Coach Sam Pittman is Living His Dream
By Joey Johnston
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman has his dream job. With the Razorbacks (8-4) facing the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5) in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day at Raymond James Stadium, Pittman can barely contain his excitement.
"This is big-time,'' Pittman said.
After all these years - most of it spent in relative football anonymity with high school, junior college and assistant coaching - Pittman has become big-time, too.
It's your typical overnight success story. It took Pittman, 60, a lifetime to get here. He played for NAIA Pittsburg State. He coached high school in Oklahoma and Missouri, then became offensive-line coach and head coach at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
After that? A blur. In 10 years, it was Northern Illinois, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Western Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, then back to Northern Illinois after one season of unemployment. The trajectory changed when he became Butch Davis' offensive-line coach at North Carolina in 2007. That led to jobs at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia.
When the Razorbacks needed a head coach following the 2019 season, several former players spoke up for Pittman, who was Arkansas' offensive-line coach, assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator from 2013-15. Pittman got the job and has Arkansas on the upswing.
"I said I was never going to leave the University of Arkansas and I'm not going to,'' Pittman said. "I've said this is my last job and it's damn sure going to be that.''
Pittman grew up in Northeast Oklahoma - about 75 miles from Fayetteville, Ark. Pittman's father, Donald, was a diehard OU Sooners fan. But Pittman's uncle, Lester, was all about the Hogs.
"I have a passion for Arkansas,'' Pittman said. "I fell in love with the Hogs when I was in high school. I wanted them to recruit me and I wasn't good enough. I've forgiven everybody for that.
"I truly believe Arkansas is the best university and the best job in the country. The state deserves a great football team.''
Arkansas football greatness was part of Pittman's earliest memories, when the Razorbacks were annual Southwest Conference contenders and Coach Frank Broyles was the state's foremost celebrity.
Pittman was in the fourth grade. He was at his uncle's house in Dover, Ark., when he worked on his car. The Arkansas football game was blaring from an old radio in the corner.
"We had to listen to them Hogs,'' Pittman said. "My uncle's passion for the Hogs was incredible. I have never seen anything like it.''
Pittman still remembers the 1978 Orange Bowl, when Arkansas faced heavily favored Oklahoma. His father and uncle placed a bet. Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6. There's still a photo of Pittman's uncle sheepishly posing with a hog hat.
When Pittman was in high school, he and some friends attended the Arkansas football camp. The dream of playing for the Razorbacks never materialized. Now he's living a different sort of dream.
Pittman is helping to bring back Arkansas football glory. Playing in a New Year's Day bowl game in Tampa is a perfect finale for Pittman's second season as head coach. The Outback Bowl will always be a meaningful milestone.
"Big-time opponent, great weather, wonderful stadium,'' Pittman said. "It gets no better than this. We are extremely excited to be part of the Outback Bowl. But as most coaches will tell you, the only good bowl trip is when you win the game. We're going to have fun. But we're here to win. If we're fortunate enough to beat Penn State, we will really have something special to build on.''