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"I'm the key motivator." On recruiting, climbing and (finally) becoming a head coach with Sam Pittman

After a long and winding search, Arkansas hired Sam Pittman as its head coach on Dec. 8, 2019, nearly a full month after the program announced Chad Morris would not be retained. It's fitting, really, because Pittman's climb to the top was every bit long and winding.

A career that began as a GA at Division II Pittsburg State later saw Pittman become a head coach at the high school and juco ranks before he began forging a path as one of the nation's most well-regarded and well-traveled offensive line coaches. Pittman landed his first D-I O-line job at Northern Illinois in 1994. In the quarter century that followed, he'd coach the offensive line at 10 separate schools, not counting a 4-year return to NIU in the mid-2000s.

Now, at age 58, he's a first-time FBS head coach, and what a job it is. He inherits a program that is 13-51 in conference play since 2012. He is the Razorbacks' third head coach in their last four seasons and the fifth in their last 10. (That stretch includes a 3-year run with Pittman on staff, from 2013-15. The Hogs went 0-8, 2-6 and 5-3 in SEC play with Pittman on staff.)

Pittman is now tasked with rebuilding the program described above in a division that has produced 11 of the last 26 national title game participants.

Pittman didn't get where he is today by shying away from tough jobs, and his biggest job is his toughest yet.

He took some time from one of college football's biggest rebuilds to talk with FootballScoop. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

FootballScoop: I'll start with a broad question that could go in a number of ways. What do you view your role is as the head coach of the Arkansas football program?
Pittman: I think I'm the key motivator. Certainly I want the program to reflect what I believe in. I believe that I'm a guy that's here to help our coaches be better coaches, which means if there's more we can get out of a drill, we need to get it out of that drill. Things of that nature. I think that I am a guy that is supposed to set the atmosphere of the building, a great working atmosphere and help our assistant coaches be the best they can be.

FootballScoop: I thought you would say something like that, and it leads me to my next question. Do you view yourself similar to a Dabo Swinney or an Ed Orgeron, kind of the head coach as the chief motivation officer model?
Pittman: I'm not greatly familiar with how either one of the guys do it. I think what both of them have done is help guys that were in my position be looked at as head football coaches. Matter of fact, Coach Orgeron, I told him that I believe that I'm partly the head coach at Arkansas because of the success he had and has had at LSU. I think it's opened up different avenues, that maybe you don't have to be a coordinator to necessarily be a good head football coach. Those two guys certainly have proven that.

FootballScoop: What do anticipate your role will be on game day?
Pittman: I'm the game manager. I'm the decision maker in the tough decisions. I'm going to help a little bit more on the special teams aspect of it. I'm going to make sure I'm a little bit ahead of our coaches: "You have two downs here to get the first down." I want to make sure that I'm ahead of the game as much as I possibly can be.

FootballScoop: You're a first-time head coach at 58 years old. Was there ever a time where you thought this opportunity wouldn't come?
Pittman: I think if you're an offensive line coach and you look at the history of offensive line coaches, there's not a whole bunch of them that are out there getting head coaching jobs. I think, as an O-line coach, you start thinking more of, "How can I try to be the best O-line coach in the country?" If you are your salary will go up and different things of that nature. What I did is, I decided I didn't think this opportunity was going to happen. I had my plate full, believe me, with five offensive linemen.

So I went into the mode of, man, I sure would like to be the best O-line coach in the country. I don't know that I did that or didn't, I don't know that. I do know that I was very satisfied in the role that I had at Georgia and wherever I've been. My plate was plenty full with responsibilities. I wasn't sitting there ever going, "Oh, I'm never going to be a head coach." I was very grateful for the job that I had and knew that I had a big responsibility to the football team.

FootballScoop: You are the third different head coach for some of the guys on your roster. How do you go about winning the trust of guys who have been through the ringer like that?
Pittman: I think you have to talk to them, you have to communicate with them. You have to be truthful with them. The expectations are that you're honest with them, and if you put it down on a piece of paper, you have to go do it. That's what we thought we had going with the team that we have, and then they all left so we're making big moves to communicate daily, including myself, with our team. I don't know how you trust anybody that you don't know and so we're trying to maintain what we have developed with our football team. It goes both ways; they have to trust us, we have to trust them. But the only way to do that is through communication and actions. That's probably the biggest thing -- certainly not the danger of the virus, I don't mean that -- that's the biggest thing that I wish we had our kids here so we could continue to develop that "I'm going to run through the brick wall with you" mentality.

FootballScoop: How do you do build those relationships in the meantime given everyone is spread out?
Pittman: I try to get in front of them in Skype and Zoom meetings. I write our own kids on our own team. I know we're writing recruits but we're trying to recruit the ones we have. Then we're trying to get on the phone with as many of the guys as we possibly can. Communication is so powerful and we're trying to keep it alive with our team even though they're not here.

FootballScoop: You take over a team that's in the basement of unquestionably the most competitive division in college football. Do you use Alabama and LSU as a motivating factor, or are they out of sight, out of mind?
Pittman: I learned a long time ago that if you're not focused on what your players and what you have, you're going to get beat. What we're trying to do is go through all these people -- whether it be Kirby (Smart), Butch Davis, Joe Novak, all the people I've worked for, we're trying to use those things, we're trying to build our program. We're not trying to mimic any other football program, we're trying to be us, but with the learning that I have and other coaches have at the places they've been.

FootballScoop: What do you want your team's identity to be?
Pittman: We want to be physical and tough and disciplined. That comes from the head coach down. Schematically, we hired Kendal Briles to be our offensive coordinator. Everybody knows he's an inside zone guy, a fast paced guy, dual-threat quarterback, all those things. But, you can be a lot better if you're physical, tough and disciplined running that scheme. We want to run the ball, obviously. That's part of who we are.

On defense, we hired Barry Odom. He's always had outstanding defenses, and he has the same belief that we just spoke about. What we're going to look like, I'm not positive. Barry's coached an odd front, an over front, an under front, he's done all those things. He'll adjust to whatever personnel that he feels like we have. Of course we didn't have spring ball. We had different thoughts going into spring ball based on what we saw from our kids (in workouts). It's going to be a fluid situation and a little bit of a learning curve on exactly what we want to do.

FootballScoop: What is your recruiting strategy given that your home state doesn't have enough players to build an SEC roster?
Pittman: We're going to get going to get as many Arkansas guys that we deem can help us in the SEC. That's where we're going to start. The last time I was here we had an Arkansas kid -- just talking about on the line -- we had Colorado, we had California, we had Minnesota, we had Texas. We'd like to stay regional if we can. What I mean is, the border states that we have. I love the state of Georgia so we'll continue to do that too. Our deal is we have to get kids on campus. We have a lot to be proud of on our campus.

FootballScoop: Are there any metrics that you look to in recruiting an offensive lineman?
Pittman: He has to be big, first of all. That doesn't necessarily mean tall. He has to be able to knock somebody off the ball, i.e., explosion. He has to have those two things. Obviously if he's great with his hands that would be something that would help him. You have to have good feet, you have to be explosive. The first thing we look at is, Is this guy going to be big enough to help us in the SEC? And if he has all three of those things we feel like he has a chance to help us.