Sam Pittman Well Suited for the Kind of Shielding Bobby Petrino Will Need Back on the Hill

Bobby Petrino
Credit: Craven Whitlow

Fire. Ice.

Oil. Water.

Peanut butter. Jelly.

Kind, folksy guy. Brash, controversial guy.

Welcome to Arkansas football in 2023-2024, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll have to pardon the Razorbacks if it looks a lot like Arkansas football 2008-2011. Except, you know, a a lot lower. Lower, in part, because of the man reportedly set to be hired as Arkansas’ next offensive coordinator.

Multiple posts on Bobby Petrino’s Twitter profile have made it clear that the former Hogs coach has agreed to be the Hogs’ offensive coordinator under coach Sam Pittman. And his arrival perhaps couldn’t come any sooner, given the monumental task at hand of rebuilding Arkansas’ offense if reports by 247Sports’ Chris Hummer and Matt Zenitz involving three-year starter KJ Jefferson entering the transfer portal prove to be accurate (Jefferson himself has posted he hasn’t yet made a decision on the matter):

Regardless of what happens with Jefferson, what a long, strange trip it’s been for Petrino and Arkansas.

Long, Strange Trip Back to Bobby Petrino

Whether you love the hire as a fan or despise the hire as a fan, that depends on your disposition and ability to overlook hypocrisy. Arkansas’ brass definitely has plenty of the latter if they are set to approve the hiring of a man who embarrassed the program as bad as almost any college football program this millennium. Not only did Petrino-Gate, a scandalous motorcycle ride filled with deception, hurt the university’s brand, it also sent Arkansas from mid-pack SEC team to bottom of the barrel. Literally, since Petrino was fired, the only team worse in the league has been Vanderbilt.

Perhaps that’s why his – ahem – peccadilloes can be overlooked. Arkansas is about to be joined by Oklahoma and Texas, two other powerhouses that go right alongside the Alabamas, LSUs and Georgias of the world. With Jefferson apparently leaving, it will be harder Razorbacks for the Hogs to emerge from the bottom of the SEC.

Arkansas was, undoubtedly, a quality football team in Petrino’s four years. He took the team from 5-7 his first season to 11-2 his last, with the wins increasing each passing year. The first year after he left, Arkansas went 4-8, losing to Louisiana-Monroe, among others. And the Razorbacks haven’t been the same since.

On one hand, it could be argued that Arkansas fired its most successful coach since Lou Holtz and that’s why the Hogs fell apart. On the other hand, it’s easy to say the embarrassment was so great that a mediocre program to begin with simply could not recover. After all, most of the places Petrino has coached since he became a head man have gotten worse right after he left.

Petrino’s first head coaching job came at Louisville from 2003-2006. After going 12-1 with the Cardinals in that ‘06 season, Louisville fell to 6-6 the year after. Petrino had moved on to the NFL to coach the Atlanta Falcons. He made it 13 games in a season marred by the Michael Vick-dogfighting scandal before he resigned midseason, via four-sentence laminated note, to take the job at Arkansas.

Petrino sat out for a year and then coached Western Kentucky for the 2013 season. Louisville then wanted him back. His first four seasons with the Cards in stint No. 2 were good, as the team won at least eight games each go around. His fifth year, Petrino didn’t make it through. Louisville was 2-8 when the university bought out his contract. Petrino then coached Missouri State for three years at the conclusion of which the Bears, this past season, fell to four wins. Then, of course, came Petrino returning to the SEC as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator for the 2023 season.

This is a man known for being rough-around-the-edges, to put it nicely, even though signs point to him mellowing with age. Can a man who stuff his Twitter profile pics with this many grandchildren really remain a tyrant?

Plus, as long-time Razorback sportscaster Mike Irwin puts it, “Not only has he supposedly toned himself down, he’s coming back as the OC which probably will make it less likely that he explodes at refs or insults opposing coaches with hand gestures.”

Irwin’s post continues: “He’ll be a behind scenes version of his larger-than-life character. It’s the change in Arkansas’ offense and his play calling that I’m looking forward to. Hopefully that will still be bad a$$.”

Pittman and other UA leaders sure hope so. We can assume they believe that such success stemming from the addition of Bobby Petrino is worth any potential damage the program would incur afterward. Surely he wouldn’t wreck another motorcycle, would he?

What may help things, from the Arkansas football brand perspective that is, is the man who is set to hire Petrino. Sam Pittman is almost the total opposite personality-wise and comfort with the media, recent signs of frustration notwithstanding. Pittman is beloved, or was until the Razorbacks went 4-8 this year, causing serious concern about his future with Arkansas. But athletics director Hunter Yurachek said Pittman would return in 2024, even before the Hogs played their final game, a 48-14 loss to Missouri. 

Sam Pittman No Pea in Pod with Petrino

Pittman is notoriously candid in his press conferences, even accidentally letting slip that Arkansas’ NIL program would be changing about two weeks before the official news was announced Tuesday morning. In Pittman’s regime, coordinators and assistant coaches almost never talk to the media. At least, there aren’t weekly sessions with the beat reporters like there were under Bret Bielema and several of the coaches before him. Heck, Pittman limits access so much that quarterback KJ Jefferson was rarely made available in post-game press conferences, something practically unheard of at many schools. Pittman’s gregarious personality will shield Petrino, whose demeanor is prickly.

At first blush, the dynamic has a lot of potential. Petrino can just focus on being the mad scientist with his X’s and O’s, doing what he does best without having to mess with the media much during the season. When it comes to players, he can play the role of “bad cop” while Pittman remains the “good cop” that comes so naturally to him to keep players from running off. It’s the inverse of the usual dynamic where the head coach is the tough disciplinarian and his lieutenant the more warm and fuzzy type.

Still, the hiring could also hurt Pittman in the long run. There’s no telling whether Jacolby Criswell, the presumed starter at quarterback if Jefferson transfers, would develop into a star under Petrino. Or if he will get a better QB from the portal. Even if Petrino’s offense does well, it’s still possible that the defense could regress and Arkansas finish with a 5-7 record or worse. In that hypothetical scenario, it’s easy to imagine him taking over for a fired Pittman so he can run the whole show again. Plenty of deep-pocketed alums would love to see that right now, even the same alums who didn’t want Petrino fired in the first place.

Back in August 2021, Arkansas running back Josh Oglesby knocked down Hunter Yurachek as the athletic director was on the sideline watching Arkansas scrimmage. Later that day, Yurachek tweeted a picture of himself after the nasty crash. In it, he looks a lot like Petrino looked in the press conference after the motorcycle wreck. Then, later that night, Arkansas’ athletic director took a playful jab at the man he would ultimately be responsible for reportedly hiring as his offensive coordinator.

So you’ll have to excuse my incredulity in thinking the hiring of Bobby Petrino is a move that was at the top of Pittman’s and Yurachek’s list. No, the move feels more like the powers-that-be all but forcing Yurachek’s hand, lest he be on the same hot seat as his football coach.

Oil, meet water, indeed.

***

Bobby Petrino vs Sam Pittman

As DJ Williams, the former Arkansas star under Bobby Petrino, sees it, Pittman and Petrino have “completely different dynamics of their approach to the game.”

As an example, in the Fourth & 5 video below, Williams recalled as a player he would sometimes see Bobby Petrino on the far end of a long hallway in the Arkansas football complex. As player and coach neared each other, the exchange was always brief. Petrino would ask “What do you know, Williams?” with not what one consider a friendly demeanor.

That would stress Williams out and make him second guess whatever his response was. ‘Oh gosh, hopefully I said the right thing. I don’t know what I know. Maybe I don’t know anything. I don’t know.'” Finally, he would blurt out “Coach, I’ll see you at practice.” and leave. “You just got to get up out of there. A lot of people just turned around and walked the opposite way.”

All the same, Petrino did help make him a hell of a player. In his senior year, in fact, Williams won the award for the nation’s best tight end.

“When Houston Nutt was there, I was a highly-recruited athlete coming out of high school, felt good about my position among freshmen. But when Bobby got there, I’m telling you, what he did — he broke me down to the studs and he completely did a renovation and remodeled and turned me into someone I didn’t even know was there.”

Sam Pittman, meanwhile, is a player’s coach.

“You see Sam Pittman on the end of that hallway, to paint the picture, you’re probably going to go run up, ‘What’s up, Coach? What’s going on?’ You’re just chilling. ‘I’m good, class is good….'” You just don’t do that with Petrino.”

Make sure to watch the full breakdown of Bobby Petrino’s return here:

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