The Arkansas Razorbacks finished the season 3-7, but they were 10 points from being 6-4. For Coach Sam Pittman’s long-term job security, it was better that they were 3-7.
The Razorbacks had gone 2-10 the past two seasons, often looking embarrassingly overmatched. Former UA Athletic Director Frank Broyles’ worst nightmare had come true: Arkansas State probably was better.
The program reached such a low that Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek fired former coach Chad Morris with two games left in only his second season, triggering a $10 million buyout.
Pittman wasn’t the glamorous choice for a replacement, but he had two things going for him.
One, he had the support of players he had coached on the offensive line when he was an Arkansas assistant from 2013-15.
And two, he really wanted to be here. For him, this was not just another temporary coaching gig. He had grown up a Razorback fan in Grove, Oklahoma, about 75 miles from the university. His wife, Jamie, did not want to leave Fayetteville when Pittman moved to Georgia, a more elite program. They own a home on Lake Hamilton. He told ESPN that this, his first major college head coaching position, will be his last job.
The Razorbacks entered the season with low expectations and had to play an all-SEC schedule because of COVID-19. Based on the last two years, it was hard to see where any wins would come.
But in the first game, they led Georgia, 7-5, at halftime. They lost, 37-10, but Razorback fans finally had hope. The Hogs next beat Mississippi State and almost beat Auburn while being victimized by a referee’s botched early whistle that negated an Auburn fumble. After beating Ole Miss, losing to Texas A&M, and beating Tennessee, the Hogs were 3-3.
The season ended with four straight losses, two in close games. Then the Razorbacks’ trip to the Texas Bowl this week was cancelled because the opponent, Texas Christian, did not have enough players because of COVID and other issues.
For Pittman, this season was a great start. He restored hope without creating unrealistic expectations. If he had won six games, Hog fans would have expected more next year and championships soon after. A three-win season buys him time.
Unrealistic expectations can take the fun out of college football. Across the sport, the ratio of wins and losses mathematically must be equal, but every fan base expects more wins. Well, maybe not Vanderbilt’s.
Arkansas is not Vanderbilt, but neither is it Clemson. The program’s glory days are 50 years in the past. Arkansas is a small state that doesn’t produce many blue chip high school recruits. The team plays in the toughest conference’s toughest division alongside Alabama and LSU.
What’s realistic? If Pittman is successful, then most years the Hogs should win between three and five conference games and three or four nonconference games. They should beat all the lower-level nonconference teams, which Morris and his predecessor, Bret Bielema, couldn’t accomplish. They should go to bowl games most years, assuming those will still exist, and they should win about half of those.
In other words, in an average season they should win between six and eight games. In a bad year, they’ll win four or five. And occasionally – not often, but occasionally – they might have more experienced talent than usual, they might get a few breaks, and they’ll be in the national conversation.
If Hog fans expect that, then they can enjoy a fun 10-15 years with a good coach who is practically a hometown boy and loves the Razorbacks.
If they expect too much, then things might turn out like they did with the last good coach and hometown boy who loved the Razorbacks.
That would be Houston Nutt, whose successful first year created expectations he couldn’t meet. In 10 years, he led the program to a 75-48 record, and he won his last game against the nation’s number one team, LSU, on the road. But Hog fans weren’t satisfied, and he basically was run out of town. Since he left, the Hogs have been 74-86.
Unrealistic expectations not only take the fun out of things, but they also can lose you a lot of football games. Let’s hope Sam Pittman stays a while and then retires to Lake Hamilton a Razorback for life.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .