Arkansas’ Sam Pittman’s journey reunites him with Georgia, Kirby Smart

ATHENS — Sam Pittman doesn’t like to dive into the minutiae of his original departure from Arkansas to join Kirby Smart’s first staff at Georgia. Those moments, however, aren’t forgotten easily.

Smart had an eye on the future. He began to make connections well before he took the Georgia job, and met with Pittman when Arkansas and Alabama squared off in 2014. Alabama tried to hire Pittman on its staff multiple times during Smart’s tenure, but couldn’t lure him away from the Razorbacks. Smart, however, had Pittman as his No. 1 target for quite some time.

“When I get a job, I’m going to make it hard for you not to go with me,” Smart said on the grass in Fayetteville, as Pittman recalled.

“Go look at the tape before you go saying all of that stuff,” Pittman replied.

The two coaches exchanged pleasantries when the teams reunited in Tuscaloosa in 2015. Smart put the bug in Pittman’s ear yet again, then action took place at the conclusion of that season. Georgia dismissed Mark Richt and honed in on Smart as its next leader, and the new Bulldogs coach put a priority on hiring those he saw as the game’s best assistant coaches.

He knew where to turn.

Pittman planted his roots in Arkansas. He became a beloved figure across Arkansas’ program, but he always had some attraction to the Bulldogs. As a young kid at Grove (Okla.) High School, he remembered watching Vince Dooley’s 1980 national championship team. His memories were attached to running back Herschel Walker, who the now-experienced football coach viewed as “the biggest, fastest guy I’d ever seen.”

He saw the potential for Georgia to rise into an elite program under Smart, too. He knew Georgia played in the SEC East, so the path might be a bit easier. Despite some last-minute pleas from former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and a few of his linemen, Pittman made contact with Smart’s agent and soon made the move to Athens for a four-year stint. He reached his ultimate goal of coaching in a national title game in 2017, the eventual loss to Alabama in Atlanta.

“I told Jamie (his wife), that’s what we’re going to do,” Pittman said. “In the business, once you say you’re leaving, you’re leaving. There’s no, ‘Hey, let me think about it’ once you say that.”

A few years and unexpected developments later, Pittman is an offensive-line coach turned head coach who has led No. 8 Arkansas to a 4-0 record in his second season, and returns to Athens for the first time for a marquee Saturday showdown against Georgia (noon, ESPN).

Pittman already has made his mark as Arkansas’ leader after finding success in the transfer portal and having the benefit of 13 “super-seniors” (those who returned after the pandemic-shortened season for an extra season of eligibility). His influence, though, continues to be felt in Athens, where he helped Smart build Georgia into the consistent power it has become.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him,” senior offensive guard Justin Shaffer said. “He taught me a lot. Business is business and he moved on, but he’s got a place in my heart.”

Not only is his impact made with Georgia’s offensive linemen whom he recruited, but in the ways he instilled an “optimistic, positive culture,” Smart said, into the program. He recruited all five of Georgia’s current offensive line starters. He has a slew of high-round NFL draftees — Andrew Thomas, Isaiah Wilson, Solomon Kindley, Trey Hill and Ben Cleveland — that Georgia can use to its recruiting advantage.

Now, all of those linemen have been avid supporters of Pittman in his new journey at Arkansas. Former Bulldog reserve lineman Koby Pyrz said Pittman’s personality and connection to his players has “instilled a sense of pride” into the Razorbacks program.

“He’s a tremendous leader of men, and that’s the No. 1 discipline we are charged with,” Smart said. “How do you lead your men and how much do they believe in you? That, he’s got the ultimate going on right now. One-hundred percent, those men in that locker room believe in Sam Pittman and what he tells them.”

Pittman took plenty of tidbits away from his time at Georgia. He learned the importance of practice organization and the value of strong assistant coaches. Smart would put a number of demands, as Pittman put it, on his assistants for them to do their best work. Smart’s result-driven personality led to plenty of wins for the Bulldogs over Pittman’s four-year stay.

In return, Smart welcomed Pittman’s calming approach. If any anxieties persisted before a game or practice, anyone inside the football offices could turn to Pittman for a positive spin on a situation.

He made his players feel valued, too. It didn’t matter whether a Bulldog had an everyday starting assignment or seldom saw the field but worked daily on the scout team. Pyrz came to Georgia in 2016 and took on the tireless assignments of scout-team drills that happened behind the scenes and never saw the spotlight. Pittman knew that would change in 2019, Pyrz’s final season with the Bulldogs.

Georgia prepared for a non-conference game against Arkansas State, one that the Bulldogs won 55-0 at Sanford Stadium. Pittman knew that it might be an opportunity for reserves to get some in-game reps. He also knew Pyrz hadn’t played in a game yet.

“He said, ‘Go call your family and tell them to get here,’” Pyrz said. “It showed he cared so much. A lot of thankless work goes on during the season, and he never let it go unnoticed.”

Ahead of Saturday’s game, Pittman and Smart reflected on their four years together. They smiled while reminiscing, and Pittman giggled a time or two about how his Arkansas-based journey took a stop a few hundred miles to the east in Athens. He had passions for Georgia that dated to his younger days as a high schooler, after all.

That will all be set to the side by Saturday’s noon kickoff, where Pittman returns to a familiar place with hopes of continuing a storybook run that has similarities to Georgia’s surge in Smart’s second season in 2017.

Georgia’s early rise might not have been possible if Smart hadn’t hired Pittman, the coach he had his eye on well before returning to his alma mater.

“I was very fortunate to be there for four years and learn from him,” Pittman said of Smart.