When Hunter Yurachek recently announced that he intends to retain Sam Pittman as the Arkansas football coach for the 2024 season, he answered the biggest question Hog fans had been debating for weeks.
The athletics director’s announcement via
tweet post on X (the site formerly-known-as-but-not-in-the-fun-Prince-way Twitter) was short and to the point, and offered little explanation. Although one question had been answered, it certainly leaves a new one hanging: why?
If it’s as simple as Arkansas and its boosters couldn’t pay Pittman his hefty $16 million buyout, then that was a contract that shouldn’t have been offered in the first place and reflects poorly on the administration. Let’s hope it’s not that.
Pittman has earned approximately $18 million over his four seasons as Arkansas’ coach. That’s a pretty nice way of saying “thank you!” for bringing Arkansas away from Chad and delivering the joy of the 2021 season. As Don Draper would say, “That’s what the money is for!”
As much as everyone likes Pittman (we have an “Ol’ Cold Beers” shirt in my house), it’s hard to justify that he’s earned another year.
Surprising Skepticism about Pittman
KATV’s longtime sports anchor Steve Sullivan, almost always a source of optimism when it comes to Arkansas sports, expressed his skepticism in a recent column. He writes that Sam Pittman “isn’t the same man that hit the coaching lottery jackpot three years ago.” He points out that Pittman fired the agent who helped him get hired at Arkansas and replaced Judy Henry with the infamous Jimmy Sexton, who helped Pittman land his current extension, and the Hogs haven’t been the same since.
I’m not sure that’s a fair argument on the surface, but I don’t know Pittman personally. I do think it’s worth considering how getting your first enormous head-coaching contract might change a person, and how getting an extension that doubles your contract and gives you a giant buyout – all the while being heralded statewide as a savior – impacts a person. It’s a life-altering level of comfort and security with a heaping injection of praise. People handle that new level of success differently. Bobby Petrino got into motorcycling. I don’t expect Pittman to go down that exact path in the Ozarks, but it has to be a challenge on some level. Achieving success is difficult. Sustaining it is rare.
There is no debate that his teams have underperformed over the last two seasons. It wasn’t just local media and homer fans who had higher expectations. Arkansas was picked to finish 5th in the SEC West at SEC Media Days, but the team lost at home (and only scored 13 total points) to the two teams picked beneath it. The over/under heading into the season was 7.5 wins.
Last year, the team directly stated the goal was to improve on 2021’s nine-win season. They were barely bowl eligible. This season, they were eliminated from bowl contention with a couple of games remaining, clinching their fate by dousing bowl hopes with gasoline and lighting a match by essentially no-showing against Auburn.
Evaluating Pittman goes beyond wins and losses. He said he spent “minutes” deciding to hire Dan Enos to be this season’s offensive coordinator, but ended up firing Enos after eight games, and Enos may have only lasted that long because it took eight games to get to the bye week.
Enos’ hiring was part of a significant turnover that included staff and players after the frustrating 2022 season. Arkansas was among the nation’s leaders with 27 players entering the portal. Some of those players entered of their own volition, but many of them likely entered with some encouragement. It’s fair to ask how effectively Pittman managed the program for that much turnover to happen after Pittman’s third season.
NIL and Arkansas Football
There’s been plenty of talk lately about NIL and its impact on Arkansas’ roster. It’s clear that any SEC-level program needs to be have NIL at a competitive level with rival schools in order to sign the best players you can, and Pittman even acknowledged optimism with Arkansas’ apparently improved NIL efforts in a press conference this week.
NIL is hard for anyone on the outside to figure out because so much of it is shrouded in mystery. How much does a school need to be competitive? What are players making? What are they being offered? Who’s managing the budget? If a fan wants to donate, where does that money go? What group should they even donate to?
All anyone on the outside sees is “we need more!” Unlike traditional donations to groups like the Razorback Foundation, where annual reports, publicized giving tiers and promoted campaigns illustrate what happens to the money given to a program, NIL groups don’t share anything. All we know is they need more, and we can’t expect the team to be competitive if they don’t get more. It’s a very healthy situation.
As long as the existing NIL system is in place, it will always be a great excuse for a losing program. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue. It’s hard to say what Arkansas’ NIL budget is and how that compares to other schools. That being said, no amount of NIL money will help the coach when he doesn’t know what to do on 4th down, as Pittman admitted on a key play in the Mississippi State game. Arkansas ultimately took a delay of game penalty and punted from inside their own 40-yard line while Cam Little stood on the sideline.
Despite the struggles of the last two seasons, if Sam Pittman does have more resources at his disposal (and how will we ever know if he truly does?), it’s not crazy to think Arkansas could be better next year. Pittman’s moves after the 2022 season did improve the defense considerably. His moves on offense this year were not as successful, but who’s to say he couldn’t apply learned lessons to the upcoming offseason and rebound in 2024? The best thing for Arkansas would be for Pittman to turn it around himself instead of the Arkansas football program going through yet another firing and hiring process.
It is refreshing in a sense to see an athletics director not capitulate to the distress of the moment and commit an eight-figure buyout to a coach. It’s something not often seen in college sports these days. Arkansas fans will have the rare opportunity to see if patience can pay off and previous miscues can lead to growth.
Perhaps money that donors would have contributed toward Pittman’s buyout are now being contributed toward NIL? Maybe not, but maybe so! They need more!
According to an Arkansas football booster speaking with Mike Irwin, this actually a big reason Pittman was retained.
More on that starting at 14:50 below:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…