'He can make you believe the impossible.' Why Sam Pittman is right man to rebuild Arkansas football
Sam Pittman worked all day to get the uniforms just right.
The year was 1990 – long before he became coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He was still an unknown in the high school ranks, in his second season leading the Trenton Bulldogs in Trenton, Missouri.
The Bulldogs were preparing to face Chillicothe, their biggest rival and a larger town about 20 minutes to the south. It was Trenton’s best season in years and Pittman wanted to do something special to give his team extra motivation.
Truly ahead of his time, he got the idea to do a uniform reveal on the game day.
Trenton normally wore black jerseys with gold pants, but Pittman ordered black pants with white stripes. He and an assistant coach then went to work removing each stripe by hand to make all-black uniforms. The plan was for the Bulldogs to warm up in their regular uniforms but find the new ones waiting for them as a surprise when they returned to the locker room.
Pittman knew he had to take every measure possible to beat Chillicothe. It had been 24 years since the Bulldogs had come out on top. In fact, Trenton hadn’t done much winning at all before his arrival, though he quickly changed that.
Ken Robbins was an offensive lineman and first-team all-state selection for the Bulldogs that season. He remembers how bad Trenton was when Pittman arrived but said it didn’t take long for the attitude to change.
The Bulldogs struggled in Pittman’s first season after running back Brian Grimes broke his clavicle in the opening game. They lost their first 4 games. After Grimes returned, they didn’t lose again until falling to Chillicothe in the district championship game.
“It was believing in what he told you,” Robbins said. “If you practiced how he told you to practice and worked the way he told you to work, you knew you would be successful. The first couple of games it happened, the high points come and he ebbs you through that. Then the low time comes and it’s not a big deal. All of a sudden, you’re at that big game believing you can kick their ass.”
It wasn’t just the on-field strategy that made Pittman successful. In fact, that wasn’t even the most important factor if you ask his players. It was his ability for human connection. The coach genuinely cared about his players and it showed in the things he did for them.
Robbins is a prime example. In addition to playing football, he was wrestled. When Pittman arrived in Trenton, Robbins was chasing his second state championship. He estimates that he weighed about 240 and said there were no other heavyweights in a small town like Trenton for him to practice against.
So Pittman had an idea.
The football coach would be Robbins’ practice partner. A former defensive lineman himself, Pittman was closer in size to Robbins than anyone else on the wrestling team. Despite never having wrestled, Pittman met Robbins at practice every day that year. Still in his 20s, it probably looked a lot like a squabble between older and younger brothers as they took to the mat.
“He was my motivational influence,” Robbins said. “He would come out and let me throw him around. He was teaching me all the stuff that (WWE wrestler) King Kong Bundy did back in the day. That was our joke. His big elbow smash.”
As funny as this strategy is to imagine, it worked. Robbins claimed his second wrestling state title that year.
He now lives in Lake Tahoe, California, where he is a high school wrestling coach (as well as an assistant in football). He said Pittman largely influenced his choice of profession.
“He’s a big reason I’m a coach,” Robbins said. “The biggest thing that I learned from him is that every player on the field is a different guy. They woke up with a different mindset and have different wants and needs. The guy in the back of the line is just as important as the guy in the front of the line. That was his biggest thing.”
It was no surprise that Trenton saw even more improvement in Pittman’s second season.
The Bulldogs entered the fateful game against Chillicothe at 6-2, having lost those 2 games by a combined 4 points. Grimes had emerged as a true star – along with the offensive line – and eventually climbed to 3rd all-time in Missouri high school single-season rushing yards. He ended the season with 2,943 yards, a total that still ranks 14th in the state today.
There was naturally a lot of hype leading up to the game. Trenton fans believed this was the best chance they had to snap the losing streak and gain back the respect of their neighbors. Although Trenton still considered it a rivalry, Chillicothe fans were more likely to describe it as a “rivalry.”
“The buildup for the game was unreal for a small town,” Robbins said. “People parked around the field on Wednesday trying to get a good seat in their truck. They were better than us. They had an offense and a defense. We had one substitute. Our quarterback and free safety subbed. That was it.”
There were an estimated 4,000 people at the game – quite the accomplishment considering about 6,800 lived in Trenton at the time. With fans standing around due to lack of seats, Grimes put on perhaps the most legendary performance of his high school career wearing the all-back jersey Pittman prepared prior. He rushed for more than 300 yards as Trenton controlled the game, winning 32-20 to the surprise of everyone except its players.
“We knew we were going to win,” Robbins said. “I don’t know if the crowd did, but man, when we did – I don’t know if that town’s been the same since.”
As crazy as that sounds, it’s a sentiment echoed by other players. Scott Miller, who played safety, said he also was certain of the Bulldogs’ victory. It’s something he credits to Pittman’s incredible ability to motivate.
“That’s just something that coach Pittman was able to do,” Miller said. “He can make you believe the impossible. There have been great teams in Trenton that all failed to beat Chillicothe. We went in knowing we were gonna win even though it had been 24 years.”
The Bulldogs claimed the district title that season. Although they lost in the first round of the playoffs, it didn’t matter. The Trenton game had indelibly linked Pittman to the town.
It has been nearly 30 years since that Chillicothe game, but the legend still lives in Trenton.
“Coach Pittman was only there for 2 years, but if you go back today there are people who can tell you stories,” Miller said. “Him and his wife, Jamie, were out and about in the community. They were great people. So the people that were around remember. People still follow them. He’s just such a charismatic person. Everybody just loved them.”
Pittman also helped to earn scholarships for 4 of his players that year, including Robbins. It meant a lot to a small community like Trenton.
He left after that season to become an offensive line coach at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas. Grimes followed him there and they eventually reunited again in the Division I ranks at Northern Illinois, the two also seemingly bonded forever.
After a year, Pittman became the head coach and found similar success turning around a reeling Hutchinson program. Although the Blue Dragons hadn’t celebrated a winning season in 6 years when he took over, he posted records of 5-4-1 and 6-5 in his 2 seasons.
Trey Hinkson was the quarterback for Pittman at Hutchinson. He described him as a “players’ coach,” saying the coaching change rejuvenated the feeling of the program at the time. He also displayed early signs of the recruiting prowess he eventually became known for at Georgia.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” Hinkson said. “It was a new style. New coaching staff. New people and a lot of energy. In those days in the Jayhawk Conference, you could only have 10 out of state kids on your team. So they hit Kansas hard. They were going into western Kansas and getting the small town studs of their schools.
“He was an offensive line guy and to him it all started there. He knew that you won the game or lost the game depending on how well your offensive line played. He was tough on those guys, but they loved him to death. They would run through a brick wall for him.”
During Pittman’s second and final season, the Blue Dragons earned their first bowl berth in 23 years, thanks to a late opening to play in the Valley of the Sun Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
The process was rushed. Hutchinson had already turned in its equipment, assuming it was done for the season. It only had 5 days to practice before heading off to get trounced 59-9 in what was essentially a home game for Glendale Community College.
Despite the loss, Hinkson said the bowl game remains his favorite memory from Hutchinson. It was yet another example of Pittman doing his best to create opportunities for his players they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“I think the score was worse than the game was,” he said. “But I remember at our banquet, all he could talk about was how big and tough those guys looked and how little and young, timid and weak we were. Trying to play that card. He told us he was gonna say that. He was funny. He was always in a good mood. Always fun to be around.”
Pittman entered Division I as an offensive line coach after that season, and slowly climbed the ranks for more than 25 years before landing the head coaching job at Arkansas. He was listed as an associate head coach at several stops, however, including his most recent one at Georgia.
To those close to him, his ascent is no surprise. Georgia coach Kirby Smart said in a zoom conference prior to the Bulldogs’ opening matchup against Arkansas that he always thought Pittman would make a fantastic head coach.
“He’s a great leader,” Smart said. “He commands the respect of a room when he speaks. He can be very emotional and you don’t always get that with an offensive line coach. They’re usually a little rough around the edges. Sam wears his feelings on his sleeves. He’s very open with his players and lets them in more than most O-line coaches do.
“When he got the opportunity to go, a lot of our guys reached out. They were hurt by it. Not hurt like they were mad at Sam, but they were gonna miss that relationship.”
Pittman has a way of getting the most out of people. The turnarounds at Trenton and Hutchinson are evident of that much. Arkansas fans have to look at those rebuilds and see the similarity in the state of the programs when he took over.
Not to compare coaching JUCO or high school to the SEC. Those are obviously vastly different beasts. But his past success certainly isn’t discouraging and there is hope this can be Pittman’s third turnaround in as many tries. If it is, there are a small number of people in Missouri who won’t be surprised in the slightest.
“The way coach Pittman could speak to your soul and motivate you was remarkable,” Robbins said. “We were an 0-fer football team before he showed up and ended my career beating a team that we hadn’t beat in 24 years.
“Rooting for Arkansas is gonna be rough. But I’m in California so it’s legal.”