How Sam Pittman and his fellow Arkansas coaches ushered in a historic athletic period



In September 2021, Sam Pittman smiled as he sat on the desk for his postgame interview after Arkansas beat Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, ending a nine-year shedding streak to the Aggies, their longtime SEC (and SWC) rivals.

Pittman took within the significance of the win, a momentous hurdle cleared in his rebuild of a Razorbacks soccer program that had received seven video games and misplaced 27 within the earlier three seasons, two 2-10 seasons below Chad Morris and one 3-7 season in Pittman’s first yr.

He pointed to the again of the room, to 2 males he stated had impressed him.

“I believe that is what ought to occur at Arkansas,” Pittman stated. “I am not saying we must always win each sport. However we are the College of Arkansas. Whenever you have a look at Eric and Dave, they’re doing it … [softball coach Courtney] Deifel, all people. College of Arkansas, it ought to occur to us.”

Eric and Dave, as in Eric Musselman and Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks’ males’s basketball and baseball coaches, who had been visitors of Pittman on the sideline throughout the sport towards Texas A&M.

Then they confirmed up alongside Jamie Pittman, Sam’s spouse, who attends all his information conferences — a basketball coach who had knocked No. 1 seed Gonzaga out of the NCAA event months earlier, and a baseball coach whose final two full seasons had led to School World Collection appearances.

It isn’t your typical scene in a postgame interview. Besides at Arkansas.

Pittman, Musselman and Van Horn are the one triumvirate within the nation to win a bowl sport, make it to an Elite Eight and go to a baseball tremendous regional on the identical faculty final yr. It is a part of an even bigger sample of camaraderie — and success — that has made for some heady occasions in Fayetteville.

For one, Pittman won’t want the additional mojo this yr towards the Aggies. A yr after breaking the streak, the Hogs are ranked No. 10 heading into this yr’s Southwest Traditional towards the No. 23 Aggies at AT&T Stadium (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

However throughout the board, that is essentially the most profitable two-year stretch for Razorback athletics in class historical past. Arkansas received 18 SEC championships in that span (Alabama and Florida are tied for second with seven every). The Hogs completed seventh within the Administrators’ Cup, awarded to essentially the most profitable athletic applications in school sports activities, final yr. It was their highest end ever and second amongst all SEC groups after they completed eighth the yr earlier than, the varsity’s first top-10 end ever.

What is going on on at Arkansas? Contained in the division, coaches say that scene in Arlington final yr is an enormous a part of the rationale. You will not discover any public squabbling or jealousy between coaches. The Razorbacks’ 15 head coaches that characterize 19 sports activities — and their assistant coaches, and all of the coaches’ spouses — are their very own little hype squad. They go to dinners, comedy golf equipment and events collectively. A bunch chat explodes in celebratory texts anytime a coach will get an enormous win. Everybody participates and everybody cheers one another on.

All of the coaches, males’s and ladies’s, younger and previous, are linked not like wherever else they’ve ever been, they are saying. It is all a dream situation for athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who all the time envisioned a division with this kind of concord, however stated it did not ever fairly come collectively at his earlier stops as an AD. But it surely seems it is rather a lot simpler when your soccer coach is somebody as easygoing and personable as Pittman.

“Whenever you’re within the SEC and you’ve got a head soccer coach like that at your establishment — and I can solely converse to Sam — that has a cascading impact amongst your complete division,” Yurachek stated. “There’s only a completely different air round right here now.”

Pittman seems again now and wonders what the massive deal is, though he additionally admits he cannot bear in mind seeing an identical scenario earlier than at any of his 16 earlier stops.

“It was a particular second for me as head coach,” he stated. “I imply it is Dave Van Horn and Eric Musselman — my god — and it was actually particular to have them each down there.”

WHEN MUSSELMAN ARRIVED at Arkansas in 2019, he stated it was obvious that he was in elite firm when the workers obtained along with Yurachek.

“I used to be sitting round at our first assembly, and I grabbed my telephone. I texted my spouse, ‘Hey, I am sitting right here, and all people in right here has achieved greater than I’ve,” Musselman stated. “It isn’t stress, but when different persons are profitable, you gotta maintain up your finish of the cut price, proper? It elevates you. It is arduous to chill out and be comfy if everybody round you is profitable at a excessive degree.”

Van Horn is an Arkansas grad, and 796 of his 1,167 profession wins have come as head coach of the Razorbacks, together with seven journeys to the School World Collection since he took over in 2003. Ladies’s monitor coach Lance Harter is an eight-time NCAA coach of the yr and 44-time SEC coach of the yr (amongst indoor, outside and cross-country seasons). His counterpart on the lads’s aspect, Chris Bucknam, has been named the SEC’s greatest coach 27 occasions. Soccer coach Colby Hale has led the Razorbacks to eight NCAA event appearances, the one ones in class historical past.

And Deifel, whom Pittman talked about in that information convention, took over a softball program that went 1-23 within the SEC the yr earlier than she arrived and simply received her second straight SEC title, going 48-11 final yr.

“I’ve by no means skilled this wherever I have been,” Deifel stated. “It is simply actually supportive. Like volleyball simply had their largest win since 2007 and the [text] thread simply blows up. It isn’t the norm.”

Even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stated Arkansas has all the time had its strengths, however that he has been impressed with the transformation taking place now.

“They’ve made any variety of contributions over their historical past within the SEC,” he stated, citing the monitor and baseball applications. “They’re ranked now [in football] and it is enjoyable to see what Sam’s accomplished. After they went by means of change in soccer and males’s basketball, went by means of change in girls’s basketball, it has been each fascinating and enjoyable to see a variety of issues jell concurrently.”

Yurachek stated the combo of personalities of his coaches has been an ideal mix, a supply of delight for him in his third cease as an athletic director after stints at Coastal Carolina and Houston.

“It is only a actually particular vibe that we have now amongst our head coaches,” he stated. “And there is not one in all them that I do not take pleasure in going out to dinner with them and their partner, and that has not all the time been the case.”

And Sankey has seen that, too.

“I went to a baseball sport in February and Sam was there. Later that night time, I went to dinner and Muss was there, Dave was there, Sam was there, all with their wives and Hunter and [his wife] Jennifer.”

You will not discover any public squabbles like at Kentucky this yr, when John Calipari raised the ire of soccer coach Mark Stoops by saying that Kentucky was “a basketball faculty” after a brand new soccer facility was accepted. Calipari needed enhancements of his personal.

“There’s jealousies at locations and I simply do not suppose it is tolerated right here,” Musselman stated basically, not within the path of Kentucky. “I do not ever hear our assistants say something about ‘we do not have this,’ you already know? Observe’s obtained a brand-new facility. We’re comfortable for them. It is friggin’ superior. Baseball’s obtained a tunnel [that connects a new $27 million facility to the dugout]. It is spectacular. It is freaking nice.”

At many faculties, essentially the most publicly outstanding coaches, just like the soccer and basketball coaches, have relationships and develop into shut. However at Arkansas, they’re all a part of the membership.

“The great factor is that Muss and Sam and Dave know what they imply to the division, however they do not include any ego, which is fairly unimaginable,” Deifel stated.

Musselman stated soccer defensive coordinator Barry Odom comes by his workplace to speak store. Hale brings soccer recruits over to the basketball places of work and has invited Musselman to come back coach his crew for a day simply to combine it up. In return, Musselman requested Hale to point out him his Zoom shows he does for his gamers’ mother and father, a observe the basketball program has since adopted.

“There’s not something that you are going by means of that somebody hasn’t gone by means of,” Deifel stated. “It is simply good to have the ability to ask them for recommendation for something. It is also good to simply take heed to them and listen to their perspective. You then’re speaking and also you’re listening to Sam and Muss’ perspective of how they must stability an entire completely different degree and you may be supportive of one another and you already know what they are going by means of.”

And it would not damage when the soccer coach occurs to be the most effective recruiters within the nation.

“He is my go-to right here,” Deifel stated, saying she and Pittman even spoke every day throughout her current contract negotiations — a five-year extension. “He’s greater than keen to satisfy with anyone, anytime. He’ll come out a couple of minutes early to the [softball] sport and he’ll stroll straight over throughout the sideline and meet our recruits and speak with us and say, ‘Hey, Hannah,’ to our third baseman, as a result of he is aware of our gamers.”

Deifel and Pittman have a bond. She was employed when he was the Razorbacks’ offensive line coach on Bret Bielema’s workers, and immediately was drawn to Pittman. She obtained her want when Yurachek employed him to return as head coach. They’ve watched one another take over unattainable jobs and switch them round. She’ll inform Pittman what he is doing is exceptional, and he’ll remind her it is nothing that she hasn’t accomplished herself.

“He is unimaginable. I believe the world of him,” she stated. “He is been an enormous, enormous advocate for softball. I do not suppose you see many soccer coaches as regulars at their softball stadiums figuring out each participant’s identify. After we had been lined as much as play Texas this yr within the [super regionals] he was my first textual content. He was monitoring that Texas was enjoying Washington after which he knew that we obtained the winner of that. And when Texas received, my first textual content was from Sam, saying ‘Horns Down.’ It isn’t simply simply when it is handy. I believe that is essentially the most spectacular piece of it. He has a approach of constructing all people really feel like an important factor to him at the moment. And he is simply as genuine as may be.”

Earlier this season, when Arkansas kicked off the season towards Cincinnati, Pittman made his entrance onto the sphere for pregame warmups, waved to the followers after which turned and headed straight for Deifel, who was on the sphere earlier than the sport with a bunch of recruits (she presently has the No. 2 recruiting class for the 2023 season, in response to Softball America). She stated Pittman usually tells her he simply hopes they win so there is a good ambiance for her prospects.

“He is fully modified all the things,” she stated. “Now we’re getting calls from our gamers going, ‘Can our recruits storm the sphere?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, go for it!'”

Whereas Deifel and Pittman had been speaking, Musselman went from the sideline up into a spot in the student section.

“There is no approach I might miss a soccer sport,” Musselman stated. “I am not lacking the sport. I am with the baseball crew in Omaha. I am going it doesn’t matter what, I will work out my schedule round that. I simply suppose when you’re [coaching] in school, that is what you must wish to do.”

DAVID BAZZEL CAME from Florida to play linebacker for Lou Holtz at Arkansas within the Nineteen Eighties, and was named the 1984 Liberty Bowl MVP with 15 tackles towards an Auburn crew led by Bo Jackson. He has stayed in Fayetteville and develop into a fixture in Arkansas as a radio and TV character and created the Broyles Award, named for legendary Razorbacks coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, to honor the very best assistant coach within the nation.

Bazzel, who’s lived by means of the glory days of Broyles and Holtz and Ken Hatfield, cannot consider the distinction Pittman has made.

“It was so dangerous,” Bazzel stated, “I imply, it was the worst within the historical past of this system these final two years of Chad [Morris], so for it to so shortly flip round, it is simply astonishing. I bear in mind saying, I do know that is dangerous. It is horrible, nevertheless it’s gonna make profitable a lot sweeter. That is what’s occurred.”

Yurachek stated being the one Energy 5 program within the state, and the state having no skilled groups, implies that the Razorbacks’ struggles hit the followers arduous.

“Individuals have instructed me the temper within the state has modified since our soccer program went from consecutive 2-10 seasons to the 9-4 season that we had final yr,” he stated. “So I believe this college and its athletic division has such a particular impact on this state.”

The state is swelling with delight. And so is the college. In 2019, Arkansas welcomed 4,600 in its freshman class. This yr, it had a file of seven,400.

“I am not going to say it is all tied to the success of our athletic program, the success for our soccer program, however you may draw some correlations to that in my view,” Yurachek stated.

Bazzel stated the across-the-board success in Fayetteville is exceptional, significantly at a program that had begun to really feel like a misplaced trigger within the grueling SEC West.

“I simply suppose the celebrities have aligned in Arkansas,” he stated. “You are not Notre Dame, you do not have the historical past of Alabama, haven’t got the cash of Texas or A&M, so I believe folks kind of realized that there is power in one another.”

Musselman marvels on the delight of the locals, saying he laughs each time he pulls into campus and sees the sheer quantity of Razorbacks shirts on college students.

“When you drive on the UCLA campus, that is not the case,” he stated. “I imply, if I am going to eat tonight, within the restaurant I assure there’s going to be 10 to fifteen those that have a Razorback [logo] on for a dinner at a pleasant restaurant.”

After a lifetime principally spent as an offensive line coach, apart from just a few seasons early in his profession as a highschool and junior school head coach, Pittman lastly obtained this chance to teach on the massive stage with the Razorbacks at 58 and stated he feels a way of accountability.

“It is a very distinctive state, a really proud state,” he stated. “They’re happy with their soccer program and so they deserve soccer crew. In fact, they deserve all sports activities. However one of many essential issues I needed to do as a workers and gamers is to make the state happy with the soccer crew. And I do not know if we’re there or not, however I do know we’re rather a lot nearer than what we had been, and that is an awesome feeling to be sincere with you. I imply, it is a fantastic feeling.”

And he could be the most well-liked coach at a spot the place all of the Razorbacks coaches are on the prime of their sport.

“We concentrate,” Bazzel stated. “The Razorback model in Arkansas is greater than Walmart. We actually put our coaches on a pedestal. He may run for governor proper now and win.”

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