Mike Anderson was a good basketball coach. In a time when the Arkansas basketball program was as low as it had been in the modern era, Anderson made a return to Fayetteville and stabilized a once-great program, returning the Razorbacks to relevance. No, he did not return the team to outright dominance, which is what the Hogs so often enjoyed during Anderson’s first stint at Barnhill Arena and Bud Walton Arena as an assistant. But he sure set the stage for what came next.
The Arkansas football head coach, now five games into his fourth season at the helm, earned the Razorbacks bowl berths in his first three seasons. The accomplishment should be considered a minor miracle considering how truly dire things were during the tenure of his predecessor Chad Morris. Morris’ not-even-two-years manning the ship saw Arkansas finish with consecutive 2-10 seasons, both times winless in the SEC.
Things Only Getting Tougher for Arkansas Football
Unfortunately for Pittman, this isn’t the 1990s or even the 2000s. The state of college football is such that simple bowl berths are deemed of minor consequence for job security at a program like Arkansas. With Texas and Oklahoma entering the fold in the most powerful conference in the sport next year, Arkansas’ typical spot in the pecking order (the Razorbacks are about the ninth or 10th most successful team in the league over the last 10 years) is only expected to drop. So if the results haven’t been positive through five weeks of Year Four and they’re only expected to continue to decline, what is truly next for the program?
Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek may find himself in a tough spot in the next few weeks. If he feels as though Arkansas can keep its spot in the SEC hierarchy in the next couple of seasons, Pittman will stay. But that almost certainly won’t be the case if Yurachek – and more importantly, the monied people who really make such decisions – doesn’t believe such a hold is possible. Simply staying middle of the pack doesn’t appear likely given this season’s results so far and the current states of the Sooners and Longhorns, who just drummed No. 24 Kansas 40-14.
We’re fast coming upon a place where the question of whether Arkansas can take the next step is no longer the priority. After Saturday’s 34-22 loss to Texas A&M that saw Arkansas get far too often punished in the trenches, simply righting the ship has to come first.
Pittman said after the game that he believes in his team and given his history with them, the remarks don’t feel like coachspeak. Arkansas on paper, though, is stronger than Arkansas on the field.
Sam Pittman’s Headaches Building
One of the biggest reasons for the disappointment is that the players who were expected to take the next step, from role player to starter or from starter to potential All-SEC player, simply haven’t developed. Perhaps the one player on offense who looked most like an All-SEC player, Luke Hasz, broke his clavicle just minutes into Arkansas vs Texas A&M and is likely out for the season.
Blend that with the regression from quarterback KJ Jefferson (not 100% his fault), offensive linemen Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham, and an injury to Rocket Sanders and things have become rough to say the least. Racking up 39 running snaps for an average of 1.1 yards per carry, compared to just 17 passes at almost 8 yards per catch, shows just how tough the sledding was on Saturday.
Against the Aggies, Arkansas wasn’t exactly dominated, the same way Arkansas wasn’t exactly dominated against Brigham Young or LSU the last two weeks. We’re not seeing things go into full-on embarrassment mode like they did at the end of the Bret Bielema era or during Morris’ cursed tenure.
Enough things are going sideways, though, that playing more-or-less even with an opponent is resulting in a loss. The Razorbacks weren’t more or less even against Texas A&M on Saturday as Bobby Petrino’s offense torched, for a half, Arkansas and the Aggies defense were consistent enough and pressuring enough to keep Jefferson and co. from ever finding a rhythm.
The 4th and 1 shotgun call late in the first half near midfield, when Arkansas has done nothing to prove the sticks on those kinds of plays, was baffling. Especially, as Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin points out, Pittman and Enos “tried that against BYU and the pushback against that failed decision was like a storm front blowing in.”
Doing it again, Irwin opines, “was a sign of arrogance,” akin to saying “All you fans who think we can’t convert a fourth and short out of the shotgun with an offensive line that is struggling to run block, watch us prove you wrong.”
Next Arkansas Football Coach Timeline
Lack of push up front and similar issues are the kinds of problems that Pittman and his staff could fix given a long enough timeline. He just doesn’t have one in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society. Almost the moment you fail to meet expectations in this game, anymore, you’re toast.
It’s irrelevant to the fan base that Arkansas has largely been an SEC team in the lower and middle thirds of the conference for the bulk of the last 25 years. Former Arkansas basketball guard Mason Jones, who lived through the end of the Anderson era and the beginning of the Musselman one in his two seasons with the Hogs, is among that fan base:
Expect, then, the likelihood that Yurachek will put out feelers in the coming weeks. We won’t hear about them, barring someone close to the situation becoming so fed up with the Sam Pittman regime that he or she leaks it (highly unlikely). Considering how poorly the last two coaching searches were handled, though, it would be unwise not to get the ball rolling before Halloween.
That’s about it, however. By the first week of November, Arkansas will have also played Ole Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State and Florida. Unless two wins come in those four games, the bowl chances for Arkansas football are slim to nil. Zero wins in that stretch and “slim” can be kissed goodbye.
Reasonable people look back fondly at Anderson’s eight seasons running the Razorbacks basketball team. They wouldn’t be where they are, what with three straight Sweet 16 appearances, without his steadying hand. If Pittman suffers the same fate, he’ll get that credit, too. But for now?
What have you done for me lately, indeed.
Matt Besser on Next Arkansas Football Coach
Matt Besser, our No. 1 Razorback comedian/actor fan, points out it’s hard to get too angry at Pittman.
“He’s not like [Chad] Morris. He’s like a old three-legged dog you’ve had. It’s hard to yell at him. It’s hard to get mad at him. He seems like a good guy,” he says in the below bit.
“But we’re all fantasizing now about who’s the next coach to be, and I’ve read a lot of stuff online. We’re going to get Coach Prime. That’s a funny thought. I see a lot of Gus Malzahn. Sure, Gus. And then we can have the Gus Bus and the Mus Bus. A Mus Bus and a Gus Bus. Open up a bar called The Bus Station. That would be amazing – maybe, or maybe not.”
And then I start thinking of other choices, and it always came back to one obvious choice. And that’s me. And by “me,” all of you are thinking yourselves, too. We all think we know we all could be coached because we’re all yelling” that KJ Jefferson should have simply fallen forward on that fourth-and-one play and used his nearly 250 pounds for the sake of that sweet, sweet first down paydirt..
“We all knew that, so we obviously all can coach.”
Watch the rest of Besser’s take on the Hogs’ woes and what should come next here:
Sam Pittman tried to shine some light on the Hogs’ woes after the game. Below are some excerpts from his press conference.
On if he was pleased with play-calling:
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, we tried to run stretch, we tried to run inside. We tried to run some counter-type situa�ons. On our first stretch play, we threw the ball out to the bubble and it was a mile-wide open hole, and we just, you know — we threw it outside to the
bubble. And got no yards on the play.”
“That’s a litle bit part of the RPO thing is I wish he had gave it at that point. You can’t do that. You have to go off of reads and things of that nature.”
On where he feels the Razorbacks’ physicality is five games into the season:
“Certainly not what we want it to be. Probably didn’t look very good today. I would say last week, beter than today. And I’d say the week before, not very good. Probably the week before that, not very good.”
“The first game, how do you know? I mean, we scored so much, so fast. So to answer your question, probably not very good — which you knew the answer to that question, I think.”
On whether it’s time to reevaluate the Arkansas football strategy on offense:
“….what’s bothersome about it is we practiced [what LSU showed] and what they gave us was we practiced it….”
“I don’t think we have too much offense in or anything of that nature. I don’t know that you or I could say we’d do this, this, and this well. And so I think we thought the stretch play was going to help us, and we didn’t do it very good, either.”
“So maybe it is cutting something back and just saying, ‘Okay, we’ll run four plays and that’s it.’ But whatever it is, didn’t work at all tonight. And it’s a legit question.”
More on Arkansas football and Arkansas vs Texas A&M here: