FAYETTEVILLE — The last time Sam Pittman met with local reporters in person, Arkansas had just dropped another close game against Missouri to finish the season 6-6.
As he sat inside the small, cold closet the Tigers had designated for postgame interviews underneath the stands in their brand new end zone section, the third-year coach opened his postgame comments with what proved to be a foreshadowing statement.
“(Missouri) played a very physical game,” Pittman said. “They out-physicaled us tonight on both sides of the ball. It’s unfortunate. We had several chances to win the game, but we couldn’t convert on offense and couldn’t stop them on defense. They had the more physical team tonight.”
It was the Razorbacks’ third loss in four games — a stretch in which they seemingly lost their identity as a dominant line-of-scrimmage team. Blame beyond the players could have gone in any direction and likely falls on the shoulders of several, including Pittman, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, offensive line coach Cody Kennedy and defensive line coach Deke Adams.
However, reports surfaced the very next day that strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker had been fired with a year remaining on his contract, which had been extended for another year just eight months earlier.
Just how swiftly Pittman moved — Walker’s termination letter, which Best of Arkansas Sports obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, is dated Nov. 25, the day of the Missouri game — seems to indicate he was not pleased with the direction Arkansas was heading in that area.
The man tabbed with getting things back on track is Ben Sowders, whom the Razorbacks officially announced as their new strength and conditioning coach last week after he spent the past year in the same position at Louisville.
“Obviously we’ve got to get better in the trenches,” Sowders said. “This game, this league, you’ve got to win in the trench. That’s O-line and D-line, so we’ve already put a huge premium on that.
“Our lifting and running, we start with our bigs on everything we do. That’s just to set the mindset of everything starts with you. We’re going to win and lose up front and for us to be successful, our O-line and D-line have to understand that they lead the charge.”
Even though he’s been in Fayetteville less than two weeks, Sowders is blown away by the facilities and resources at his disposal at Arkansas.
He specifically mentioned the student-athlete success center named after Jerry and Gene Jones and said he plans to use all of the facilities to improve the Razorbacks’ physicality in the trenches.
“To grow, specifically if you’re talking about our O-line and D-line, we’ve got to continue to use our resources,” Sowders said. “We’ve got so many resources here that I feel like are untapped, so I feel like we’ve got to do a better job of that — from supplements, to nutrition, our staff, our food.”
An interesting angle to the hire is that Sowders spent time in the same Georgia weight program that Walker did before coming to Fayetteville. There are similarities between them, but Sowders said he’s already changed some things up.
That said, he’s not starting from scratch and it shouldn’t take multiple years to fully implement his philosophies.
“It’s very, very fortunate I’m coming into a program where some things just got to be changed a little differently,” said Sowders, who’s five days away from turning 37 years old. “The previous staff, I think did a good job. There’s going to be similarities, but there’s also already a lot of differences, and I think if you asked our kids they’d probably tell you that. But it’s not like I’m coming into a bad situation. I’m coming ahead of the game as opposed to behind it, so it’s encouraging.”
How the Hire Went Down
Not long after Louisville lost to Kentucky on Nov. 26 to finish the 2022 regular season with a 7-5 record, Sam Pittman reached out to Ben Sowders about the position that had just opened up on his staff.
That started a process that included a trip to Fayetteville and interviews with multiple people, including athletics director Hunter Yurachek. Sowders started working with the team last Monday.
“(Pittman) asked me if this was a place I’d be interested in and I told him absolutely I would be,” Sowders said. “We kind of got a little further into talks, he brought me down, I was fortunate enough to interview with him, the staff, the administration, Mr. Yurachek. Got the green light, got the offer, and it’s been rocking and rolling ever since.”
The fact that Sowders was the assistant director of strength and conditioning at Georgia for two seasons while Pittman was there probably played a big part in him getting offered — and accepting — the job with the Razorbacks.
“If it was somebody else, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here before you,” Sowders said. “I believe in Coach Pittman, not only as a coach but as a man. I know how he does things, he’s genuine, he truly cares about the players. He cares about the staff, he cares about this program. It was a no-brainer when he gave me the opportunity to come, I knew I was coming.”
Contract Details for Ben Sowders
According to a copy of his employment agreement obtained by Best of Arkansas Sports via a Freedom of Information request, Ben Sowders agreed to a two-year deal with Arkansas that pays him $400,000 the first year and $450,000 the second year.
That is a significant raise from what he was making at Louisville, where his salary was $300,000, according to USA Today. His average annual salary is equal to what Jamil Walker was making, though, as Arkansas bumped Walker’s pay up to $425,000 earlier this year.
(Because he was terminated for convenience, Walker is owed the remaining amount on his deal, which is a little more than $425,000 because he was under contract through Feb. 28, 2024. There is a “duty of mitigation” clause in his contract, though, that requires him to pursue other employment that would decrease the amount owed to him from the UA.)
The Razorbacks are also in the process of hiring a nutritionist, as their previous one was also fired, and finalizing the strength staff. Sowders said he’s trying to choose the best four assistants from a pool that he’s whittled down to six or seven options.
“A lot of people have reached out,” Sowders said. “They know this place is a special place. They know coach Pittman is a special coach. It’s been overwhelming. I think the first day that it officially came out that I was accepting the job, I think I had 126 text messages from colleagues (and) half of those are people that are trying to get in on the job.”
Climbing the Ladder as a Strength & Conditioning Coach
A former walk-on, Ben Sowders eventually earned a scholarship while playing at Western Kentucky. He was a linebacker for the Hilltoppers as they transitioned from the FCS to the FBS.
As a senior in 2008, his second year as a starter, Sowders finished with 47 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. It was during his career at Western Kentucky that he realized his future was as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I was blessed to be around a lot of good strength coaches during my time as a student-athlete at Western Kentucky,” Sowders said. “Just the caring and the motivation and the push and the want-to and the hope that coaches I was around, the hope that they gave us to make us want to be better and strive to be our best. This was a no-brainer that this is what I wanted to do.”
Sowders broke into the business as the facility coordinator and head strength and speed coach at D1 Sports Training in Nashville, Tenn., where he worked with NFL players like Steve Smith, Jerome Bettis and Donovan McNabb.
His first job in the college ranks was at Southern Miss as an assistant strength and conditioning coach from 2012-13. He parlayed that into head gigs at a pair of FCS schools — Gardner-Webb (2013-14) and McNeese State (2017) — sandwiched around his first Power Five job, as the assistant director of player development at Georgia Tech (2015-16).
“If you do a good enough job, people are going to notice, people are going to talk,” Sowders said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before you really, really get a good opportunity. It doesn’t matter what level you coach at. That doesn’t define how good of a coach you are. There’s really great coaches at DIII , DII, (FCS), Power 5, Group of 5 – it don’t matter.”
After one year at McNeese State, Sowders got his first opportunity in the SEC as an assistant under Georgia’s Scott Sinclair. He had an annual salary of $85,000 when he started with the Bulldogs in 2018, so he’s now making 4.7 times that just five years later.
A four-year stint at Georgia set the stage for him to get the head strength and conditioning position at Louisville back in January. It was a learning experience for him.
“I think sitting in this seat, you’ve got to be able to answer a lot of questions,” Sowders said. “You’ve got to be able to reflect and say ‘what do we do well, what do we not do well’ and continue to build on that. I think it’s easier said than done.
“You wear a lot of hats — a lot, a lot of hats. From the mental aspect, physical, you’re talking about relationships with players, academics, nutrition, obviously football, the scheme of football, sports science. Just getting in there and talking about weights is probably just a small, small, small, small part of it. It’s much more than that now.”
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