Even if they had gotten favorable schedule additions, the deck couldn't be more stacked against Sam Pittman and Eli Drinkwitz
I’d love to go back to the day that Sam Pittman and Eli Drinkwitz were hired by their new respective programs.
I wouldn’t waste time asking them questions about how they feel about depth on the offensive line or what pockets of the country they feel they need to win on the recruiting trail. Instead, I’d look into the crystal ball and tell them how their first offseasons as Power 5 head coaches would go.
My message to the new Mizzou and Arkansas coaches would sound look a little something like this:
Me: “Hey, guys! Hope you’re well. Congrats on the new gig! Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news for you.”
Drinkwitz: “We know. We only have about 2 weeks to recruit the vast majority of our recruiting classes and hopefully fill out an entire coaching staff. It’s a bummer, but that’s the hand we were dealt.”
Me: “Oh no. I mean, yeah. That’s a major bummer and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I’m pretty sure y’all are taking years off your lives by doing that. Sam, you’re actually not gonna sleep until February.”
Pittman: “YESSSSSIIRRRR! But that’s OK. This is what I signed up for. No bad news there.”
Me: “Buddy, I hate to break it to ya, but you’ve got no idea what you signed up for.”
Drinkwitz & Pittman (together): “Wait, what?”
This is the part where I’d really feel like an awful human having to explain this.
I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve gotta imagine this is the feeling of telling them about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny:
Me: “Ya see, you know how first-year coaches really need the spring to evaluate their new rosters?”
Drinkwitz: “Yeah, I’m looking forward to that. We had the whole postseason ban thing, so we didn’t get those extra practices in December.”
Me: “Um, well, how do I put this … a pandemic is going to take over our entire way of life and you’re actually going to have your spring practices wiped out.”
Pittman: “Seriously? No spring practice? What are we supposed to do?”
Me: “Zoom calls. Lots and lots of Zoom calls. I’ll explain what those are later. For now, all you need to know is that your campuses will all have online classes and your players will be at home until voluntary workouts start up in June.”
Drinkwitz: “Well, at least we should be able to make up for lost time. I suppose if there’s ever a time for a pandemic to not change everything about the college football calendar, it’s March. We’ll be back to normal by June, right?
Me: “About that … if by normal you mean we’ll be having daily discussions about whether the college football season is going to be played, then yeah, we’ll totally be back to normal.”
Pittman: “No season? They wouldn’t do that. It’s the SEC! It Just Means More.”
Me: “Speaking of it just meaning more, you know that 8-game conference schedule you were promised? Well, you’re actually going to play 10 SEC games this year and those cupcakes are all gone. Coronavirus ate them.”
Drinkwitz: “We were promised cupcakes.”
Me: “I know, I know. And they looked delicious. On the bright side, at least you’re gonna get to know your new conference even better!”
Drinkwitz: “I don’t like you very much, person from the future.”
(By the way, I totally wrote all of that out before Mizzou added Alabama and LSU to its 2020 schedule while Arkansas added Florida and Georgia. While I do think it was somewhat inevitable that they got a brutal 2-game addition because the league is deep and their yearly crossovers are against one another, it speaks to the nature of this offseason for those guys.)
I’d hate the person who delivered me that news, too. I’d offer a comforting hug and wish them well.
The reality is, the deck is stacked against Drinkwitz and Pittman in a way that nobody could have anticipated in December. The list of challenges in the way of a first-year coach like them multiplied in this bizarre, unprecedented offseason.
I didn’t include Lane Kiffin or Mike Leach in that group because they are leading their 3rd Power 5 program. Drinkwitz, of course, has the 1 year as an FBS head coach at Appalachian State while Pittman has never even been an FBS coordinator or head coach. To say that their experience leading a program is different than those 2 Magnolia State coaches would be an understatement.
Drinkwitz and Pittman are still figuring out who exactly they are as head coaches. How do they manage their staffs? How do they carry out practices? How do they handle more media and public obligations than ever? All of these things were normal challenges facing them.
In an offseason with a pandemic, I’m guessing the only thing they’ve been able to get ahead on is watching film. In a profession dominated by coaches who want to control everything, that has to be torture.
You know what else seems like torture? Being a rebuilding team who has to face 10 SEC teams … and nobody else. Throw out the “build the confidence up” games. Seven of Mizzou’s 10 games will be against bowl teams, while Arkansas has 8 such matchups, including those 2 brutal aforementioned additions for each of them.
Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek released a statement in which he called it “the toughest schedule in college football history,” which seems perfectly fair:
“We already owned the nation’s strongest 2020 football schedule and with these additions to our SEC only schedule, we now own the most challenging schedule in the history of college football. As Razorbacks, we have never backed down from a challenge, this year will be no different. Our focus remains on the growth of our program and supporting Coach Sam Pittman and our football student-athletes as they embrace this extraordinary opportunity.”
It’s interesting because Pittman’s contract actually has a performance-based buyout. If he’s fired, he’d get 75% of his remaining contract if he had won at least half of his games. Anything less than a .500 record and that buyout drops down to 50% of his remaining contract. Nobody is talking about firing coaches after 1 year, especially not Arkansas, which is paying 3 football coaches (I guess they technically aren’t paying Bret Bielema, but they are involved in a legal dispute over that). But it speaks to how weird this will be to evaluate.
For all we know, Pittman’s Arkansas team is going to be considerably better than Chad Morris’ teams, but a 1-9 record in 2020 wouldn’t indicate that. Then again, it should indicate that because Morris never beat a Power 5 team in his brief time in Fayetteville.
And what about Drinkwitz? Mizzou just completed its 5th consecutive season without either a winning record in SEC play or a bowl win, yet at the same time, Drinkwitz should be an SEC Coach of the Year candidate if he gets to 5-5. Shoot, for Arkansas, AKA the program with 1 SEC win in the past 3 years, Pittman might be my default pick for SEC Coach of the Year if he gets to 3 wins.
Regardless of the angst that Mizzou and Arkansas fans have right now, the bar for their first-year coaches needs to be low. Real low. Conference win percentage will be talked about a lot as a result of this weird season, and that logic certainly applies to evaluating Pittman and Drinkwitz.
Both of their athletic directors gambled on them for different reasons, but they couldn’t have known that they’d be forced to sit at a table with a totally stacked deck.
Consider it a win if Pittman and Drinkwitz walk away from the table after Year 1 with any chips left.