The fans who gathered at the Catfish Hole in Fayetteville gave a warm, socially distanced ovation and a masked Hog Call at the first “Sam Pittman Live” weekly radio show a couple of weeks ago.
The new Arkansas football coach and Chuck Barrett, the voice of the Razorbacks, did the hour with a Plexiglass divider on the stage.
“You know this right here, I used to see that like if it’s a bad band playing or something,” Pittman said. “And it shields you from all the stuff being thrown at you. I thought that’s what this is for. It’s for COVID?”
Pittman didn’t need to worry about any such reaction at Georgia where he assembled a talented cast of offensive linemen during his four seasons on Kirby Smart’s staff and was beloved by fans and players.
“He was a relationship-driven coach,” Smart said Monday. “His players just love him and they all enjoy playing for him. He created that family atmosphere. He and Jamie did not have kids of their own, but all the O-linemen were their kids and always have been.”
Pittman returned to Arkansas as head coach in December and as the revamped SEC schedule would have it, his Razorback debut comes Saturday at 4 p.m. when his old team Georgia comes to town.
During SEC championship week, Pittman and Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek spoke by phone about the Razorbacks job opening. They met that Sunday in Pittman’s home in Athens.
“I offered Sam Pittman the job and him and his wife Jamie both started crying,” Yurachek said. “He couldn’t tell me yes because he was crying.”
Sam and Jamie returned that night to Fayetteville with Yurachek.
“It was kind of a neat scene at the airport there in Athens,” Yuracheck said. “Many of the assistant coaches for Georgia were heading out recruiting that night and got to say congratulations to coach and love him a little bit there at the airport.”
Pittman’s 32-year coaching career included stops at seven different power five schools including three years as offensive line coach with the Razorbacks from 2013-15 before Smart hired him for his first staff.
“I’m very, very thankful and grateful to have had the opportunity to coach at Georgia and to coach under Kirby Smart,” Pittman said Monday. “I learned a lot and he was very, very good to me. …However, am I nervous? Yes. Why? Because they’re really good.”
Pittman is being welcomed to the SEC by a ridiculously rugged schedule that includes six teams ranked in the top 11 starting with No. 3 Georgia.
The Bulldogs are favored by 24 ½, according to BetMGM.com. Arkansas has lost 19 straight SEC games.
“Based on what our performance has been on the field over the past couple of years … you can stack a significant number of odds against us,” Yurachek said, “but I’m not betting against Sam Pittman. He has acted over the course of the last six months of COVID like he was a veteran coach, not a first year head coach.”
Pittman, he said, has kept his players and staff “engaged” and Pittman’s reputation helped attract former Missouri head coach Barry Odom as his defensive coordinator and former Florida State offensive coordinator Kendal Briles on the other side of the ball.
“I expect we’re going to break that SEC losing streak more than one time this year,” Yurachek said.
Smart called Pittman “a very good friend,” and credited him for helping to build the foundation of a program that has won three straight SEC East titles.
“As far as what kind of mark he left on our program, I think that’s evidenced by the offensive lines we have had,” Smart said. “He was a really good recruiter.”
Arkansas is currently ranked No. 23 in the 2021 247Sports Composite rankings, two spots ahead of Florida State.
Pittman helped Georgia land top three classes each of the last three years including loading up on the offensive line.
Georgia lost four starters including a pair of first-round offensive tackles in Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson and another draft pick in guard Solomon Kindley, a three-star prospect, who developed under Pittman.
“Coach Pittman told every single one of us when we came in he want us to be great, he wants us to succeed to the next level or to be at our full potential,” Kindley said before last season. “Coach Pittman is going to do that every day. He may be tired or sleepy but he’s still going to show you he cares, he loves you no matter who you are and what you did.”
Pittman had a hand in much of what remains at on the Bulldogs offensive line.
He recruited and coached left tackle Jamaree Salyer, left guard Justin Shaffer, center Trey Hill and coached right guard Ben Cleveland. The likely right tackle, Owen Condon, was recruited by Pittman from the coach’s home state of Oklahoma.
“It’s going to be weird for sure because he’s the one who recruited me,” Condon said, “but we’re more focused on what we’ve got here with Coach (Matt) Luke and we all loving playing for him.”
Pittman’s Arkansas staff includes several who were with him at Georgia including special teams coach Scott Fountain, head strength coach Jamil Walker and support staffer Fernando Velasco.
“Coach Pittman was my guy for two years,” Hill said. “He recruited me, did a lot for me, so I’ll always respect him,” he said.
Hill said Pittman brought a “family-oriented,” culture and showed “energy on and off the field. What you got on the field is what you got off the field. The way he takes care of his players and the love and support he gives them.”
Smart said Pittman commanded the respect of the room when he spoke, a trait like a head coach in the making.
“He can be very emotional and you don’t always find that with an offensive line coach because they’re usually a little rough around the edges and he wears his feelings on his sleeve,” Smart said. “He is very open with his players and I think he lets them in more than most O-line coaches do. That relationship really stands. …He got the opportunity to go and a lot of our guys reached out-they were hurt by it, but not hurt like they were mad at him. They were very thankful for his opportunity but they were going to miss that relationship.”