In September 2021, Sam Pittman smiled as he sat at the table for his postgame interview after Arkansas beat Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, ending a nine-year losing streak to the Aggies, their longtime SEC (and SWC) rivals.
Pittman took in the significance of the win, a momentous hurdle cleared in his rebuild of a Razorbacks football program that had won seven games and lost 27 in the previous three seasons, two 2-10 seasons under Chad Morris and one 3-7 season in Pittman’s first year.
He pointed to the back of the room, to two men he said had inspired him.
“I think this is what should happen at Arkansas,” Pittman said. “I’m not saying we should win every game. But we’re the University of Arkansas. When you look at Eric and Dave, they’re doing it … [softball coach Courtney] Deifel, everybody. University of Arkansas, it should happen to us.”
Eric and Dave, as in Eric Musselman and Dave Van Horn, the Razorbacks’ men’s basketball and baseball coaches, who had been guests of Pittman on the sideline during the game against Texas A&M.
Then they showed up alongside Jamie Pittman, Sam’s wife, who attends all his news conferences — a basketball coach who had just made a deep run in the NCAA tournament months earlier, and a baseball coach who made three College World Series appearances in his past four full seasons.
It’s not your typical scene in a postgame interview. Except at Arkansas.
Pittman, Musselman and Van Horn are the only triumvirate in the country to win a bowl game, make it to an Elite Eight and go to a baseball super regional at the same school last year. It’s part of a bigger pattern of camaraderie — and success — that has made for some heady times in Fayetteville.
For one, Pittman might not need the extra mojo this year against the Aggies. A year after breaking the streak, the Hogs are ranked No. 10 heading into this year’s Southwest Classic against the No. 23 Aggies at AT&T Stadium (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
But across the board, this is the most successful two-year stretch for Razorback athletics in school history. Arkansas won 18 SEC championships in that span (Alabama and Florida are tied for second with seven each). The Hogs finished seventh in the Directors’ Cup, awarded to the most successful athletic programs in college sports, last year. It was their highest finish ever and second among all SEC teams after they finished eighth the year before, the school’s first top-10 finish ever.
What’s going on at Arkansas? Inside the department, coaches say that scene in Arlington last year is a big part of the reason. You won’t find any public squabbling or jealousy between coaches. The Razorbacks’ 15 head coaches that represent 19 sports — and their assistant coaches, and all the coaches’ spouses — are their own little hype squad. They go to dinners, comedy clubs and parties together. A group chat explodes in celebratory texts anytime a coach gets a big win. Everyone participates and everyone cheers each other on.
All the coaches, men’s and women’s, young and old, are connected unlike anywhere else they’ve ever been, they say. It’s all a dream scenario for athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who always envisioned a department with this sort of harmony, but said it didn’t ever quite come together at his previous stops as an AD. But it turns out it’s a lot easier when your football coach is someone as easygoing and personable as Pittman.
“When you’re in the SEC and you have a head football coach like that at your institution — and I can only speak to Sam — that has a cascading effect among your entire department,” Yurachek said. “There’s just a different air around here now.”
Pittman looks back now and wonders what the big deal is, although he also admits he can’t remember seeing a similar situation before at any of his 16 previous stops.
“It was a special moment for me as head coach,” he said. “I mean it’s Dave Van Horn and Eric Musselman — my god — and it was really special to have them both down there.”
WHEN MUSSELMAN ARRIVED at Arkansas in 2019, he said it was apparent that he was in elite company when the staff got together with Yurachek.
“I was sitting around at our first meeting, and I grabbed my phone. I texted my wife, ‘Hey, I’m sitting here, and everybody in here has accomplished more than I have,” Musselman said. “It’s not pressure, but if other people are winning, you gotta hold up your end of the bargain, right? It elevates you. It’s hard to relax and be comfortable if everyone around you is winning at a high level.”
Van Horn is an Arkansas grad, and 796 of his 1,167 career wins have come as head coach of the Razorbacks, including seven trips to the College World Series since he took over in 2003. Women’s track coach Lance Harter is an eight-time NCAA coach of the year and 44-time SEC coach of the year (among indoor, outdoor and cross-country seasons). His counterpart on the men’s side, Chris Bucknam, has been named the SEC’s best coach 27 times. Soccer coach Colby Hale has led the Razorbacks to eight NCAA tournament appearances, the only ones in school history.
And Deifel, whom Pittman mentioned in that news conference, took over a softball program that went 1-23 in the SEC the year before she arrived and just won her second straight SEC title, going 48-11 last year.
“I’ve never experienced this anywhere I’ve been,” Deifel said. “It’s just really supportive. Like volleyball just had their biggest win since 2007 and the [text] thread just blows up. It’s not the norm.”
Even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Arkansas has always had its strengths, but that he has been impressed with the transformation happening now.
“They’ve made any number of contributions over their history in the SEC,” he said, citing the track and baseball programs. “They’re ranked now [in football] and it’s fun to see what Sam’s done. After they went through change in football and men’s basketball, went through change in women’s basketball, it’s been both interesting and fun to see a lot of things jell simultaneously.”
Yurachek said the mix of personalities of his coaches has been a perfect blend, a source of pride for him in his third stop as an athletic director after stints at Coastal Carolina and Houston.
“It’s just a really special vibe that we have amongst our head coaches,” he said. “And there’s not one of them that I don’t enjoy going out to dinner with them and their spouse, and that has not always been the case.”
And Sankey has seen that, too.
“I went to a baseball game in February and Sam was there. Later that night, 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 won’t find any public squabbles like at Kentucky this year, when John Calipari raised the ire of football coach Mark Stoops by saying that Kentucky was “a basketball school” after a new football facility was approved. Calipari wanted improvements of his own.
“There’s jealousies at places and I just don’t think it’s tolerated here,” Musselman said in general, not in the direction of Kentucky. “I don’t ever hear our assistants say anything about ‘we don’t have this,’ you know? Track’s got a brand-new facility. We’re happy for them. It’s friggin’ awesome. Baseball’s got a tunnel [that connects a new $27 million facility to the dugout]. It’s spectacular. It’s freaking great.”
At many schools, the most publicly prominent coaches, like the football and basketball coaches, have relationships and become close. But at Arkansas, they’re all part of the club.
“The nice thing is that Muss and Sam and Dave know what they mean to the department, but they don’t come with any ego, which is pretty incredible,” Deifel said.
Musselman said football defensive coordinator Barry Odom comes by his office to talk shop. Hale brings soccer recruits over to the basketball offices and has invited Musselman to come coach his team for a day just to mix it up. In return, Musselman asked Hale to show him his Zoom presentations he does for his players’ parents, a practice the basketball program has since adopted.
“There’s not anything that you’re going through that someone hasn’t gone through,” Deifel said. “It’s just nice to be able to ask them for advice for anything. It’s also nice to just listen to them and hear their perspective. Then you’re talking and you’re hearing Sam and Muss’ perspective of how they have to balance a whole different level and you can be supportive of each other and you know what they’re going through.”
And it doesn’t hurt when the football coach happens to be one of the best recruiters in the country.
“He’s my go-to here,” Deifel said, saying she and Pittman even spoke daily during her recent contract negotiations — a five-year extension. “He is more than willing to meet with anybody, anytime. He’ll come out a few minutes early to the [softball] game and he’ll walk straight over across the sideline and meet our recruits and talk with us and say, ‘Hey, Hannah,’ to our third baseman, because he knows our players.”
Deifel and Pittman have a bond. She was hired when he was the Razorbacks’ offensive line coach on Bret Bielema’s staff, and instantly was drawn to Pittman. She got her wish when Yurachek hired him to return as head coach. They’ve watched each other take over impossible jobs and turn them around. She’ll tell Pittman what he’s doing is remarkable, and he’ll remind her it’s nothing that she hasn’t done herself.
“He’s incredible. I think the world of him,” she said. “He’s been a huge, huge advocate for softball. I don’t think you see many football coaches as regulars at their softball stadiums knowing every player’s name. When we were lined up to play Texas this year in the [super regionals] he was my first text. He was tracking that Texas was playing Washington and then he knew that we got the winner of that. And when Texas won, my first text was from Sam, saying ‘Horns Down.’ It’s not just just when it’s convenient. I think that’s the most impressive piece of it. He has a way of making everybody feel like the most important thing to him at that time. And he’s just as authentic as can be.”
Earlier this season, when Arkansas kicked off the season against Cincinnati, Pittman made his entrance onto the field for pregame warmups, waved to the fans and then turned and headed straight for Deifel, who was on the field before the game with a group of recruits (she currently has the No. 2 recruiting class for the 2023 season, according to Softball America). She said Pittman often tells her he just hopes they win so there’s a good atmosphere for her prospects.
— Ashtyn Reichardt (@ashtynreichardt) September 8, 2022
“He’s completely changed everything,” she said. “Now we’re getting calls from our players going, ‘Can our recruits storm the field?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, go for it!'”
While Deifel and Pittman were talking, Musselman went from the sideline up into a spot in the student section.
“There’s no way I would miss a football game,” Musselman said. “I’m not missing the game. I’m with the baseball team in Omaha. I’m going no matter what, I’ll figure out my schedule around that. I just think if you’re [coaching] in college, that’s what you should want to do.”
DAVID BAZZEL CAME from Florida to play linebacker for Lou Holtz at Arkansas in the 1980s, and was named the 1984 Liberty Bowl MVP with 15 tackles against an Auburn team led by Bo Jackson. He has stayed in Fayetteville and become a fixture in Arkansas as a radio and TV personality and created the Broyles Award, named for legendary Razorbacks coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, to honor the best assistant coach in the country.
Bazzel, who’s lived through the glory days of Broyles and Holtz and Ken Hatfield, can’t believe the difference Pittman has made.
“It was so bad,” Bazzel said, “I mean, it was the worst in the history of the program those last two years of Chad [Morris], so for it to so quickly turn around, it’s just astonishing. I remember saying, I know this is bad. It’s horrible, but it’s gonna make winning so much sweeter. That’s what’s happened.”
Yurachek said being the only Power 5 program in the state, and the state having no professional teams, means that the Razorbacks’ struggles hit the fans hard.
“People have told me the mood in the state has changed since our football program went from consecutive 2-10 seasons to the 9-4 season that we had last year,” he said. “So I think this university and its athletic department has such a special effect on this state.”
The state is swelling with pride. And so is the university. In 2019, Arkansas welcomed 4,600 in its freshman class. This year, it had a record of 7,400.
“I’m not going to say it’s all tied to the success of our athletic program, the success for our football program, but you can draw some correlations to that in my opinion,” Yurachek said.
Bazzel said the across-the-board success in Fayetteville is remarkable, particularly at a program that had begun to feel like a lost cause in the grueling SEC West.
“I just think the stars have aligned in Arkansas,” he said. “You’re not Notre Dame, you don’t have the history of Alabama, don’t have the money of Texas or A&M, so I think people sort of realized that there’s strength in each other.”
Musselman marvels at the pride of the locals, saying he laughs whenever he pulls into campus and sees the sheer volume of Razorbacks shirts on students.
“If you drive on the UCLA campus, that’s not the case,” he said. “I mean, if I go to eat tonight, in the restaurant I guarantee there’s going to be 10 to 15 people that have a Razorback [logo] on for a dinner at a nice restaurant.”
After a lifetime mostly spent as an offensive line coach, other than a few seasons early in his career as a high school and junior college head coach, Pittman finally got this opportunity to coach on the big stage with the Razorbacks at 58 and said he feels a sense of responsibility.
“It’s a very unique state, a very proud state,” he said. “They’re proud of their football program and they deserve a good football team. Of course, they deserve all sports. But one of the main things I wanted to do as a staff and players is to make the state proud of the football team. And I don’t know if we’re there or not, but I know we’re a lot closer than what we were, and that’s a great feeling to be honest with you. I mean, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
And he might be the most popular coach at a place where all the Razorbacks coaches are at the top of their game.
“We pay attention,” Bazzel said. “The Razorback brand in Arkansas is bigger than Walmart. We really put our coaches on a pedestal. He could run for governor right now and win.”
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