FAYETTEVILLE – This week Sam Pittman departs Fayetteville for Athens, Ga. with Georgia on his mind for Arkansas.
Six years ago he left Arkansas changing his mind for Georgia. Second-year Arkansas Coach Pittman’s surprising 4-0 and nationally eighth-ranked Razorbacks SEC clash at 11am standard time Saturday with Coach Kirby Smart’s 4-0, nationally No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs at UGA’s Sanford Stadium.
Pittman coached Arkansas’ offensive line from 2013-2015. Parting from then Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, Pittman and his wife, Jamie spent from 2016-2019 in Athens as he coached Georgia’s offensive line for Smart before returning to Arkansas for the head coaching job he lobbied hard to achieve.
“We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Georgia,” Pittman said opening Monday’s press conference. “The people in Georgia were so kind to Jamie and I. We were there for four years. Kirby, I obviously had a lot of good memories about him and the way he treated me and the staff.”
Pittman’s desires to return to Arkansas were obvious. His first head coaching job, and returning to friends in Arkansas and in proximity to where Sam grew up in nearby Grove, Okla. and Jamie’s family in relatively close Pittsburg, Kan.
Pittman declines to get into specifics of his 2015 Arkansas parting with Bielema other than to say, “Once you tell somebody you’re leaving, I mean you’re leaving. At that point there’s no ‘Hey let me think about it a couple of days’ once you said that. I had said that.”
What attracted him to Georgia?
“The thing that attracted me, if you remember, Georgia won the national championship in 1980,”Pittman said. “And that’s the year I graduated from high school. And it was Herschel Walker and all those things. Georgia had an elite program, and part of me thought, I’d like to experience those things, of national championships and those things.”
And he had seen Arkansas, even as it improved in 2014 and 2015 from Bielema’s 0-8 SEC, face formidable hurdles in the SEC West.
“A big part of it, they (Georgia) were in the East,” Pittman said. “At the time, the East wasn’t as powerful as the West. So there’s a lot of things that went into that.”
Under Smart, a Georgia alum and Georgia 2005 running backs coach but then most famed as Nick Saban’s 2007-2015 Alabama defensive coordinator, Pittman joined the staff of a first-time head coach.
Smart apparently was more than ready for the job.
“I learned a lot from Coach,” Pittman said. “A lot about practice organization, a lot about assistants – I don’t know if pressure is the word – but putting demands on assistant coaches to be the best they can be.”
“Obviously recruiting,” Pittman said. “You know Coach, all he wants to do is win. I mean .. he’s going to treat people right and all that. I certainly don’t mean that he doesn’t. But he’s at his alma mater and he wants to win for the state of Georgia, the University of Georgia. I mean, you’ve got to respect all that.”
Smart’s players certainly do, Pittman said.
“His kids, they play extremely hard,” Pittman said. “You don’t find many teams that are playing extremely hard that don’t have high respect for the head coach. And they do and I was very fortunate to be there four years and learn from him.”
Pittman and Jamie didn’t come back to Fayetteville from Athens just by themselves.
Georgia special teams coordinator become Arkansas special teams coordinator Scott Fountain and Georgia assistant strength coaches Jamil Walker, become Arkansas’ head strength coach, and Ed Ellis came, too.
Was that difficult persuading them to come to Arkansas?
“Jamil and the staff that he brought with him wasn’t quite as difficult because we were going to give him a heavy raise,” Pittman said. “And he was going to run the program. He was the No. 2 guy over there. … And Kirby certainly understood that.”
Pittman and Fountain were neighbors and friends in addition to coaching comrades.
Their mutual respect likely wielded a major effect. For Fountain swapped special teams coordinating jobs from Georgia coming off a 12-2 SEC East championship/Sugar Bowl championship to a floundered Arkansas program that fired Coach Chad Morris off a 2-10, overall/0-8 in the SEC 2018 and two games remaining of what would be another 2-10, 0-8 2019.
“Scott’s was a deal that I was a little surprised that Scott decided to come at the time,” Pittman said. “But I’m very happy he did. I don’t know what his conversation with Coach Smart was or anything of that nature, but certainly was happy that he decided to come over.”