Tusk to Tail: Notes on the path to Pittman
Did the University of Arkansas botch the search for a new head football coach, or did they find the right man for the job? Following last Sunday’s announcement that Sam Pittman had been hired, the opinions among Tusk to Tail seem to indicate maybe both.
Nothing gets our tailgating group text thread churning like a coaching search. Starting shortly after Chad Morris was fired and continuing through Pittman’s introductory press conference, our phones continuously blew up with rumors and conjecture about who would be hired by Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek. Mark told us he got a haircut one afternoon, and returned to more than 60 unread messages.
“And you don’t even have much hair,” chided Craig.
Switching my phone to vibrate helped reduce some of the noise, and resulted in a neverending thigh massage. That may have been my favorite part of this absurd coaching search.
Around the time of the Hogs’ Black Friday loss to Missouri, Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin was rumored to be Yurachek’s highest priority candidate. While a large contingent of fans endorsed Kiffin online, most of our gang wasn’t so sure. Kiffin was labeled an untrustworthy fraud who had previously snuck out of his only other SEC head coaching opportunity, leaving Tennessee in disarray. Each of his previous coaching stops, including a stint as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, had ended poorly. Both the Oakland Raiders and USC Trojans fired him before the season was over.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” I joked. “We are the kings of ending things poorly.”
A Dec. 4 essay by USA Today columnist Dan Wolken proclaiming that the “time is right” for Kiffin’s return to the SEC helped convince one of his biggest TTT detractors. “I’m now on board with Kiffin,” texted Chris. “That article hits the nail on the head. We have nothing to lose.”
There was just one problem. Was the Arkansas coaching job attractive enough to lure a candidate of Kiffin’s stature? It had been alleged that highly regarded coaches from Memphis to Minnesota had already spurned the Razorbacks’ advances, and that was before other SEC head coaching jobs had become available at Ole Miss and Missouri.
“If I’m in Boca, going to a [conference] championship game, and have other offers, no way I touch Arkansas,” said one text message, referring to FAU’s idyllic coastal campus. Craig continued, “College football is a business where you have to win now. We are not in the best position for that, if you look at the roster. That’s what these coaches look at.”
Mark did not agree.
“We are a better program than either Ole Piss or Misery,” he said, poking fun at the other SEC programs searching for new coaches. “Our facilities are some of the best. We have no loss of scholarships or bowl bans due to any NCAA infractions. We have money. We are the only game in the entire state. Turning a program around with the resources that Arkansas has at your disposal would be something any good coach would not mind as a challenge. If they are scared of doing it then I don’t want that guy anyway.”
Despite Mark’s pep talk, rumors began to surface that Ole Miss had become the frontrunner for Kiffin’s services. Missouri had been talking to other coveted candidates such as Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz. For some, the sky was falling. John could not resist stirring the pot.
“We are losing recruiting time, donations, speeches to small town Razorback clubs and Bo [Mattingly] interviews every day that passes,” he said.
“Hunter better not get left at the altar,” Craig replied. “People are going to be disappointed if it’s not Kiffin. You might be able to sell Harsin. If it’s [Florida International coach] Butch Davis just go ahead and shut the doors.”
“What if we didn’t hire a coach at all? Just vote on plays through the gameday app,” pondered Forrest, referring to the “augmented reality” feature that allowed fans to vote on the outcome of Arkansas drives this season. We all agreed it couldn’t be worse than Morris.
“I think it’ll be an unexpected and underwhelming hire. Just hope a good staff can be put together,” texted Sean.
Chris replied, “We’re going to wind up with [Tulane coach] Willie Fritz and I’m going to kill myself.”
Others remained calm, noting that Yurachek did not appear concerned when he attended a women’s basketball game at a time most assumed he would be in the thick of negotiations. In the first of many messages referring to our AD by his initials, Jeff asked, “Does anyone else think HY has a done deal and is just waiting on conference championships to be played?”
Dale replied that was his belief. Mark retorted, “Me too, but I voted for Nixon.”
As the games began winding down, Craig pointed out, “We have no clue. It is hours away from all the announcements beginning, and Yurachek is still sitting with a range of possibilities from having a statue built in his honor to being run out of town on a rail.”
Once it was confirmed that Kiffin had indeed been hired by Ole Miss, Craig reasoned it may be the latter. “The Kiffin thing makes HY look like he got outmaneuvered by a former basketball player who had been AD at Ole Miss for a week. Not a good look.”
Still, many of us felt like Arkansas had dodged a bullet. We didn’t lose a thing with Kiffin going to Ole Miss. We may get beaten by the Rebels a few times in the meantime, but it will be fun to sit back and watch that place explode.
Yurachek claims a formal offer was not made to Kiffin, which seems to track. According to a prominent rumor, concerns with Lane’s character were solidified by him interviewing with Ole Miss after privately committing to the Razorbacks. Our AD rescinded his initial proposal, leaving Kiffin no choice but to take the Rebels’ deal. We were on to Plan B.
Plan B was rumored to be Drinkwitz. With Arkansas connections and an impressive winning percentage, it was an easier sell for us to get behind the man known as “Drink.” “DRINK! DRINK! DRINK! DRINK,” I envisioned us chanting at our tailgate before each game.
The only drawback was Drink’s lack of experience. This was his first year as a college head coach, and he won 12 games. For perspective, Morris had won 14 before becoming Head Hog. Would you want to bet your job on a guy who’s won 12 games in a lesser conference, and not recruited a full class?
Forrest was undeterred. “Buddy has almost done in one season what Chad did in five. Great hustle. He also has two wins over Power 5 teams. Chad is still looking for one with five seasons under his belt.”
It was not meant to be. Drink was announced as the Missouri head coach last Sunday afternoon. I had joked that Yurachek should refuse to hire any coach who would have us, but this was getting ridiculous.
“After sitting through this season, now we have to sit and watch all of our choices get picked up by our competitors,” Sam texted bitterly. “I don’t think HY is going to make it too long.” Craig agreed. “This coaching search is like watching an old dog die,” he said.
The turbulent coaching search concluded with someone who has even less head coaching experience than Drinkwitz, but TTT thinks Yurachek got it right. Former Arkansas and current Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman is coming back to lead the Razorbacks. Widely considered one of the best O-Line Coaches and recruiters in college football, Pittman knows that SEC games are won in the trenches. He says he wants to play tough, blue collar football. After witnessing our linemen getting blown off the ball by the likes of Colorado State and San Jose, it will be a welcome change.
More importantly, Pittman seems to really want to be at Arkansas. That can not be emphasized enough in the wake of a coaching search where several prominent candidates appeared to use the Razorbacks to get a better offer from another school. I would have preferred to see more energy and less emotion at Pittman’s first presser, but I appreciate his honest acknowledgement of the difficult task at hand.
“The only way I know how to fix something is to go to work,” said the new head Hog, and he has done exactly that. Aside from his trademark “Yessir,” the Pittman era will not likely be characterized by catchphrases or social media hashtags.
Perhaps Pittman’s best quote came as he addressed his players for the first time. It has been well publicized that the coach inherited a fractured, fragile locker room. “I told them that they didn’t choose me, but I sure as hell chose them. That I wanted to be here, and I think they felt it.”
Pittman may not have been the first choice to be the 34th head coach at the University of Arkansas, but for now, he seems like the best choice.
Welcome home, Coach Sam Pittman.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.