Arkansas coach Sam Pittman finally got his big chance, a decades-long path rooted in family

Here's a detailed look at how Arkansas head Coach Sam Pittman has transformed the culture of the team. (3:22).
After more than 25 years as a college assistant and Sam Pittman's first head-coaching position at Arkansas, in December 2019, he was eager to share the news of his new job with his father.

Donald Pittman, a teacher, coach and administrator in Oklahoma's public schools system, died at the end of his life at a Tulsa nursing home. Sam's 90 year-old father was suffering with dementia.

Ron Pittman, Sam’s older brother, said that Dad had moments when he was off and on. "There were days when it seemed like he was in touch, but there were other days when he didn’t know who you are."

Sam visited his father in Tulsa during a recruitment trip. He told him that he had finally found his dream job. Donald was sitting in a chair in the common area.

Sam Pittman stated, "I walked up to him, I think he scared me," I didn't mean to. I tried to speak to him but he wasn't able to recognize my voice. I kept repeating things that I thought he might recall, but he was unable to recognize me.

Pittman left the nursing facility that night, but he didn't tell his father that he had been hired as a coach for the Razorbacks. He was not sure if his father would ever find out about his dream.

Pittman is proud of the achievements he made in Arkansas after only two seasons. The No. 8 Razorbacks are now 4-0, their first win in 18 years. They will be taking on No. 2 Georgia (Noon ET on ESPN, ESPN App and ESPN App).

His success at Arkansas is not surprising to the players and coaches who have worked alongside Pittman for the past three decades. It has been a match made for Hogs, despite not being the Razorbacks first choice in December 2019.

Kirby Smart of Georgia, who hired Pittman in 2016 to be his offensive line coach, said that he has a lot respect for Sam. "They have done an incredible job in creating a new culture at Arkansas. He deserves nothing less.

Sam Pittman was the son of a coach family. Donald Pittman was born in Beggs (Oklahoma) and was one of 16 kids. After he married Jackie and had five children, he attended Fort Hays State College, Kansas. He then returned to college to earn his master's degree as well as his superintendent certification. Before retiring in 1986, he worked for Oklahoma school districts. Jackie was a librarian and secretary. Donald and his sons renovate summer houses to supplement their family's income.

Ron Pittman stated, "Dad was a coach in the core." He was a coach and made us both pretty good players. He taught us how to hit and pitch, and played baseball with us. We won two state championships together with our church basketball teams thanks to his coaching. We were able to learn many things from him early on in our lives.

Sam was Don and Jackie's youngest child. He was a three-sport star at Grove High School in Grove (OK), and was a Class 2A State champion in shot put. Pittman wanted to play for Arkansas college football after high school. He was a running back and linebacker and had been invited to a summer camp prior to his senior season. He fell in love all things Razorbacks. His father was an Oklahoma Sooners fan, but Pittman's uncle Lester, who lived near Dover in Arkansas, was a huge Razorbacks fan.

Lester and his family would be visited by the Pittmans a few times a year. Pittman's uncle was the owner of a salvage yard and service station. After Lester had traded Pittman one of his cars, Pittman's dad would return home with a new car after a few trips. Ron recalled that the family bought a Pontiac stationwagon, but the car wouldn’t shift into drive when they left church on Sunday. Donald drove his family home by driving in reverse.

Sam stated, "We'd listen on the radio to the Razorbacks while Uncle Lester worked on one of our cars." "In between grumbling at me for giving him the wrong wrench, I'd make him ecstatic when he scored with the Razorbacks."

Donald and Lester used to make a wager whenever Arkansas and Oklahoma met in any sport. After the Razorbacks beat the No. Donald was forced to wear an Arkansas hat in order to photograph a ceramic Razorback. He didn't look happy. Lester liked to send his Arkansas brother pennants and Arkansas hats whenever the Hogs won.

The Pittman Family photo has a crease. But it shows the fun and ribbing between college football fanatics. Donald Pittman, a Oklahoma fan, was forced to wear Arkansas gear after the Razorbacks beat Oklahoma. The Pittman Family

Ron stated, "He loved to rib us all of the time about Oklahoma." It was all good fun.

The Razorbacks, which were at that time coached by Lou Holtz, did not offer Pittman a scholarship. He enrolled at Pittsburg State, Kansas, where there was an NAIA football team. As a senior, he was team captain and an NAIA All-American. Rex Ryan, the future NFL coach, stopped by Pittsburg State during a recruiting trip with Pittman while they were at Oklahoma. He scanned the media guide of the team.

Ryan, who is now an ESPN analyst for "Sunday NFL Countdown", said, "I flipped the book open and was like: "Well, let's check if you're any good." "I was like, "Oh, my God!" He was the holder of both the season and career sacks records. Because he is probably the most humble man you will ever meet, it would be hard to believe he even had one bag there.

Pittman holds the Pittsburg State record for career sacks with 46 in 1980-83. His 1982 single-season record of 22, which he set in 1982, stood for nine more years.

Donald didn't want his son to become a coach, however. Ron, along with two of their sisters, had been following in their parents' footsteps and worked in education. Sam intended to study pre-law and business when he enrolled at Pittsburg State. He knew he wanted to coach, so he graduated college with a bachelor's in education.

Sam Pittman stated, "He didn’t believe I could make any money playing basketball." "I don’t believe my dad ever dreamed of me being a college coach. It was not something that I had in my head. It was my dream to coach high school football and win the state championship.

Pittman met Jamie while working as a graduate assistant at Pittsburg's alma mater. They were together for three months before getting engaged. The couple was married in 1986. He entertained her with his guitar playing and singing Bread songs. Pittman can still play the banjo, guitar and piano.

"It worked," Jamie said. He pulled out the guitar and it melted my heart."

Pittman taught and coached high school football in Oklahoma and Missouri for five more years. He was appointed as the offensive coach at Hutchinson Community College, Kansas in 1991. He was promoted to head coach the following season at age 30. He led the Blue Dragons to two consecutive winning seasons and their first bowl bid in 23-years. He appeared to be on the fast-track to a top job.

Arkansas' head coach Sam Pittman led the Razorbacks in their first 4-0 win in 18 years. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Pittman couldn't have predicted the future. He was employed at six schools, including two years as the offensive coach for his father's Oklahoma Sooners. Within two years, four of the five head coaches who hired him were fired. He took the Missouri offensive line job in 2000. Coach Larry Smith was fired after the season. Pittman went to Kansas the following season. Terry Allen was fired after three games.

Pittman began to wonder if his college coaching career was over. He applied for four positions at a coaching convention in the winter but was unsuccessful. Although he had a contract for two years with the Jayhawks, he was still getting paid. However, his future prospects looked uncertain.

Pittman stated, "I had lifetime teaching certificates from Oklahoma and Missouri so I thought I'd just return to high school if it didn't work out."

Pittman was a coach for the 2002 season. He organized and worked out the couple's collection, which included more than 6,000 45s that they had collected at yard sales over the years. Pittman stated, "I was a go getter." "I would take my wife to work, then I'd go and get her."

Joe Novak, Northern Illinois coach, gave Pittman a life-raft in 2003. He accepted the job with the blessings of his wife. He had coached the Huskies offensive line from 1994 to 1995. Pittman stated, "My wife told us to stop worrying about the name on jerseys and logos on helmets and just go coach baseball."

Jamie stated that he was apologizing for being there. He didn't want it to be backwards, but it was the only job he had and the one he wanted to do. He told me to keep working hard. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what you do.

"I remember going to the bathroom and crying out after he said that. I thought, "What the hell? After being his cheerleader." We're going back. I've been there before. He didn't know this, so I tried my best to remain positive. It was going to all work out for me."

Pittman was the Northern Illinois offensive coach for 2003. In his first season, Michael Turner, the tailback, finished fourth in FBS with 1,648 yards rushing. Garrett Wolfe was his replacement and ran for over 1,500 yards in each of the seasons 2004-06. Pittman was hired by Butch Davis to join his North Carolina staff in 2007.

Pittman stated that Butch Davis was the most popular coach in the country, and he decided to take a chance on an offensive coach not many people knew about. He changed the course of my life."

It was the career path Pittman had envisioned for so long that suddenly became a reality. After five seasons in North Carolina, he moved to Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia where he was a well-respected coach and recruiter. He has coached 15 NFL draft-selected linemen, six of them first-rounders.

Donald Pittman (front) was able to see Sam's dream come true as a college football coach before he died in January 2020. The Pittman Family

Jackie Pittman was Pittman's mom and was a huge fan of his team wherever he was coaching. Her children gave Sam a Bulldogs blanket when he was at Georgia. Sam would often ask her about injuries and potential opponents. She passed away in March 2016. Ron Pittman stated that she died in March 2016. She hated losing. She was a great fan."

Despite Sam's successes, a job as a head coach was still elusive.

"There's this out-of-touch, played-out thought that you must be an offensive or defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach. This is something I disagree with," said Shane Beamer of South Carolina, who was a Georgia coach. It can be even more difficult for offensive line coaches, who are often pigeon-holed into thinking that they only know offensive play and how to coach the big men up front. It's not something you see very often, so I imagine a lot of offensive line coaches will admit it's a difficult battle. Sam has never had a problem with motivation and leadership.

Chad Morris was fired in August after starting with a 4-18 record in just two seasons. Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek wasn't the first to consider Pittman. Before hiring Pittman, the Razorbacks interviewed Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach before deciding to hire him. He was supported by many ex-Razorbacks players who played for him as the Hogs' offensive coach from 2013-15.

Yurachek stated that "very early on the process, several his former players reached out to him and expressed support for [him]". It speaks volumes to me that his former players, and not insignificant former players, supported him. Sam was a highly successful offensive line coach. However, our program was getting beaten in many places. But we were losing in the trenches. Sam was a skilled coach and knew how an offensive line is built. He also knew how to study defensive line lines. Sam understood the SEC recruiting process.

Yurachek says that Pittman was most interested in the Arkansas job, and was well aware of the difficulties involved in starting over.

Yurachek stated that Yurachek truly wanted to be a coach in Arkansas. He accepted the job even before I explained to him his salary. He was able to understand the SEC West's challenges. He was aware that we hadn't won an SEC championship in multiple seasons. He was able to see the roster. These were all factors that led to other coaches not being interested in our position. Sam was not deterred by any of these factors. He was a dream job, and he wanted Arkansas to be his head coach.

The Razorbacks are excited about their second-year coach. His first season was played in the middle COVID-19 fever. In the second game, his team ended a 20-game losing streak in SEC play. The Razorbacks were 3-7 against conference opponents. This was their highest win total in SEC since 2016, and the most wins overall since 2017. Arkansas is currently ranked at the top of the AP poll, having reached its highest position since September 2012 and reaching Georgia on Saturday.

Quinn Grovey, who was the last Arkansas quarterback to win consecutive conference titles in 1989 and 1988, said that Quinn Grovey was "the perfect fit." Quinn Grovey is also a color analyst for the team's radio station. He was a unique hire for most college football players, but he was the perfect fit for Arkansas. He is a man who cares, has a lot of experience, and loves Arkansas. He is a great fan of his university, and he was able to get to know it very well as an offensive line coach. He is a great guy and a wonderful person.

His family gathered at his Tulsa hospital bed shortly before Donald Pittman entered hospice care in January 2020. Ron Pittman recalls that his father was happy and remembered a lot of the things his children and family members had told him. They spoke about Sam and his experience as Arkansas' coach. Sam was greeted by his father as he entered the hospital. Don Pittman died on Jan. 16, 2020.

Ron Pittman stated that Dad told Sam he was proud to be his son. "I believe Sam needed that to hear that. Sam was able to see that Dad had recognized him and told him he was proud of him.