Arkansas Has Had a Dollar General Store Coach for Long Enough. That Stigma Needs to Change.

Timing is everything. Poll most Razorback fans about the timing of Sam Pittman’s changing agents and asking for a bigger salary and you will be hard pressed to find an overwhelmingly positive response. Granted, Pittman is paid well below the SEC average base salary. Only ahead of South Carolina’s Shane Beamer (who also overachieved in 2021) and probably Vandy’s Clark Lea (that amount is unpublished since Vanderbilt is private).

Big dollars weren’t always so important to Pittman. He reportedly said “yes” without asking what the contract paid. His current 5-year, $15 million contract was littered with incentive-based clauses which kicked in with the Hogs successful 2021 season. The Hogs’ regular season earned Pittman a $750,000 bonus with those eight wins in the books. Pittman has been nationally recognized for his “affordable” base salary and agreeing to all those incentives. 

He has to be the best bang-for-your-buck coach going in all of Power 5 college football. If there was some metric that considered wins, difficulty of schedule and salary, who did a better job? I didn’t have time to nerd out and come up with a formula but I would be willing to bet Pittman would be way up there based on 2021 results. 

Lane Kiffin and Jimmy Sexton

Other coaches have cashed in as well. Rival Ole Miss boosted Lane Kiffin nearly $3,000,000 after the Rebels went 10-2 and secured a Sugar Bowl date with Baylor. Kiffin will now make $7.5 million a year through 2025 and one has to believe some of the current brand name school openings played a role in that. He also has incentives for victories, academics and ticket sales.

For reference, Lane Kiffin is also repped by Pittman’s new agent, Jimmy Sexton. Sexton is the man when it comes to coaches landing big pay raises and long term agreements. Some of those have panned out and earned their big bucks. Others have failed miserably and cost various universities and their boosters millions upon millions of dollars. 

His current client list includes Kiffin, Alabama’s Nick Saban, former Florida coach Dan Mullen, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. His agency also counts Kendal Briles among its clients. Mullen obviously got canned at Florida and Sarkisian struggled mightily in his first year in Austin. Clearly, Jimmy Sexton representing a coach doesn’t guarantee success. 

Coincidentally, Pittman’s opposing coach in the Outback Bowl, James Franklin, is also represented by Sexton and changed agents midseason. That fueled speculation LSU, USC and others were coming after him. And with that he got a new 10 year, $70 million dollar deal out of all the hubbub. Rumors ran rampant about Michigan State’s Mel Tucker being a candidate at LSU and that prompted the coach with a 7-12 record before this year’s 10-2 to get a ludicrous 10 year deal for $95 million deal. 

What’s going on with Coach Pittman and his contract isn’t odd or unusual. These types of things are going on routinely in the big business that is college football. And keep in mind that Razorbacks Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek hasn’t agreed to Sexton’s first shot across the bow, an ask that would nearly double his salary:  

Negotiations will take place over the next few days, weeks and maybe months before everything gets lined out. With the amount of success Pittman had resurrecting the Arkansas football program, this was inevitable. But why now?

While negative takes and speculation proliferate on this, I’m going to look for silver linings. 

Why Sam Pittman Asks for a New Salary Now

One thought is Pittman better strike while the iron is hot. Who knows all the reasons why he went from just happy to be here and thankful for the opportunity to time to “Pay me what I’m worth.” Health issues? Nest egg? Not planning to coach as long as he thought? Wants to go buy a stable of racehorses to go watch while visiting his Lake Hamilton vacation home? Only those in his true inner circle really know.

Whatever the reason, now is the time to renegotiate so he is on a more level playing ground with his peers and rivals. As cutthroat as college football recruiting is, I would imagine other coaches use Pittman’s lower tier salary as a commentary on the University of Arkansas’s unwillingness to invest in their football program or that he’s a discount coach. For the last couple seasons, his salary has essentially made him the Dollar General Store in a shopping center full of Whole Foods and Fresh Markets.

The U of A needs to show Pittman is the guy and he has the backing of the administration. Not that they aren’t already doing that in myriad of ways, but money talks and you know what walks. They took a gamble on hiring a career assistant coach and it actually panned out. It’s hard to understate what he found when arriving in a program that had gone from the hype of “Left Lane, Hammer Down” to upside down in a roadside ditch by the time Chad Morris was canned after the blowout loss to Western Kentucky. 

An 8-4 record against the toughest schedule in the country and the Outback Bowl in year two? And now, after Wednesday, only the third signing class in modern Razorback football history to land in the Top 20 nationally. Not sure how much of the fan base realizes how remarkable these deeds are. 

Kendal Briles and Barry Odom

Another possibility is Pittman is trying to secure some improved deals for his coaching staff. In the fine print of Kiffin’s new deal is a guarantee the salary pool for paying assistant coaches support personnel will remain at or above league average and will stay at a minimum of $3.5 million per year. For reference, Arkansas’s salary pool for assistants was just above $5 million with defensive coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom taking in $1.75 and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles at $1 million. 

No major Power 5 coach believes they will retain their entire coaching staff year to year. Some climb the ladder, others are no longer wanted and cast off. Both coordinators for the Razorbacks have been, and will continue to be, courted by some other schools. That’s just how the business works. Odom turned down several premier coordinator opportunities last year to stay with his pal Sam Pittman. 

With that, Pittman is trying to get this deal done ASAP to retain both of them as there is some solid momentum on both sides of the ball. As much as fans like to question Briles’ playcalling, he’s done an outstanding job with quarterback KJ Jefferson. Not many saw the kind of year Jefferson produced. Not inside the program and definitely not outside. Odom’s defense is still building talent and depth but has been serviceable. He’s done a really good job working with pieces and parts that don’t really resemble a SEC defense. 

Can Briles keep it going with no Treylon Burks next year? Can Odom put anything on the field that remotely resembles this year’s defense made up of a ton of COVID seniors and grad transfers? Time will tell. Some recent transfer news with former OU wideout Jadon Haselwood and former LSU defensive end Landon Jackson choosing Arkansas, plus this solid recruiting class, show help is on the way. 

The timing of Pittman’s move to Sexton and a big pay raise feels a bit yucky given all the positive energy around the program nowadays when the focus should be on recruiting coup and the bowl game. But business is business and not many of us writing about or reading about all this know how these deals really get done. 

The common complaints are he’s only 11-11 in two seasons or that he’s only got a two season track record. As the Mel Tucker shows, however, that doesn’t matter. Nobody can predict the future of the program, but the Hogs are 8-4 against the toughest schedule in the country and Pittman led them there. Those facts merit a discussion about getting him paid like his rivals. The same logic would apply to your job if you overachieved and had positive momentum.

My gut says nothing has changed with Pittman and his desire for the University of Arkansas to be his last job is still very true. Him going against that would be counterintuitive to everything he preaches and built his career on. I truly don’t believe he is “that guy” that is looking to get paid and then bail or take his foot off the gas. He wants to build the program more. He wants to win more. He wants to be mentioned in the same conversation with Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield and at times, Houston Nutt, when his coaching career is over in Fayetteville. 

In the SEC, it is very rare for the basketball coach to ever make more than the football coach. The Arkansas basketball coach Eric Mussellman coming off an Elite 8 appearance in his second year makes $4 million for reference. All of this is just to get things in alignment with how SEC football programs are treating their coaches nowadays.

Still, let’s be clear about one thing Pittman knows as well: with the big dog salary comes a sizable jump in expectations. Think about all the ridicule Jimbo Fisher got at Texas A&M with soon-to-be colossal $9 million annual salary after losing to the $3 million Sam Pittman. That pressure shifts to Pittman if and when a deal gets done. He’s been around long enough he knows that is coming and he’s mature enough to handle it. 

Regardless of timing, a new contract for Sam Pittman was inevitable. What’s a few million here and there when private boosters will willingly step up to make up the difference anyway? Time to get Pittman paid fairly and let him get back to the business of running the Arkansas football program.

***

Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin told an interesting story about Hunter Yurachek and Jimmy Sexton. It stems from the Razorback football coaching search after the firing of Chad Morris. Either before or after Yurachek apparently made an offer to Mike Leach, he made an offer to Lane Kiffin.

“Supposedly, Yurachek had a verbal agreement with Lane Kiffin, and when Yurachek sent him the contract, he calls up and says, ‘Hey, have you signed that yet?'” Irwin said on a recent “Ask Mike” episode. “And supposedly, he got referred to Jimmy Sexton, who then said, ‘Well, wait a minute. OU is in the mix, and blah, blah, blah. They’re offering this,” and Yurachek’s like, ‘See you.'”

As Irwin sees it, Yurachek isn’t a fan of Sexton anyway. “So Pittman says he’s not going anywhere. Sexton says, ‘I want $7 million for my client.’ If I’m Yurachek, I’d go, “Nah, I’d give you five. I’ll put some improved performance-based incentives in here, but I’m not just going to give you an extra $3 million. I’m not going to do that.'”

“Sexton has this reputation of just tearing ADs apart, just squeezing them and getting all these money out of them in big buyouts. And then his client crashes and burns, and he is like, ‘Okay, bye. I’ve got all my money. I’m gone. I’m leaving with all kinds of wads of money. I’m going to Central Florida [referring to Gus Malzahn].”

More on that here:

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Brent Birch
Brent Birch is the Executive Director of the Little Rock Technology Park. Birch previously worked 14 years at Arkansas Business Publishing Group where he created the Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting magazine. He’s a lifelong duck hunter and has published a book on the history of the Arkansas Grand Prairie. Brent is a graduate of the University of Arkansas where he lettered four years as a member of the Razorback baseball team and was a contributor on the 1990 Southwest Conference championship team. He is still ranked in the career top 10 for innings pitched and games started.

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