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How Not to Criticize the Sam Pittman Hire

Roll Bama Roll had some interesting hot takes on Arkansas’ new coach.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Welcome back to our continuing coverage of Arkansas’ hire of Sam Pittman as its new head football coach. Takes are coming in from across the country, and while it’s probably a good idea to ignore most (but file them away for the future), we found one that we cannot help but respond to.

Roll Bama Roll is the SB Nation site covering Alabama. It’s definitely one of the better SB Nation sites out there, producing great game previews and a variety of opinions on college football across the country. As part of their wide range of coverage, they’ve produced an Alabama-focused overview of each of the three new SEC coaches. We normally wouldn’t argue with their takes, but there’s just too much on their Pittman piece for us to respond to. (Note: Please don’t go start a fight on their blog. Seriously.)

We’re all well-aware that this is an unusual hire. It might work out and it might not. Hog fans are all-aboard because that’s what you do when your team hires a new coach, but we understand the challenges Pittman will face. But just because a hire appears underwhelming doesn’t mean that all criticism of it is justified. Hence this response to Roll Bama Roll.

Let’s dive in.

The piece starts fine enough, making the key argument for why this hire could be considered underwhelming: Pittman has never even been a coordinator.

Sometimes — rarely, one would say — it works out fabulously: such as Tom Coughlin, who jumped up from Wide Receivers Coach to become a three-time NFL Champion and Sr. Executive of Football Ops.

More often than not, you get Ron Zook...or Ole Miss Ed Orgeron. You get someone out of his depth. Someone who tries hard, someone who recruits well, someone who has been around successful programs, but has been promoted well beyond their competence level.

All of this is perfectly fair. We could add Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney to that list, but overall, there’s not anything wrong with pointing out the risk of hiring to the SEC a coach with no head coaching or coordinator experience. The hire made a lot of Arkansas fans go “hmmmm” for that reason.

But then comes this weird nugget:

And, for all the talk about what an outstanding position coach and recruiter he is, no one tries very hard to keep him — this is his 10th job in 19 years.

First, this is bizarre because this same writer gave Ole Miss’ hiring of Lane Kiffin an A-/B+ grade in a piece that doesn’t even mention the fact that Kiffin has been head coach of an NFL team, head coach of two SEC teams, head coach of a Conference USA team, and offensive coordinator of an SEC team... all since 2008. In fact, the author cautions that Kiffin should only be judged by what he’s done at and after Alabama; that is, “the man that Kiffin became and not the man that he was.” Huh.

Second, this is a very weird criticism for a site covering a program that’s had six different offensive coordinators in 13 years to say. Many of Pittman’s job switches are for a similar reason: good coaches keep getting new opportunities. One of the reasons Pittman left Arkansas after three years is that Georgia was willing to make him the highest-paid offensive line coach in the country. In the past two decades, he left Northern Illinois and Western Michigan for the same reason.

The briefest looks at the jobs he’s held back this up. In his younger days, he was frequently hired to fix messes: at Tennessee in 2011, at Missouri in 2000, and at Kansas in 2001. In all of those cases, Pittman was hired by a head coach on the hot seat who was trying to shuffle his staff. All three coaches were fired in the year Pittman was an assistant. It’s hard to blame Pittman for that, as all the times he’s been at a place multiple years, he’s been successful: Northern Illinois (2003-2006), Arkansas (2013-2015), and Georgia (2016-2019).

Oh, but wait! Was he actually successful at Arkansas? This author isn’t so sure:

Does Pittman actually coach good offensive lines? Sure...if you have the talent that Georgia did. That’s a universe of about 5-6 programs every year, and Arkansas hasn’t been one of those in a very, very long time. During his prior stint at Arkansas, you could say it was okay.

Just okay, huh? Let’s dive into the numbers. Here are Arkansas’ SEC rankings from 2013 to 2015 in the four key offensive line stats: marginal sack rate, marginal stuff rate, marginal line yards, and marginal opportunity rate.

The year before Pittman arrived (2012) is in parentheses at the beginning, the year after Pittman left (2016) is in parentheses at the end.

  • Sack Rate: (2nd), 1st, 2nd, 1st, (9th)
  • Stuff Rate: (7th), 4th, 10th, 2nd, (14th)
  • Line Yards: (8th), 5th, 7th, 2nd, (13th)
  • Opportunity Rate: (3rd), 6th, 6th, 5th, (11th)

While other parts of Arkansas’ offense fell off in 2013, Pittman had no trouble keeping the Hogs’ line at the same level it had been at during the Bobby Petrino era (and higher by 2015), despite a pretty significant retooling up front. The 2014 stuff rate numbers are the only ones from Pittman’s time not in the top half of the conference.

Okay, let’s move on:

Recruiting itself is a bit of a mixed bag. This year he’s the third-ranked recruiter (with UGA). Last year, he wasn’t even in the Top 25. Nor was he in the Top 25 for the class of 2018. You go back to his first NSD Class with UGA, and he was 16th. But, he wasn’t in the Top 25 in any of his seasons at Arkansas either.

I like the “with UGA” parenthetical, which is basically the author admitting that the whole concept of ranking individual recruiters is a pointless exercise. First, it’s Georgia. Some schools sell themselves. Second, Georgia needed a bunch of offensive linemen in this class, so they went and got a bunch of commits. Boom, Pittman shows up as the #3 recruiter. I’ll make a prediction: since Georgia won’t need many offensive linemen in its 2021 class, new OL coach Matt Luke, hired to replace Pittman, won’t show up on any “top recruiters” list next year. When they do again in 2022, he probably will. Funny how that works.

There are also geographic issues in recruiting. There are assistant coaches for LSU who can attend a single neighborhood BBQ somewhere in Baton Rouge and have it count as five in-home visits, because five four-star recruits live that close to LSU’s campus. I’m not kidding: 13 players on LSU’s current roster are from Baton Rouge, including leading rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire and top defensive back Derek Stingley. Other recent studs from Baton Rouge include Glenn Dorsey, Derrius Guice, Jeremy Hill, and La’el Collins. Just how good of a recruiter do you have to be to convince those guys to play for LSU?

I’m a little bit more impressed with Arkansas’ 2015 starting offensive line, which was probably the best in the SEC:

  • LT Dan Skipper (3-star from Colorado)
  • LG Sebastian Tretola (3-star from California)
  • C Mitch Smothers (4-star from Arkansas)
  • RG Frank Ragnow (4-star from Minnesota)
  • RT Denver Kirkland (4-star from Florida)

Five states on opposite ends of the country were represented on that line, and Smothers was the only one not recruited by Pittman. Per 247 Sports, Pittman signed four 4-star linemen in three classes on the Hill (that’s not including Zach Rogers, who was listed as a 4-star by some services), making offensive line easily the best-recruited unit during the first three years of the Bielema era.

Basically, Arkansas would be very pleased if Pittman as head coach can recruit anywhere near as well as Pittman the offensive line coach.

One last thing:

His work with the Razorbacks only really stood out in one respect for Tide fans: he’s dirty as hell and recruited and coached some trash play. So, forgive me if I’m not going to cheer a return to gratuitous chop blocks, hands to the face every down, and guys diving at knees.

Ahh. This author spent a lot of words just to say the one thing he really meant.