By Nate Allen
Special to The Globe
Even though he grew up in the Sooner state, Sam Pittman admits that he was an Arkansas Razorbacks fan.
Now, Pittman is a member of the Arkansas staff, joining new head coach Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks as offensive line coach in December.
Pittman grew up near Arkansas in Grove, Okla., played just two states north in southeast Kansas at Pittsburg State, student-taught just 90 miles north of Fayetteville in Joplin, coached high school in Trenton, Mo. and Princeton, Mo. and Beggs, Okla. and junior college ball in Hutchinson, Kan. His college coaching career includes leading offensive linemen at Kansas and at universities whose states border Arkansas, including Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Pittman said he attended Razorbacks football camps during the Lou Holtz era and that he has Arkansas relatives living in Russellville.
“It was between my junior and senior year in high school and three of us Grove, Okla. boys came to the Lou Holtz camp,” Pittman recalled. “We thought maybe we’d have an opportunity to play for Arkansas. But Lou Holtz and those guys decided they’d be better off if we didn’t. They probably made a good decision. I wasn’t good enough to play there. But I got me one of those Hog bobbleheads and the whole nine yards. We were excited to come to the games.”
Pittman said he and his wife, Jamie, a Pittsburg native, were elated at his Arkansas hiring.
“Certainly of all the places in the country, the University of Arkansas is where my wife and I wanted to be,” Pittman said. “We’re very fortunate.”
Even more fortunate lately. Arkansas already upped Pittman’s salary as he stayed put despite being courted by national champion Alabama to coach the Tide’s offensive line.
Mention Alabama’s courtship and Pittman quickly emphasizes past tense.
“Bama’s got the guy they wanted,” Pittman said, “and I believe they are happy with him, and hopefully Arkansas got the guy they wanted, too, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Pittman said he came happily to Arkansas and intends to keep it that way.
He has a reputation of performing well, starting with his playing days at Pittsburg State when he converted from a high school running back to an NAIA All-American defensive end.
“That was a great experience,” Pittman said, noting he still keeps up with the Pittsburg State Gorillas and has spoken at clinics at Pittsburg State and that “the Pitt State staff came down to watch us practice.”
The former Grove running back and Pittsburg State defensive end transitioned into an offensive line coach.
“My dad was a coach,” Pittman said. “And when I got my first head coaching job at Princeton, Mo., he said, ‘If you are ever going to learn to be a good coach you need to learn everything about the O-line.’ My brother, Ron, had played offensive line and he started teaching me and I coached the O-line and it just stuck.”
Pittman has inherited a big-time senior center at Arkansas. Travis Swanson was second-team All-SEC in 2012 even as the Razorbacks struggled to a 4-8 record under former interim coach John L. Smith.
“Honestly on film I knew he was a good player, but I didn’t know he is as good as what he is,” Pittman said upon coaching Swanson and the Arkansas line in spring drills.
Pittman said he is a potential All-American and and Rimington Award candidate.
“I think he should be,” Pittman said. “If he can be the best center in this league, he can be one of the best if not the best in the country. You couldn’t have a better representative as a man, either. It depends how he plays whether he earns it or not, but he is certainly capable of doing that.”
The Razorbacks coaching staff combined to make the major move of the spring, switching powerful 317-pound junior tackle Brey Cook inside to the right guard spot and replacing him at right tackle with lighter but faster sophomore Grady Ollison.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” Pittman said. “But our entire athleticism on the O-line has to improve for us to be really successful. We have to speed up the guys we currently have and get some athletic guys in the next classes.”