Which SEC coach is getting hit hardest with all of this? It's gotta be Sam Pittman
When Sam Pittman agreed in December to become Arkansas’ coach, he knew it’d be an uphill climb. That’s reality when you inherit a program with 1 SEC win in the past 3 seasons who just fired a coach in the middle of Year 2. He welcomed that challenge.
To his credit, the early returns were extremely positive. He somehow went from having a recruiting class that ranked in the triple digits to signing one that finished in the top 30 nationally. All the while, he went out and landed a pair of highly-regarded coordinators in Barry Odom and Kendal Briles.
Pittman showed up ready to work. I can’t guarantee all that work is going to yield a Year 1 turnaround, but I can guarantee that Pittman slept far less than I did the past 3 months.
But man, I can’t help but think the cancelation of spring practices due to coronavirus is hitting him in a more significant way than any SEC coach.
That belief is based on a few things. One being that Pittman is the only SEC head coach who has zero experience as an FBS coach. That’s been well-documented. Also well-documented was the fact that Pittman was hired without so much as FBS coordinator experience. Right now is a crucial time for someone in his shoes. Call me crazy, but I think trying to figure out who you are as a head coach is easier when you can, you know, be in the same room as your players.
One of the frustrating elements of this social distancing for coaches has to be the lack of control over these workouts. Relying on college kids to not treat this time as a vacation when there isn’t that same structure seems, at the very least, difficult. Putting in the work to physically stack up in the nation’s toughest division doesn’t happen overnight. It takes players with the right mindset and work ethic to make that happen in a bizarre situation like this. The teams who have those veterans are clearly in better shape.
While Arkansas is by no means the most experienced team in the SEC, the good news is that Pittman’s relentlessness resulted in keeping his talented young receivers, as well as getting Rakeem Boyd for another year. In addition to that, Pittman brought in transfers like Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks and Clemson defensive lineman Xavier Kelly. That, in a time like now, is key.
Arkansas only has to replace 1 starter on offense. That’s great. What’s not great is right now is when this team should be learning an entirely new offense under Briles (and a new defense under Odom). The best way to learn a new offense is by running it together. The best way for a new quarterback to get on the same page as his receivers is actually get reps doing that. Even veterans like Jake Fromm can struggle with not having that rapport with a different group of wideouts.
For an offense that was absolute disaster the past 3 years, a lot of cleanup was needed. Obviously social distancing wasn’t the suggested path to accomplishing that.
That’s out of Pittman’s control. Another thing out of Pittman’s control was the recruiting issue this created.
Remember how I praised the work he put in to sign that 2020 class? I think it was one of the most impressive feats of the entire cycle.
The problem, which many Arkansas fans are well aware of, is that Pittman was forced to spent so much time signing the 2020 class and hiring a staff that he didn’t exactly have a ton of time to spare on landing a hoard of 2021 commits. Recruiting is shut down and Arkansas has 1 commitment in the 2021 class. Meanwhile, there are programs like Florida that already have 14 recruits committed.
Can Pittman make up ground? I wouldn’t bet against that, but a steep climb will only get steeper the longer these recruiting restrictions last.
That’s really the issue facing Pittman moving forward. It’s hard to establish yourself internally and externally with such limited access. He wasn’t the splashy hire like Lane Kiffin or Mike Leach. He doesn’t have a decade of Power 5 head coaching experience like Jimbo Fisher. Even before coronavirus took over the world, that was going to be working against Pittman.
Now working against Pittman is the fact that he didn’t get a single spring practice. Arkansas was supposed to start on March 16 with a spring game on April 25, which was the latest time a program could have held it before the end of the semester.
When or if he’ll get any of that time back remains to be seen. Right now, it doesn’t seem likely that there will be any sort of spring football. Is Pittman probably still doing a million and a half things behind the scenes? Probably. Knowing his motor, he’s doing every little thing he’s allowed to under the current guidelines.
Not everyone on the market was willing to play the hand that was dealt to the next Arkansas coach. Pittman did, and with the things under his control, he played it well so far.
Now, though, it’s starting to feel more and more like the deck is being stacked against him.