Sports

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman finally got his big chance, a decades-long path rooted in family


About a month after Sam Pittman landed his first major head-coaching job at Arkansas in December 2019, after working more than a quarter-century as a college assistant, he wanted nothing more than to share the news with his first coach — his father.

Donald Pittman, a longtime coach, teacher and administrator in the Oklahoma public school system, was living out his final days at a nursing home near Tulsa. Sam’s 90-year-old father was suffering from dementia.

“Dad had days when he was on and off,” said Ron Pittman, Sam’s older brother. “There were days when he would seem like he was in touch with what was going on, and other days when he didn’t know who you were.”

During a recruiting trip to Tulsa, Sam went to the nursing home to visit his father and tell him he had finally landed his dream job. He found Donald sitting in a chair in a common area.

“I walked up behind him, I think I scared him,” Sam Pittman said. “I didn’t mean to. I was trying to talk to him, but he was never able to recognize me. I kept saying things I thought he might remember, but he just wasn’t able to recognize me.”

Pittman left the nursing home that night without telling his father he had been hired to coach the Razorbacks, not knowing if his dad would ever know his son’s dream had come true.

Pittman knows his father would be proud of what he has accomplished in only two seasons at Arkansas. After inheriting a program that had won just one SEC game in the previous three seasons combined before he arrived, the No. 8 Razorbacks are 4-0 for the first time in 18 years heading into Saturday’s showdown at No. 2 Georgia (Noon ET, ESPN and ESPN App).

For the coaches and players who have worked with Pittman over the past three decades, his success at Arkansas isn’t all that surprising, even if it took him so long to get his big break. Despite not even being the Razorbacks’ first choice in December 2019, it has so far been a match made in Hog heaven.

“I have a lot of respect for Sam and his staff,” said Georgia’s Kirby Smart, who hired Pittman as his offensive line coach in 2016. “They have done a tremendous job creating a new culture and energy there at Arkansas. I would expect nothing less from him.”

Sam Pittman was born into a coaching family. Donald Pittman, born and raised in Beggs, Oklahoma, was one of 16 children. He attended Fort Hays State College in Kansas, and, after he and his wife, Jackie, had five children of their own, he went back to college to complete his master’s degree and superintendent certification. He worked for school districts throughout Oklahoma before retiring in 1986. Jackie worked as a librarian and secretary, and Donald and his sons renovated houses during the summer to supplement the family’s income.

“Dad was a coach at heart,” Ron Pittman said. “He coached both of us and made us pretty good players. He played baseball with us and taught us how to pitch and hit. He coached us in basketball and we won a couple of state championships with our church teams. He taught us many, many things early in our lives and we kind of got a head start.”

Sam was the youngest of Don and Jackie’s five children. He was a three-sport star athlete in football, basketball and track and field at Grove High School in Grove, Oklahoma, and was a Class 2A state champion in shot put in 1980. After high school, Pittman wanted to play football for one college, Arkansas. A running back and linebacker, he had been invited to a summer camp before his senior season and fell in love with everything about the Razorbacks. Although his father rooted for the Oklahoma Sooners, Pittman’s uncle, Lester, who lived in Dover, Arkansas, was a big Razorbacks fan.

A few times each year, the Pittmans would visit Lester and his family. Pittman’s uncle owned a service station and salvage yard. On a few trips, Pittman’s father would come home with a different car, after Lester traded him one of his. Ron remembered the family getting a Pontiac station wagon, and when they were leaving church one Sunday, the car wouldn’t shift into drive. So, Donald drove his family home in reverse.

“We’d listen to the Razorbacks on the radio while Uncle Lester was working on one of his cars,” Sam said. “In between griping at me about handing him the wrong wrench, he’d be ecstatic when the Razorbacks scored.”

Donald and Lester typically made a bet whenever Arkansas and Oklahoma played each other in any sport. One time, after the Razorbacks stunned the No. 2 Sooners 31-6 in the 1978 Orange Bowl, Donald had to wear an Arkansas hat and hold a ceramic Razorback in a photo. He didn’t look happy. Lester also liked to mail his brother Arkansas pennants and hats when the Hogs won.

“He liked to rib us all the time about Oklahoma,” Ron said. “It was all in good fun.”

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks, who were coached by Lou Holtz at the time, never offered Pittman a scholarship. Instead, he enrolled at Pittsburg State in Kansas, which then had an NAIA football program. He was a team captain and NAIA All-American as a senior. When future NFL coach Rex Ryan stopped by Pittsburg State with Pittman during a recruiting trip while they were working together at Oklahoma, he scanned the team’s media guide.

“I flipped it open and was like, ‘Well, let’s see if you were any good,'” said Ryan, now an ESPN “Sunday NFL Countdown” analyst. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god!’ He held the career and season sacks records. You wouldn’t have known he had one sack there because he’s probably the most humble guy you’ll ever meet.”

Pittman still holds the Pittsburg State career sacks record with 46 from 1980-83. His single-season record of 22 in 1982 stood for nine years.

Donald, however, didn’t want his youngest son to go into coaching. Ron and two of their three sisters had followed their parents’ footsteps by working in education. When Sam enrolled at Pittsburg State, he intended to major in pre-law and then business. In his heart, however, he wanted to be a coach and left college with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1983.

“He didn’t think I could make any money coaching ball,” Sam Pittman said. “I don’t think my dad ever dreamed, nor did I, that I could coach in college. It never crossed my mind, it was never a goal. I wanted to coach in high school and win a state championship, which is so hard to do.”

While working as a graduate assistant at his alma mater for two seasons, Pittman met his future wife, Jamie, a Pittsburg native. They dated three months before they were engaged and then married in 1986. He serenaded her by playing the guitar and singing Bread songs. Pittman still plays the guitar, banjo and piano.

“It worked,” Jamie said. “It melted my heart when he pulled the guitar out.”

Pittman spent the next five years teaching and coaching at high schools in Oklahoma and Missouri. In 1991, he was hired as the offensive line coach at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. The next season, at age 30, he was promoted to head coach. He guided the Blue Dragons to back-to-back winning campaigns and the program’s first bowl bid in 23 years. He seemed to be on the fast track to landing a big-time job.

But Pittman could have never predicted how the next decade would go. He worked at six different schools, including two seasons as the offensive line coach for his father’s beloved Sooners in 1997-98. Four of the head coaches who hired him were fired within two years. In 2000, he took the offensive line job at Missouri; coach Larry Smith was fired at the end of the season. Pittman moved to Kansas the next season; Terry Allen was let go with three games left.

At that point, Pittman wondered if his college coaching career was over. He interviewed for four jobs at a coaching convention that winter, but didn’t land any of them. He had a two-year contract with the Jayhawks, so he was still being paid, but his future prospects seemed uncertain.

“I had lifetime teaching certificates in Oklahoma and Missouri, so I figured I’d just go back to high school if things didn’t work out,” Pittman said.

Pittman spent the 2002 season out of coaching. He worked out and organized the couple’s collection of more than 6,000 45s they’d picked up at yard sales and auctions over the years. “I was a go-getter,” Pittman said. “I’d take my wife to work and then I’d go get her.”

In 2003, Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak threw Pittman a life raft, and he took the job with the blessing of his wife, sort of. He’d previously coached the Huskies’ offensive line in 1994-95. “My wife told me to quit worrying about the name on the jerseys and the logos on the helmet and just go coach ball,” Pittman said.

“He was apologizing because we’d been there and done that,” Jamie said. “He didn’t want to go backward, but it was the only job that was available and it was the one he was going to take. I told him, ‘Just keep working hard. It doesn’t matter. Do what you do and see what happens.’

“After he told me that, I remember going into the bathroom and bawling my eyes out. After I’d been his cheerleader, I was thinking, ‘What the heck? We’re going back? I’ve been there already.’ But I didn’t want him to know that, so I tried to stay positive. I knew it was all going to work out.”

In Pittman’s first season back as the Northern Illinois offensive line coach in 2003, tailback Michael Turner finished fourth in the FBS with 1,648 rushing yards. His replacement, Garrett Wolfe, ran for more than 1,500 in each season from 2004-06. Butch Davis hired Pittman to join his staff at North Carolina in 2007.

“Butch Davis was the hottest coach in the country and he took a chance on an offensive line coach that not a lot of people had heard of,” Pittman said. “He changed the trajectory of my career.”

The career path Pittman had long envisioned suddenly came to fruition. He spent five seasons at North Carolina and then moved to Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, where he earned the reputation as one of the game’s best offensive line coaches and recruiters. Since 2013, he has coached 15 linemen who were selected in the NFL draft, including six first-rounders.

Pittman’s mother, Jackie, was his team’s biggest fan wherever he was coaching. When Sam was working at Georgia, her children bought her a Bulldogs blanket. She would ask Sam about injured players and upcoming opponents. She died in March 2016. “She’d get nervous whenever she was watching games on TV, and she could barely contain herself when she was there in person,” Ron Pittman said. “She hated losing. She was a superfan.”

Despite all of Sam’s success, a head-coaching job remained elusive.

“There’s this played-out, out-of-touch thought process that you have to be an offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator before you become a head coach, which I don’t agree with,” said South Carolina coach Shane Beamer, who worked with Pittman at Georgia. “I think sometimes it’s even tougher for offensive line coaches because they get pigeon-holed into ‘all they know is offensive play and coaching the big guys up front.’ I think a lot of those offensive line coaches will say it’s an uphill battle because you don’t see it happening very often. Being a head coach is about leadership and motivation and that’s never been an issue with Sam.”

Pittman wasn’t Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek’s first choice to replace Chad Morris, whom he fired after a 4-18 start in less than two seasons. The Razorbacks interviewed Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Eli Drinkwitz before hiring Pittman, who had the support of many former Razorbacks lettermen who played for him when he was the Hogs’ offensive line coach from 2013-15.

“Very early on in the process, several of his former players reached out and expressed support for him,” Yurachek said. “To me, that speaks volumes that former players — and not insignificant former players — supported him. Obviously, Sam had been a very successful offensive line coach, and as you looked and evaluated our program, we were getting beat in a lot of places, but we were definitely getting beat in the trenches. Sam obviously knew how to build an offensive line and because he knew how to build an offensive line, he knew how to study defensive lines. He understood what it was like to recruit in the SEC.”

More than anything else, according to Yurachek, Pittman wanted the Arkansas job and was aware of the challenges the program faced in starting over.

“He truly wanted to coach at Arkansas,” Yurachek said. “He accepted the job before I told him what his salary was going to be. He understood the challenges of being in the SEC West. He understood that we had not won an SEC game in multiple seasons. He understood what our roster looked like. All of those were factors in other coaches telling me they weren’t interested in our position. None of those things deterred Sam. It was his dream job and he wanted to be the head coach at Arkansas.”

Now the Razorbacks are hog wild about their second-year coach. In his first season, which played out in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, his team snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak in the second game. The Razorbacks went 3-7 while playing only conference opponents, their highest win total in the SEC since 2016 and the most victories overall since 2017. Arkansas has its highest ranking in the AP poll since September 2012 going into Saturday’s game at Georgia.

“He was the perfect fit,” said Quinn Grovey, the last Arkansas quarterback to win back-to-back conference titles in 1988 and 1989, and a color analyst on the team’s radio network. “I know he was an unconventional hire for most people across the college football landscape, but he was perfect for Arkansas. A guy that cares and has a ton of experience, and he just loves this state. He loves his university and he got to know it well this first time here as offensive line coach. He’s just one heck of a guy, one heck of a person.”

Shortly before Donald Pittman went into hospice care in January 2020, his family gathered around his hospital bed in Tulsa. Ron Pittman remembers his father was having a good day, and he understood and remembered much of what his children and other family members were telling him. They talked about Sam and how he had been hired as Arkansas’ coach. When Sam entered the hospital room that day, his father looked up and recognized him, “Well, Sammie Don.” Don Pittman died on Jan. 16, 2020.

“Dad told him he was proud of him,” Ron Pittman said. “I think Sam probably needed to hear that. When Dad recognized him and said he was proud of him, I think it made Sam’s day and the rest of his life.”

Source link: https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32315123/arkansas-coach-sam-pittman-got-big-chance-decades-long-path-rooted-family
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