When you hire a head coach with no prior head coaching experience, the staff becomes that much more important. Sam Pittman will look to re-instill the toughness and physicality in the trenches that Arkansas has mostly lacked for several years since his departure in 2015, but his assistants will drive much of Arkansas’ scheme.
Pittman does seem to “get it”: I’ve previously written about “making Arkansas into Arkansas,” and Pittman exuded blue-collar, slogan-less, coach-speak-less, tough football in his first press conference. That is, I think, what Arkansas needs right now.
The new Head Hog says he wants to have a few staff members hired by the end of the week. It will be tough to accomplish that, but Pittman’s industry connections are deep and he’s well-liked. He should have no trouble finding good assistants.
Let’s take a look at two of the most important hires: his coordinators. The disclaimer is that while you can come up with a reasonable list of head coaching candidates, coordinator hires are hard to foresee: Pittman has worked with or just met a massive number of coaches, any one of whom could end up being hired in Fayetteville.
I think the biggest fear among Hog fans was that Pittman would hire Jim Chaney as OC and immediately revert back to the 2013-2014 offense: an unimaginative, smashmouth scheme. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, as Pittman will look to be fairly modern on offense, even mentioning his preference for an RPO scheme in his introductory press conference. In fact, the Hog offense may not look significantly different from the Morris era, though offensive line play and overall execution should be much better.
Keeping with the idea that Pittman needs really good assistants, here are some major names to keep an eye on.
One of the pioneers of the spread-to-run offense, RichRod was most recently lauded for his work with Ole Miss QB John Rhys Plumlee this season in his first year as OC. He’s been a head coach for a while at West Virginia (2001-2007), a disastrous tenure at Michigan (2008-2010), and Arizona (2012-2017). He is not expected to be retained by Ole Miss after the firing of Matt Luke and hiring of Lane Kiffin, so he’ll be on the market. It would probably take $1 million for his services.
Here’s an interesting name. Dearmon is a rising star in the coaching ranks. Arkansans may be familiar with his fantastic work as OC at Arkansas Tech from 2015 to 2017. He spent the 2018 season on Malzahn’s Auburn staff before joining Les Miles at Kansas. He was promoted to OC two games into the season and Kansas’ offense immediately improved. The Jayhawks finished 63rd in Offense PAN. He would be risky for a new head coach like Pittman given his lack of high-level coaching experience, but if he does well at Kansas, he’ll get a high-level OC position in a few years anyway.
The former Shiloh Christian star was mentioned two years ago when Chad Morris was hired. He played for the Hogs from 2002 to 2004, then joined the Arkansas staff as a GA in 2006. He followed Malzahn to Auburn as a GA in 2009 and 2010 before rejoining Malzahn as OC at Arkansas State (2012) and Auburn (2013-2016). Lashlee was made a scapegoat when Auburn’s offense went downhill in 2015 and 2016, and Lashlee was banished to UConn. He resurfaced at SMU under Sonny Dykes, where he’s done well over the last two seasons. His close ties to Malzahn would make him a little bit of a controversial hire, especially given that he was basically forced out of Auburn, but there’s little doubt that he’s a good offensive mind.
Johnson coached with Pittman on Georgia’s staff in 2017 and 2018, working as an offensive analyst. Johnson went with Mel Tucker to Colorado and is currently the offensive coordinator there. He’s got plenty of experience as OC at Lousiana-Lafayette (2011-2015) and Minnesota (2016). He doesn’t necessarily fit Pittman’s stated vision for the offense, but if Pittman worked with him and thinks he’s really good, this could be a potential hire.
The former Razorback quarterback/holder is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate to return, although it’s unknown if he’s interested in returning to his alma mater or college football in general. He’s been an NFL quarterbacks coach since 2010 and offensive coordinator/playcaller since 2016. He’s spent the last several years working under current Jets head coach Adam Gase. He’s worth mentioning because of his playcalling experience, which is something that Pittman obviously needs. His lack of college coaching experience could be a drawback, though.
Pittman worked under Dooley at Tennessee. After Dooley was canned following a disastrous Tennessee tenure, he worked as the Cowboys’ receivers coach from 2013 to 2017 before taking over as Missouri’s offensive coordinator for the last two seasons. His work at Missouri was... meh. Drew Lock had a fine senior season in 2018, but the Tigers struggled this year, though injuries to Kelly Bryant played a part in that. Dooley combines NFL experience, SEC head coach experience, and SEC offensive coordinator experience. On paper, that’s a great resume, though it’s fair to question how good he actually was in all three of those roles.
This one is probably unlikely, but Enos’ 2015 offense with Pittman was magical, ranking 2nd in the country in Offense PAN and setting numerous school records. When Enos has a good offensive line to work with (something he didn’t have in 2016 and 2017 at Arkansas), his offense is absolutely devastating. His record with quarterback development is also solid. His current situation in Miami has gone sour in Manny Diaz’s first season as head coach, so Enos might be welcomed back in Fayetteville.
It’s a lot harder to name names Pittman can look at on this side of the ball. There’s an obvious choice, but after that it gets dicey.
Odom did a fine job with Missouri’s defense. The Tigers were 38th in Defense PAN in 2019 and only had one season outside the top 50 in Odom’s five season as DC or HC. By contrast, Arkansas has had zero seasons inside the top 50 during that span. Odom also had a successful stint as Memphis’ defensive coordinator (2012-2014). Odom seems like an obvious candidate for a $1 million salary and an “assistant head coach” title.
Withers — currently the defensive backs coach for the Giants — has multiple potential ties to this job. He worked with Pittman on Arkansas alum Butch Davis’ staff at North Carolina from 2008 to 2011, as defensive coordinator (and interim head coach when Davis was fired in 2011). After serving as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2012 and 2013, he became the very successful head coach of James Madison (2014-2015) and the very unsuccessful head coach of Texas State (2016-2018). He reunited with Butch Davis as DC at FIU in 2019, but left before coaching a game to join the Giants. Davis would probably put in a good word for him... if he’s not bitter about Withers’ departure from his staff earlier this year.
As long as we’re bringing back good assistants from the Bielema era, why not Shannon? He’s currently the defensive coordinator at UCF and developed Martrell Spaight with the Hogs in 2013 and 2014 as linebackers coach. The downside with Shannon is the same as with all Florida recruiters: eventually, they go back to Florida. You’d hire to hire him and lose him again.
I’m only mentioning him for his Arkansas connections. The Batesville native played at UCA but hasn’t been back to the state since leaving in 1983. He’s been the defensive coordinator at South Carolina (1999-2002) and Florida (2005-2009) and head coach at Louisville (2010-2013), Texas (2014-2016), and South Florida (2017-2019), though he was fired from the last two. The big issue with Strong: how much does he have left in the tank? He was the head coach at Texas just a few years ago, now we’re talking about him as defensive coordinator at Arkansas. You don’t want a John Chavis situation where your coordinator is clearly just collecting a check before his retirement.
Ryan and Pittman are apparently buddies. Ryan was a defensive coordinator at Oklahoma (1998) and Kansas State (1999), but hasn’t coached in college since, or at all since being fired by the Jets in 2016. Like Pittman, Ryan is an Oklahoman: born in Ardmore and an alum of Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford (just west of OKC).
Have any other ideas about who the Hogs should hire? Drop a comment!