In leading the Razorbacks to their first bowl-eligible season in five years, only two seasons after the smoldering wreckage of Chad Morris’ last season in Fayetteville, Sam Pittman has endeared himself to legions of Arkansas football fans.
It’s not simply that he is winning, although of course that matters. It’s that he wins while he unifies the state and embraces every last part of Razorback culture.
At the core of Pittman’s success so far is great communication, emotional intelligence and pure passion for the state of Arkansas and Razorbacks. That started decades ago when Pittman spent his last two years of high school just across the border in Oklahoma and fell in love with the Lou Holtz-led Arkansas football teams of the late 1970s. It continued when Pittman was hired in December 2019 and promptly broke into tears of joy with his wife, Jamie, and it was as clear as day when he unleashed a stirring post-game address to his Razorbacks after Saturday’s win over Mississippi State:
Sam Pittman, however, is not the first Arkansas football coach to show huge passion for the Hogs and the state of Arkansas. At this early stage of his career, where does he rank among the other Razorback head football coaches in the modern era?
Yes, we recognize that the below rankings are the sort that change as coaches fall into and out favor with fanbases. But we’re doing this now because it’s worth celebrating really good moments in Arkansas football program history. Lord knows fans have had their fill of dark ones later.
So, without further ado, let’s get on with it. The coach at the bottom of the list is easy enough. He was possibly the least charismatic and never truly attempted to endear himself to the Razorback fanbase.
No. 10 Chad Morris
Former SMU coach Chad Morris was hired at a time when the Arkansas Razorbacks athletic department was going through a transition. Arkansas had moved quickly to relieve athletic director Jeff Lon of his duties as well as head coach Bret Bielema. Morris came in oozing with smooth talk and full of slick marketing phrases. His main passion was for a specific scheme – the up-tempo high-powered offense he thought he could run.
After several embarrassing defeats, including losses to North Texas and San Jose State, the bloom quickly came off the rose. To go along with this, Morris made no effort to embrace the history or traditions that went along with the Razorbacks. His family never even moved to Fayetteville. Yurachek, blessedly, made the move to fire Morris and bring in another head coach to rebuild the program.
No. 9 Bret Bielema
Many people have a variety of opinions regarding current Illinois head coach Bret Bielema. People wanted the anti-Bobby Petrino when Bielema was hired and that is exactly what they got. Bielema said all of the right things but was unimpressive. Bielema had a knack for winning games at the right time (like Florida in 2016) to avoid the heat being ratcheted up. However, the final Arkansas football record for Bret Bielema was 29-34 when Razorback leaders made the decision to fire him.
Bielema may have had the passion to coach at Arkansas but his ground and pound offensive attack put Arkansas in a lurch, one that Sam Pittman has finally pulled Arkansas out of after a tough first season.
No. 8 Danny Ford
Former Clemson head coach Danny Ford was brought to Arkansas to essentially be a consultant to Joe Kines, who had replaced fired coach Jack Crowe. Ford came to Arkansas with plenty of credentials and an impressive resume from his days at Clemson. Ford played his college football under Paul Bryant at Alabama. He got the Clemson head coaching job after Charlie Pell departed for Florida. In 1981, the Clemson Tigers and Danny Ford defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and won the National Championship. In 1990, Ford resigned from Clemson University after a disagreement with the administration and took a two-year break.
In 1993, Danny Ford assumed the reigns at the University of Arkansas and put a focus on recruiting. Ford is responsible for landing running back Madre Hill, Steve Conley, and CJ McClain. Ford attempted to get comfortable with the Arkansas football traditions and the Razorback fans but the two never seemed to mesh.
However, his recruiting laid the groundwork for some quality teams put together by Houston Nutt a year after Ford was dismissed. Dany Ford’s plan was a good one in terms of recruiting and the player improvement, but other than a run in 1995 to take the SEC West, the wins never occurred at the right time.
No. 7 Bobby Petrino
The one thing that cannot be debated about Bobby Petrino is that he knows the game of the football. Petrino was a coach that made up for being very businesslike with having a high-powered passing attack. Quarterbacks Tyler Wilson and Ryan Mallet made excellent use of the wide receiving corps that Petrino and his staff brought into Fayetteville.
For three years, the Arkansas football team was a powerhouse playing in the Liberty Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Cotton Bowl in consecutive years. Winning can make fans overlook Petrino being a bit antisocial and abrasive. Similar to Morris, his main passion was for the technical and schematic side of football, but never seemed to extend to Razorback tradition and the state of Arkansas itself.
When Bobby Petrino’s tenure ended, the results were long-ranging and in some ways the football program is still trying to capture the success seen during the Petrino years.
No. 6 Jack Crowe
What most people remember to this day about Jack Crowe is the loss to the Citadel that cost him his job as head coach at Arkansas. When Ken Hatfield departed for Clemson, that left athletic director Frank Broyles in a tough spot. Broyles was able to talk Jack Crowe into taking the reigns at the University of Arkansas.
Crowe took over a team that was suffering from talent depletion with running Barry Foster departing for the NFL. The Hogs would finish his first season with a 3-8 record but in his second season Arkansas would earn an Independence Bowl berth. Crowe worked hard to get the Hogs out of a bad situation, but he never could right the ship. Arkansas fans felt bad for Crowe as he had the passion for the job and understood the tradition and the fanbase.
But it was simply not meant to be in Fayetteville for Crowe.
No. 5: Lou Holtz
When longtime Arkansas football coach Frank Broyles retired from coaching in the late 1970s, he was tasked with bringing in a quality replacement to take over. Broyles made a wise decision in bringing in up and coming Lou Holtz to keep the excitement and quality play going at the University of Arkansas. Holtz’s personality is that of a man that is charismatic and can generate support.
Which is exactly what he did in his first season at Arkansas leading the Hogs to a victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The 1977 Razorbacks had an outside shot of winning a national championship that season but Notre Dame’s win over Texas gave the Fighting Irish the sports writers votes.
However, the excitement was not about to be tempered in the ensuing years. Holtz’s personality made him a favorite with the fans and let the fans know that he cared about winning and cared about the Razorback traditions. During his tenure at Arkansas, Holtz was 60-21-2 and took the Arkansas football program to the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and the Bluebonnet Bowl. Holtz was relieved of his duties at Arkansas in 1983.
It is likely that Holtz’s first love will always be the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. However, that does not diminish the quality work he did in Fayetteville in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
No. 4: Sam Pittman
One coach that has found a way to mix his solid recruiting with the passion needed to endear himself to the fans and coach at the University of Arkansas is Sam Pittman. The current Arkansas head coach has made no secret that he loves the state and the school.
Pittman waited a long time before becoming a head coach. Pittman had left Arkansas to become the offensive line coach with the Georgia Bulldogs. Pittman became Kirby Smart’s top recruiter when he made the move to Athens. He was responsible for, and helped the Bulldogs add two key commitments on the offensive line that were four- and five-star offensive line prospects. Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson were not interested in Georgia until Pittman came in and earned the commitments of both Thomas and Wilson.
After Bret Bielema, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek was faced with the task of rebuilding a football program that had skidded into a ditch. Much like with the Georgia Bulldogs, Pittman’s main focus was rebuilding the recruiting plans both in-state and out of state, which needed an overhaul.
Going from the up-tempo style to more of a power-based style of attack, Pittman and staff have needed to recruit hard to match that style of attack. However, Pittman made it a point to attend the Razorback Club meetings around the state to shore up support that had fallen during the Chad Morris era.
Clearly, Pittman has the passion and the drive to do extremely well. He is ranked below others because his stint as head coach is still so relatively short. In time, no doubt he has the potential to climb higher on this list.
No. 3 Ken Hatfield
No one wants to replace a coach like Lou Holtz, but that is the task that Ken Hatfield faced when he got the job at Arkansas. Ken Hatfield was one coach that came in with the fans on his side because of the fact he was an alumnus and a Razorback football legend. Hatfield was part of the 1964 National Championship team and an All-American punt returner for the Razorbacks.
During his tenure with the Razorbacks, Hatfield was 55-17-1 and led the Hogs to two straight Cotton Bowl appearances. Hatfield and his Hogs did not miss a bowl, going to the Liberty, Holiday, Orange, Liberty, Cotton and Cotton bowls during his time as the head coach. In 1989, the Hogs under Hatfield also won the SWC title – the program’s last conference championship.
Despite the controversial way he resigned, leaving for Clemson without having first visited the campus, Hatfield will always have the respect of Arkansas fans. Time heals, as we have seen with Nolan Richardson as well.
No. 2 Houston Nutt
Like Hatfield, Houston Nutt is an Arkansas native who played for the Razorbacks. His knowledge of all parts of the program runs deep, inside and out. He came to Arkansas after the 1997 season, at a time when the football program was struggling. Nutt would benefit from a solid recruiting effort from Danny Ford, but Nutt would also use his enthusiasm to generate excitement in the state of Arkansas for a team that had been struggling before he had taken over.
The fan support would go up as Nutt was extremely successful taking the Razorbacks to the Capital One Bowl and the Cotton Bowl in his first two years at Arkansas. The problem with doing that well early in a coaching tenure is that expectations in the fan base go up.
His Razorbacks remained competitive, but all teams have some difficult seasons mixed in with a talent drop off and the heat would start to be turned up on Nutt. Nutt would eventually be relieved of his duties at Arkansas after nearly a decade, but the controversy at the end of his tenure shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he was and is very passionate about the Razorbacks.
Before Pittman, he had the reputation for the being best locker room speaker in program history and he has this all-time moment with Darren McFadden to his name, too.
No. 1 Frank Broyles
Every football coach that comes to Arkansas is going to be competing with the Frank Broyles legacy. Broyles won the Razorbacks lone National Championship and built the football program into respectability. From 1958 to 2007, from the start of his coaching career to the end of his run as athletic director, Frank Broyles left his fingerprints on the program.
Clearly, Frank Broyles had great passion for the program and state. Nobody lasts that long without it. The Razorbacks were not a destination job when he took the reins in 1958. During Broyles’ tenure as the head coach he won seven Southwest Conference Championships.
Broyles got the fans on his side by winning and displaying how hard the Hogs would work every Saturday. To this day, Broyles has the most career wins at the University of Arkansas with 144. Not to mention the rivalry he helped to create with the University of Texas, which is still one of the most important rivalries to the people and the fans of Arkansas.
Frank Broyles’ longevity both as a coach and athletic director gives his an advantage over the other coaches on this list. For decades, he earned the respect of the fan base by going to countless Razorback Club meetings all over the state and around the country. Broyles knew the game of football as well as the game behind the scenes that went on in offices.
The overall body of work he put in for the state of Arkansas, and the enduring passion that fueled it, may never be matched.
For out latest post about Pittman and the program, see this:
Evin Demirel contributed to the analysis in the above article.