FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Pittman has rightfully earned heaping helpings of praise for getting University of Arkansas football off the deck from a 20-game SEC losing streak and back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
Pittman, whose Razorbacks (3-4) are scheduled to host LSU (2-3) on Saturday at 11 a.m., has reflected the praise right back toward his staff.
“You know folks talk about I hadn’t been a head coach before this,” Pittman said. “But one of the great things, I had been a head coach. I’d been a head coach of a couple of high schools and a junior college.
“And what I learned from that experience was that the hiring process of coaches is the most important thing you can do. It really is, because anybody who thinks, ‘Hey, me, me, me, me, me’ is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It takes all of us.”
Pittman called LSU coach Ed Orgeron on Monday to tell him how a long-time position coach like himself inspired guys like Pittman to aim for the brass ring. Orgeron praised the work Pittman and his staff have done to lift the Razorbacks from their cellar dweller status.
“His coaching staff ought to be commended,” Orgeron said. “They’re a completely different football team. They’re a darned good football team.
“They play with great fundamentals. They play with energy and this is going to be a big challenge for us to go on the road and beat Arkansas at home.”
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek has seen up close the interactions of Pittman with his staff, and then the way assistant coaches work with their position groups. He likes what he’s seen.
“Sam has done a number of incredible things since he arrived as our head football coach, but probably the No. 1 thing Sam Pittman did was he hired a great staff that complements him, complements his personality,” Yurachek said.
Pittman returned from his mandatory quarantine from a positive COVID-19 test on Wednesday and was happy to be back among the men and women who are rebuilding the Razorbacks brand.
“I think a big part of it was to get guys that treat people like I do,” Pittman said. “I mean, hopefully I treat folks the right way and with ultimate respect.
“I wanted guys around me that have that same mannerism about them, same respect for people, and also that goes back to the players as well. I think we did a good job. I think we have a great camaraderie in our building, and everybody wants everybody to have success. And it’s a lot of fun going to work.”
Pittman began building his staff by landing Odom, a long-time friend with whom he takes almost daily lunchtime walks, and a protege’ of his in offensive line coach Brad Davis, who had been on Odom’s staff at Missouri. Pittman coached Davis on the offensive line at Oklahoma and had him as a graduate assistant at North Carolina.
Kendal Briles cold-called Pittman to discuss the offensive coordinator role he wound up landing out of a pool of three candidates.
Pittman targeted and landed defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc, special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, running backs coach Jimmy Smith and linebackers coach Rion Rhoades, whom he had recruited and coached at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in the early 1990s in his only other college head coaching job.
They came from a short list of candidates he had compiled.
“Really, most of the guys we have here were the top ones on the list,” Pittman said.
Odom brought on board cornerbacks coach Sam Carter, who had also been at Missouri, to work with him in the secondary. Briles hired tight ends coach Jon Cooper. Pittman retained ace recruiter Justin Stepp from the previous Arkansas staff to coach the receivers and the 10-man staff was complete.
Their synergy is one of the defining characteristics of the 2020 Razorbacks.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” junior receiver Mike Woods said. “Everybody’s basically pulling in the same direction, like strength staff, our position coaches, support staff. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Added tailback Trelon Smith, “Man, this coaching staff is amazing. Not only do they do a good job of coaching us up on things, but they also do a good job of, if we need a look, like a real, actual look, they’ll even go out there and give us a look.
“I feel like these coaches they’re just the best of the best when it comes to what they do. … I just really love this coaching staff. They want to win just like us. With that being said, we’re all in this together.”
Last week defensive end Zach Williams made a revealing statement that reflects on the positive vibes that come from the Pittman staff.
“I feel like we’re just coached well,” Williams said. “It’s really the coaching. And when players like their coaches they do a little bit more.”
“These coaches push our student-athletes and push them to be the best they can be, but they do it the right way,” Yurachek said. “They do it with a little love when there needs to be a little love, and a little tough love when there needs to be tough love.
“The confidence from our coaches instills confidence in our young men. … You can just see our players just enjoy playing football again.”
Yurachek said the football coaches gave the department a big assist since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody who has a contract took a pay cut,” Yurachek said. “They did it voluntarily. They didn’t have to do that because they have a contract. I think that’s another testament to Sam and the staff he hired.
“Coach Pittman took the lead and each of his assistants who signed contracts agreed to that. There wasn’t any pulling teeth. They understood the big picture. They understood what our department was going through and they understood what the value of them taking a pay cut meant to our student-athletes and the success that they could have on the field.”
Yurachek thinks the Pittman staff is on the right course for big things to come.
“You think back just about the last two seasons and really three seasons ago prior to my arrival here, there weren’t many football games won within the Southeastern Conference and there weren’t many games won overall in the last two years,” Yurachek said. “Just four total. We’re at three right now and probably should be at four.
“I think we have a couple of opportunities in the next couple of weeks to get a couple more wins. And that speaks volume to the direction of where our program is. We’re not close to where we want to be, but we’re headed in the right direction.
“We’re competitive every time we take the field. We have a great game plan every time we take the field and our players and our coaching staff alike have a confidence and a little bit of a swagger when they take the field right now in my opinion. They just enjoy being around each other and they enjoy what they’re doing.”