Why No. 18 Arkansas and Sam Pittman may surprise as feel-good story of the season

In December 2019, the southeast part of the United States was the epicenter of college football coaching insanity.

The job with the most sizzle was Florida State, a tradition-rich program that got rid of Willie Taggart quickly but wasn’t too far removed from winning a national title under Jimbo Fisher. There were intriguing jobs open at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, which both hit the reset button after their fan bases had checked out on Matt Luke and Joe Moorhead, respectively. Even Missouri looked like an enticing opportunity for someone to take the next step, as Barry Odom had done a decent job but gotten stuck around .500.

And then there was Arkansas, which was considered the booby prize of the coaching carousel. Sure, the Hogs had money, facilities and a passionate fan base. But after just two years of Chad Morris, the Razorbacks looked like one of the most hopeless teams in the country. Trying to rebuild in the SEC West when you’ve got Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn on the schedule every single year looked like a daunting proposition.

While Arkansas officials were flying all over the country only to get rejected by the likes of Lane Kiffin and Eli Drinkwitz — who ended up filling some of those other SEC jobs — Sam Pittman was pulling every lever he could to get in the mix.

At 58 years old, Pittman had never been a Division I head coach or a coordinator. He was a renowned offensive line coach and recruiter but wasn’t even really mentioned as a candidate for any of the openings worth discussing. But now, just over a year into his tenure at Arkansas, he looks like one of the best coaching hires of the last decade.

Go figure.

After yet another tremendous performance, this time beating No. 5 Texas A&M 20-10, the No. 18 Razorbacks are 4-0 and appear headed toward the Top 10. More significantly, the way they’re doing it with defense, with physicality, with confidence and speed seems very much for real.

Is Arkansas a College Football Playoff contender? Probably not. We’ll learn a lot more about where the Razorbacks stack up to the truly elite teams next Saturday when they go to No. 2 Georgia.

But what Pittman has done in a short period of time, the way he’s completely flipped the energy around that program and coaxed improvement out of players who were getting beat by everyone a couple years ago, is a great template for the administrators who have to make coaching hires — and, frankly, a warning for those of us who comment on them moments after they happen.

Sam Pittman, hired two years ago, took a job no one wanted and has put Arkansas back on the map in the SEC.

Pittman wasn’t a hot name on the coaching carousel. He didn’t have the kind of pedigree that most people look for sliding into high-level coaching jobs. He’s not young or slick or elegant, and he wasn’t represented by one of the big-name agents who get their clients talked about in those circles. In those articles that come out every season grading the coaching hires, Pittman didn’t exactly get a lot of A’s.

He just turned out to be a terrific head coach who managed to get a locker room full of downtrodden but talented players to buy in, play really hard and get a whole lot better.

Who knew?

Even Arkansas can’t claim that they saw this coming. Athletics director Hunter Yurachek pursued all the same names that Missouri and the Mississippi schools were after but couldn’t get any of them across the finish line. Literally the day before they settled on Pittman, Arkansas officials were hoping to lure Drinkwitz. In some ways, Pittman ended up with the job because they were tired of being told no.

But Pittman, who had been at Arkansas as the offensive line coach under Bret Bielema and comes from nearby in Oklahoma, saw the possibilities in the place. It’s worth remembering that before 2012, Arkansas had been one of the more consistently good programs in the SEC for a long stretch under Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino.

It’s not always easy at Arkansas because you need to go into Texas and other surrounding areas to get talent, but there’s something to be said for being a program without any in-state competition from other major college or pro teams. Arkansas isn’t the biggest state, but its people care deeply about the Razorbacks and support them almost unanimously.

And now, just two years after going winless in the SEC and losing to the likes of San Jose State, they have legitimate reasons to be excited.

In a game played annually in the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Arkansas looked like it was on a path toward blowing past Texas A&M with a 17-0 lead after just 16 minutes. Then massive 6-foot-3, 245-pound quarterback KJ Jefferson left the game with a knee injury, the offense stalled and the Aggies got back within a touchdown going into the fourth quarter.

But one of the best decisions Pittman made when he got the job was hiring Odom, the former Missouri coach, as his defensive coordinator. Odom may not have been a great head coach, but he’s one of the best at designing defenses and adjusting throughout games.

Arkansas, which pretty much suffocated Texas’ passing game a couple weeks ago, did the same thing to the Aggies in holding them to 272 total yards and just 151 passing.

Without Jefferson, Arkansas kept things pretty conservative — the Razorbacks threw the ball just 19 times Saturday — but never let the game get out of their control. Arkansas was more physical than Texas A&M, played smarter than Texas A&M and looked legitimately better than a Texas A&M team that hadn’t lost to anyone ranked outside of the Top 10 since Nov. 3, 2018.

A year ago, there were signs that Pittman was onto something when Arkansas got early wins over Mississippi State and Ole Miss and played quite competitively against Auburn and Texas A&M. Now, it looks like Arkansas has lucked into a truly program-changing hire. And it just happens to be a journeyman offensive line coach nobody else would have even conceived of giving an SEC head coaching job.

That isn’t just a great story — it’s a lesson for the entire industry.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Arkansas off to 4-0 start under coach it didn’t want