This is the last in a series of columns on the 3 biggest sports stories in Arkansas during 2019.
The most significant Razorback sports story of 2019 began with the third-most important — Ty Storey’s return to Arkansas.
Storey’s dismantling of his former team ultimately led the Hogs to hire Sam Pittman, the former Razorback assistant who grew up right over the border in Oklahoma and has long owned land around Lake Hamilton. So far, Pittman has put together a staff rich in SEC coaching experience and poised to make Arkansas competitive again. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
To appreciate where we’re going, let’s look at where we’ve been.
No. I’m not talking about the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election.
Chad, we hardly knew ya. After just 4 wins in 22 games at Arkansas, Hunter Yurachek gave Chad Morris his walking papers before he’d even enjoyed his second Thanksgiving dinner on the Hill.
Beyond some wide receiver recruiting, Morris made no progress during his two years here. We ended the season with Interim Head Coach Barry Lunney, Jr. He did an admirable job, but the deck was stacked against him having to play LSU in his first head coaching outing. Ironically, his second loss was to Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach who is now Pittman’s defensive coordinator.
Nobody expected Morris to work a miracle in 2018, but we at least wanted to see progress in 2019. It didn’t happen. There were a few pivotal events that started Chad’s North End Zone exit. Had they gone the other way, he’d probably still be here:
—The Colorado State Mirage: Close game until the 4th quarter when the Hogs scored 3 TDs to blow them out. However, those 3 TDs were:
—A “scoop and score”
—A 5-tackle breaking 62 yard TD
—A “normal playbook” score by Devwah Whaley.
Without those non playbook touchdowns, it’s a different game. Chad Morris treated it like we’d just won the SEC Championship. Colorado State went on to a blisteringly lackluster 4 and 8 record.
—Do You Know the Way to San Jose State? Arkansas lost to the Spartans in large part because quarterback Nick Starkel, (now in the transfer portal) threw 5 interceptions. Shoulda been pulled after 2. Inept coaching.
Then, the last half of the season struck.
—Defense: Allowed roughly 50 points per game
—Offense: Produced about 15 points per game
Gomer Pyle could figure out why we went 0-6 over that stretch.
The anti-crowning moment saw Storey return to do something he never did in a Razorback uniform. He got pulled because his team was comfortably ahead.
THE RETURN OF TOUGHNESS:
In December, Yurachek brought Sam Pittman back to the Hill. He was formerly the offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema until Georgia’s Kirby Smart hired him away. When he left for Athens, the “toughness quotient” that Arkansas had went with him.
As soon as he arrived back in Fayetteville he captured the heart of most of the Razorback Nation with his no nonsense personality, and by making it absolutely clear that he’s where he wants to be. He even broke into into tears at his introduction event. But, make no mistake, he’s no softie when it comes to football. Toughness is a hallmark of his career.
In the next 10 days, he pulled together an early signing period class that included 7 three-stars and 2 four-stars — all of whom had multiple offers from SEC and/or other Power 5 schools.
Critically, Pittman landed Odom as defensive coordinator. Odom had taken Missouri to three straight bowl eligible seasons, including this one. Basically he was fired because he committed the sin of not doing it as impressively the third time as he had in the first two.
Lyndon Johnson used to say, “I’d rather him inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.” We’re lucky to have him inside our tent.
Why? Because anyone who can make it through an SEC schedule to make 3 straight bowl games can become a Division I head coach somewhere. But he chose to come to Arkansas and work for Pittman.
Pittman has also hired Kendal Briles from Florida State as his offensive coordinator. Briles also coached successfully at Baylor, Florida Atlantic and Houston, where he played his last two years of college after leaving the University of Texas.
Because of the hype about Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Mike Norvell during the search process, there are some who think we were backed into a corner and had to hire Pittman.
I disagree. I think he’s exactly the right guy for the job. His ability to lure so much solid coaching talent to Fayetteville speaks volumes about how much confidence his peers have in him.
Yurachek, for sure, has confidence Pittman will not only rebuild Arkansas football — but stick around long enough to see it through. Pittman is 58. If thing work out well, it’s easy to imagine this as the the last stop in his career.
The Razorbacks have been in a dark place since Bobby Petrino wrecked his bike. After the John L. Smith debacle, things started looking better under Bielema for a while — then the wheels came off. Under Morris, the transmission box dropped in the street.
—2016 Missouri game: 24-7 halftime lead (squandered)
—2016 Belk Bowl: 28-0 halftime lead (squandered)
—2017 Season: 4-8 (terrible)
—2018 Season: 2-10 (worst in program history)
—2019 Season: 2-10 (just horrific)
Bret Bielema didn’t understand the need for speed in the SEC. And he didn’t keep his foot on the accelerator, recruiting-wise, after thrashing Texas in the 2014 Texas Bowl. Chad Morris’ players bought into him as a recruiter, but never really as a coach. Over a 32-year career, Pittman’s players have always bought into him as a recruiter and as a coach.
Pittman may not be the Messiah, but with him we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the oncoming train we feared it was.