After the end of his second season at Arkansas in 2019, Razorback women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors felt proud that his team — an SEC cellar-dweller just two years before — had played so well in the SEC Tournament.
In publicly praising his team, with an eye out for future recruits, Neighbors said something that a few old-schoolers might have winced at: “You don’t have to win a championship to be a champion here.”
Since then, Neighbors’ program has become a borderline national contender, knocking off UConn and Baylor in the process and stockpiling a bevy of former four and five-star stars-in-the-making like Jersey Wolfenberger, Sasha Goforth and Maryam Dauda.
Expectations are now so high within the program that it’s a safe bet these Razorbacks aren’t going to feel like champions unless they actually win a championship.
Neighbors, however, wasn’t wrong to take his time in talking up national (or SEC) championship expectations for his program.
Early indications show Sam Pittman tracking a similar path.
In a recent 2021 season preview interview with The Athletic, the Arkansas football coach was his usual no-B.S., dry humored and optimistic self.
He balanced what all fans and coaches should believe can be done in every game — win — with the cold, hard reality of playing in the toughest division in college football history and a schedule filled with juggernauts whom no sane person would expect to beat.
“Our expectations at the University of Arkansas are as high as anywhere,” Pittman said.
“Now, are we thinking national championship? No, we’re more thinking of let’s go make somebody beat us. If we’re going to lose, let’s do the right things, let’s play hard, let’s play tough, let’s play smart. Let’s don’t give anybody anything.”
“And I think our kids have bought into that, and have believed that. Because we won enough to show that that can happen if you do buy into that.”
Once the season is in play, Pittman and his staff will be locked in on each and every game and preparing for a win, not a close game — but it’s noteworthy that in the preseason Pittman is so open about the programs’ overall philosophy heading into Year 2 of his regime.
Sam Pittman in Year 2 Over Arkansas Football
He knows full well how difficult it will be to be to go from an Arkansas football program celebrated for winning three SEC wins in Year 1 to a program that can win beat the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma in the College Football Playoffs.
Especially when one of his best players feels he needs to leave the program to go to Oklahoma for a better title shot.
“We’re two-time national champs now in hardest schedule in the country, so at least we’ve got something (going) for us,” Sam Pittman added.
“The bottom line is if you gripe about your schedule then you’re probably telling your kids that ‘We don’t belong in the SEC West.’ And I’m sure as hell not going to say that to them or anybody,” Pittman told The Athletic.
“Because I believe in Arkansas and I believe in our kids, and there’s no reason that Arkansas can’t be a football power once again.”
“It may take a little bit of time, but we’re certainly going to go with that mindset.”
Part of why Arkansas football fans love Sam Pittman is his no B.S. attitude.
Well, there’s zero B.S. in publicly stating that the goal of 2021 isn’t to win a national title, but to play hard, compete well (and we assume win more games than in 2020).
There’s zero delusion there, unlike with Chad Morris who promised to set the world on fire with Arkansas’ offense in Year 1.
No matter how much Arkansas football fans want to believe the program can luck out and win every game in 2021, it’s not going to happen.
In football, it takes a lot longer to bring in the necessary players and create the necessary depth to contend, which is one reason Eric Musselman had the basketball Hogs competing for a national title in Year 2.
Pittman is doing the right thing by tempering expectations at this early stage. If the program improves as much in Year 2 and Year 3 as it did in Year 1, then in a couple of years Arkansas football will be back to winning double-digit number of games each season.
And then serious talk about contending for a national championship can begin.
In the meantime, the realistic expectation should be making a bowl game. If Arkansas doesn’t perform a lot better on third downs, however, it won’t even turn that corner.
In 2020, the Hogs converted only 34% on third down attempts.
“It’s one thing to have a fact-paced offense that likes to keep defenses on their heels, and it’s another to not be able to move the chains and come through on key drives,” writes Pete Fiutak of College Football News.
“The Hogs had their moments, and the offense was steadily able to put up points, but they were brutal on third downs, bottoming out with an 0-for-10 day in the 27-24 loss to LSU.”
“But this is nothing new. The last three Hog teams have failed to finish the year higher than 34% on third downs and haven’t hit 40% in four of the last five seasons.”
“Part of the problem was the inability to do enough in pass protection.”
Brad Davis’s Departure and the Hogs’ Offensive Line
Arkansas received a blow early in the summer when LSU, which had been threatening to poach defensive coordinator Barry Odom way, lured assistant coach Brad Davis away instead.
There’s no way around it: this is bad news.
In his one season Arkansas improved from 13th in total offense in 2019 to eighth, improving by 50 total yards per game. His offensive line did get his worse in sacks allowed in the SEC-only slate in 2020, allowing 3.4 sacks per game.
But as an ace recruiter he also signed or got commitments from four four-star offensive linemen, including Marcus Henderson, E’Marion Harris and Andrew Chamblee.
Sam Pittman, who knows offensive lines, considered Brad Davis to be the nation’s best offensive line coach.
Davis is from Baton Rouge, however, so it’s hard for fans to get too disgruntled over a coach going home.
“That’s that’s a huge draw,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Tom Murphy said on the Buzz 103.7 FM.
“Just like Justin [Stepp], the two guys who were office staff since Sam took over, who were great recruiters. Both went back home, with Stepp being from around the Columbia, South Carolina area.”
“Sam’s got to sting a little bit because he’s the guy who coached [Davis] in Oklahoma, he got him hired at North Carolina. Kind of one of his guys, and they thought they had a good thing going with the o-line here — and he was a good recruiter, and so they’re going to miss Brad Davis for sure.”
He added: “Sam Pittman had such a relationship with Brad Davis, it’s almost like father, son. Certainly a mentor and people relationship. They spoke the same language with the offensive line.”
Multiple media outlets are reporting that Pittman will switch new Arkansas football assistant Cody Kennedy from coaching tight ends to offensive line as a replacement for Davis.
Kennedy coached under Pittman in 2018 as a GA at Georgia before coaching the offensive line at Tulane.
“Cody and I coached together at Georgia, coached for a good friend of mine in Willie Fritz at Tulane,” Pittman said.
“They set school records in rushing. I had coached tight ends in my career one time in 1996 at Cincinnati. I thought it was a great learning experience for me to learn more about the game other than just the front and the box on defense.”
“I talked Cody basically into coming here and doing that for us – outstanding person, outstanding recruiter. We’re awfully happy to have him as our new tight ends coach.”