Sam Pittman is Arkansas football jukebox hero, rebuilt the Razorbacks

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The original jukebox was not actually a jukebox.

This is the first thing you need to know.

The second thing to know about the Arkansas football coach Sam PitmanThe now legendary quote, “Turn on that damn jukebox!” is that he never expected those words to become a slogan that would end up on the front of Razorbacks T-shirts.

As Pittman finished his remarks in the locker room after Arkansas win in October 2020 over Mississippi Statehe could tell his players were eager to celebrate their first SEC win in nearly three years. Pittman had spotted in the locker room what he would call a jukebox at the time and later described as a boombox. (It was a Bluetooth speaker.)

He spoke the instruction for the players to throw the tunes.

“The kids were dancing, having fun,” Pittman, 60, recalled this summer during an interview in his office. “Not two or three days later I got a shirt from Nike that said, ‘Turn on that damn jukebox. “”

It counts. Pittman is the Pied Piper here.

Now, it’s a tradition for Pittman to call the music to cap off his postgame victory speech.

“We can’t wait to be there,” quarterback KJ Jefferson says, “like, hey, we have to win so we can turn on the jukebox.”

When the Razorbacks hired Pittman after the 2019 season, he took the reins of a program that had tallied four wins in two seasons under Chad Morris.

arkansas athletic director Yurachek Hunter spoke with several coaching candidates who expressed pessimism about the Razorbacks’ chances of success.

Not Pitman. He dreamed of having the opportunity to coach the university he hoped to play for.

Pittman instilled a brave attitude in the Razorbacks while being guided by an unwavering mission: “To make the people of Arkansas State proud of our football team,” Pittman said.

After two seasons under Pittman, pride is restored and expectations rise.

The Razorbacks are armed with talented veterans like Jefferson, linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon, as well as high-impact transfers, headlined by Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders and Alabama wide receiver Jadon Haselwood. ‘Oklahoma.

Arkansas will face one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but is likely to be seeded in the preseason after a nine-win season.

These aren’t the downed Razorbacks that Pittman inherited.

“We can beat the big dogs,” Jefferson said.

Sam Pittman answered the call of Arkansas football

Pittman began to make peace with the idea that Arkansas might ignore him. Communication from Arkansas had fallen silent during the final leg of its 2019 coaching search, and Pittman spoke with his wife, Jamie, about not receiving an offer, while trying to look on the bright side.

Pittman had established himself as one of the nation’s most highly regarded offensive line coaches and a skilled scout. He was earning a good salary on Kirby Smart’s team in Georgia, which was going to the Sugar Bowl.

“Instead of saying ‘Why not me? Why not me in Arkansas? I (said to Jamie): “We have to be really grateful for what we have,” Pittman said.

A few hours later, the phone rang.

Arkansas wanted Pittman.

Pittman’s only head coaching experience had been decades before in the high school and college ranks. He had never been Division I coordinator.

Conventional wisdom said it was an unconventional hire, but Arkansas wasn’t the most attractive job out there, and Pittman’s optimistic outlook resonated with Yurachek.

“A lot of coaches I’ve talked to have said, ‘You can’t win at the University of Arkansas. I don’t think I can make it to the University of Arkansas. It’s an uphill battle in the SEC West,” Yurachek said. “Sam Pittman never told me any of those things. He told me how you could win at the University of Arkansas.

Emotional moment for Sam Pittman, then tears of joy from Arkansas fans

Pittman wanted to be a Razorback since high school.

A native of western Oklahoma, Pittman grew up a Sooners fan, like his father, Don, but was exposed to the Razorbacks fandom through his cousins ​​and uncle. , Lester, who lived in Dover, Arkansas.

“Their passion for Arkansas was so great it was almost weird,” Pittman said of his uncle and cousins. “You walked into their house, and they had little Hog things everywhere.”

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When Arkansas and Oklahoma played in the 1978 Orange Bowl, Don and Lester placed a bet on the game, which resulted in Don donning an Arkansas hat, holding a ceramic pig and posing for a photo with a stark look as a penalty after the Razorbacks. Triumph 31-6.

Pittman took a closer look at Razorbacks after the family moved east, and he attended Grove High School, 15 miles from the Arkansas border. He went to a few Razorbacks games, and the summer before his senior year, he attended coach Lou Holtz’s football camp in Arkansas in hopes of receiving a scholarship offer.

The camp included soccer lessons during the day before spending the night playing basketball, tug-of-war, flag football and volleyball.

“It was a great camp. I loved it,” Pittman said.

Still, he returned home without a scholarship offer, and Pittman instead played defensive end at Pittsburg State, an NAIA program in Kansas that is now Division II.

Pittman developed a deeper affinity for Arkansas during his three seasons on Bret Bielema’s team, and he was hit with a flurry of emotions during the press conference introducing him as the Razorbacks’ coach. .

Pittman felt honored by the trust Yurachek and the university had placed in him. He was grateful for the opportunity to bring Jamie closer to his native Pittsburgh, where they met. He thought of his parents. Pittman’s mother, Jackie, had died a few years prior, while his father suffered from dementia and died weeks after Pittman was hired. Above all, Pittman felt grateful to finally have that chance — to a place where he felt he belonged.

“I don’t have the best grammar. I’m not the prettiest head coach you can hire. I’m country,” Pittman said. “And…I can be comfortable with all of these things, because the state will accept me as long as I’m authentic.”

Pittman’s word became gospel. After calling Arkansas “damn proud statewhen it was introduced, this line was slapped on T-shirts. Then came the jukebox slogan.

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Heck, it was enough to beat Ole Miss in its first season to bring fans to tears of joy.

As Pittman left the field at Razorback Stadium in October 2020 after a 33-21 win over the rebels, he did not understand why the students were crying in the stands. His communications chief, Kyle Parkinson, reminded Pittman that the Razorbacks haven’t won an SEC home game in nearly four years.

More jubilation came throughout Pittman’s sophomore season, when the Razorbacks beat rivals Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri.

“We are not happy at all with what happened last year,” Pool said. “We are happy with the victories we have achieved, but our goals are much higher.”

A ‘big deal’ for quarterback KJ Jefferson

I’m three words into my question about Jefferson when Pittman interjects. He doesn’t need another invitation to start discussing his quarterback, who flourished last season in his first year as an Arkansas starter.

“He’s perfect for our offense,” Pittman said of the 245-pound dual threat. “Great kid. Big deal. Big deal getting him back.”

A year ago, this time around, few people outside of Arkansas knew how important Jefferson would become. In last summer’s 247Sports ranking of SEC starting quarterbacks, Jefferson ranked last.

A year later, Jefferson ranks fifth on USA TODAY Network’s SEC Quarterback Hierarchy (he was No. 2 on my ballot), and he’s a Heisman Trophy dark horse.

How much does Arkansas like Jefferson?

Pittman says the non-contact jersey quarterbacks wear in practice is foreign to Jefferson. His teammates wouldn’t think of hitting their quarterback.

“To me, it’s Arkansas,” Pittman said. “It’s us.”

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In the era of transfer quarterbacks, Jefferson served two seasons as a backup, including as a 2020 understudy for veteran Florida transfer Feleipe Franks, whom Jefferson considers invaluable to his growth.

Jefferson remains an unfinished product. He is aiming to improve his progressions all over the pitch after showing his deep ball artistry last season. Pittman hopes to see him improve in short-range situations and threaten defenses even more with his legs after rushing for 664 yards last season.

Losing All-SEC wide receiver Treylon Burks, an NFL first-round draft pick from the Tennessee Titans, will be a hurdle, but Arkansas is armed with playmakers like Haselwood and running backs Dominique Johnson and Raheim Sanders, who helped Arkansas lead the SEC in rushing last season.

It all starts at quarterback, though.

“We know who our field general is,” Pool said.

Sam Pittman is a hit at Arkansas

A Rock-Ola jukebox in Sam Pittman's office in Arkansas features music from artists like Fleetwood Mac, George Strait and Garth Brooks.

A real jukebox (not a boombox or Bluetooth speaker) sits in the corner of Pittman’s office, a gift from his agent in 2020.

The Rock Ola Fireball features tunes from Fleetwood Mac, George Strait and Garth Brooks, and its volume can rock the football setup.

Fittingly, Pittman’s jukebox is an old-school model that plays CDs rather than a pivot to the digital age.

The Arkansas coach instilled a blue-collar, work-snack mentality that was embraced by his players and welcomed by fans.

And they’re all waiting for the Head Hog to signal the next song.

Blake Topmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this.

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