Nick Saban at Alabama. He also won a national title in Year 3 with the Crimson Tide, going 14-0, before “regressing” to a 10-3 record in 2010. Saban bounced back like you’d expect Nick Saban to bounce back — by winning back-to-back national titles in one-loss seasons.
Les Miles won the national championship in his third season at LSU, as well, going 12-2 in 2007. The Tigers fell back to 8-5 the next year, finishing unranked, before rebounding with a 9-4 campaign in which they actually won two more SEC games than the year before and finished ranked No. 17.
The only non-championship coach on the list is Derek Mason at Vanderbilt. He got the Commodores to a bowl game in Year 3, going 6-7 overall with a 3-5 SEC mark in 2016, but followed it up by missing a bowl and going 1-7 in conference play the following year. Vanderbilt went bowling again in 2018, but Mason was fired two years later.
Of the other 10 coaches who were retained for a fifth season after regressing from Year 3 to Year 4, seven were fired/resigned during or immediately following Year 5. That list includes a pair of former Arkansas football coaches in Danny Ford and Bret Bielema, as well as Jim Donnan (Georgia), Gerry DiNardo (LSU), Brad Scott (South Carolina), Will Muschamp (South Carolina) and Woody Widenhofer (Vanderbilt).
The other three were let go/retired during or immediately following their sixth year at the school, but like Stallings, Saban and Miles, each of them have a national title on their resume: Ed Orgeron (LSU), Lou Holtz (South Carolina) and Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M).
Arkansas Football Not the Only One
Barring a dramatic turnaround at a few places, Arkansas might not be the only SEC school in search of a new head coach.
In fact, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg listed only three coaches in his “on the hot seat” tier – the coaches whose job security is the most tenuous – and two of them are from the conference. In addition to Sam Pittman, Florida’s Billy Napier is also in danger of losing his job next season. After all, he’s the only SEC coach to lose to Pittman in 2023.
The third coach on the list is Dave Aranda at Baylor.
Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea isn’t quite on that same level, but Rittenberg does include him in the “keep an eye on” section as a third SEC coach under pressure entering 2024.
More coverage of Arkansas football and Sam Pittman from BoAS…