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Sam I Am: Razorbacks find 'genuine leader' in Pittman
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Sam I Am: Razorbacks find 'genuine leader' in Pittman

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Pine Bluff Arkansas Football

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman talks to Treylon Burks (16) before their game against Pine Bluff during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz will put the wisecracks on hold this week, at least when it comes to his counterpart at Arkansas. He didn’t hold back lobbing verbal hand grenades at Florida’s Dan Mullen last week. But he’s got nothing but reverence for Arkansas’ Sam Pittman.

“I think Sam Pittman is exactly what the University of Arkansas needed at the exact time that they needed it,” said Drinkwitz, whose Tigers (6-5, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) are 14.5-point underdogs in Friday’s Battle Line Rivalry against Pittman’s No. 25 Razorbacks (7-4, 3-4) in Fayetteville. “I think they did a tremendous job in making that hire. … Obviously, to me, Sam would be my vote for SEC coach of the year.”

He mentioned other deserving coaches — Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin — then circled back to Pittman.

“When you look at what Sam has been able to do with that team, the staff he’s hired, the players he’s recruited and the way that they’re playing and reinvigorated that state for their football program, I don’t know that anybody’s done a better job,” he said.

Drinkwitz speaks from a place of familiarity. He grew up in the state of Arkansas, went to high school and college there. As a kid, he attended games at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium — he couldn’t help but mention Monday that Reynolds was a Mizzou alum — and later coached in the state at the high school and college levels. And two years ago, as the head coach at Appalachian State, Drinkwitz was the object of Arkansas’ affection. Drinkwitz had verbally agreed to take the Mizzou job after meeting with the school’s fleet of administrators at a North Carolina hotel, but on his drive home he learned that Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek and university trustee Steve Cox were camped in his front yard, sources later recalled.

The next day, Drinkwitz officially picked Mizzou. Arkansas hired Pittman, then Georgia’s offensive line coach.

Drinkwitz isn’t above throwing jabs at the Hogs to stoke the rivalry — but not toward their head coach.

“He’s a genuine person, a genuine leader. He cares,” Drinkwitz said. “Really nothing seems to rattle him. They lost some coaches in the summer, and he went out and hired some tremendous coaches to replace them. … So I think he’s very thoughtful in the way he’s approached it and built it. He’s connected to the players and that state. And I think he’s doing a really good job. He’s got a very tough team to play against, which is always something to be respected.”

Those feelings are widespread around the SEC and beyond. From 1994 to 2019, Pittman had coached at 10 FBS programs, including Mizzou in 2000, before landing his first FBS head-coaching job at Arkansas. In Fayetteville, the longtime offensive line coach hired two established coordinators to handle the Xs and Os — Kendal Briles on offense, former Mizzou coach Barry Odom on defense — and instantly delivered credibility to a program buried in the SEC West. The Razorbacks had lost 19 consecutive SEC games when Pittman took over, a streak that reached 20 when he lost his debut game to Georgia. A week later, Arkansas upset Mississippi State and followed with wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee while losing one-possession games to Auburn, LSU and Missouri.

In year two, when some coaches stumble through growing pains as the honeymoon fades into the daily grind, Pittman has extended the honeymoon in his Hog-crazed state. This year, Arkansas climbed into the top 10 of the national polls with a 4-0 start, including a September Texas two-step with wins over former Southwest Conference foes Texas and Texas A&M. If Pittman hadn’t already won over the hearts and minds of Arkansas fans, those victories did the trick.

A broken Arkansas program that started to show signs of decay under Bret Bielema and then sank to unforeseen depths under Chad Morris is back from the dead.

“I knew I had really good coaches. I knew we were able to hire good coordinators and good position coaches and strength coaches and all those things, so I knew we had a chance there from the coaching aspect and the leadership aspect,” Pittman told reporters this week. “I really didn’t know a whole lot about what we had on the team. I think the biggest thing we did is was we came in and the guys on the team weren’t Coach Bielema’s or Coach Morris’ kids. They were ours.”

Odom’s defense ranks in the middle of the SEC in most categories, but his impact on Pittman’s program as the head coach’s unofficial consigliere can’t be measured in numbers alone. After MU fired Odom following the 2019 season — ending with a win over the Hogs in Little Rock — he’s found a home in Fayetteville and surely boosted his credentials for his next head-coaching opportunity.

“The thing I love about Coach Odom is he’s the same guy every single day,” Arkansas linebacker Hayden Henry said this week. “He brings a ton of energy and juice to the room. He’s a guy that I love being around and I could say the rest of the guys on defense love being around him. He’s kind of the tone-setter. He’s kind of the spear of our defense. He’s the tip of the spear. I would go to war for him any day.”

At times Odom’s defense has carried the Hogs. Lately, it’s been a potent, efficient offense. Second-year quarterback K.J. Jefferson has mixed 21 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. He threw for 358 yards and four TDs at Alabama last week. Wideout Treylon Burks powers the passing game, while a balanced rushing attack ranks No. 13 nationally with 222.3 yards per game.

All along, Arkansas fans have rallied around the head Hog and his reborn program. Attendance at Razorback Stadium has averaged 68,823 this year, up 28% from 2019, Morris’ last season. (In Drinkwitz’s second season, Mizzou averaged 46,516 per home game, down 14% from 2019.)

Pittman hasn’t had time to reflect on the program’s surge, but he can feel the Hogs fans at his back — and will again Friday.

“The Hog fans, the Arkansas fans are … I mean, everybody says they’ve got the best fans, this, that and the other,” he said. “But I put them up against anybody in the country.”

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