Ed Orgeron received a phone call Monday morning. On the other end was Sam Pittman, the head coach at Arkansas, LSU’s opponent this weekend. Coaches don’t usually speak before they play one another, but Pittman wanted to express his gratitude for Orgeron.
“Thank you for paving the way for line coaches to become head coaches,” Pittman said.
The brief conversation replaced the typical smack around a game. The coaches discussed their teams’ respective coronavirus situations — most of LSU’s quarantined players were returning to practice, while Arkansas had players out but still had enough to meet Southeastern Conference requirements — and Orgeron congratulated Pittman on revitalizing Arkansas’ program, a place Orgeron still appreciates from his time there early in his career.
Pittman and Orgeron never worked on the same staff or played alongside each another, but they felt connected. This year, Orgeron and Pittman are the only coaches in the SEC who never served as offensive or defensive coordinators before their first head coaching job. They jumped from their roles as line coaches to head coaches, skipping what’s often viewed as a necessary step in a football coach’s progression. Pittman similarly thanked Orgeron during the SEC meetings.
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“I think that guys don't need to be judged as if they're a coordinator or not,” Orgeron said. “It's the leadership skills they have and their background.”
In Pittman’s first season, Arkansas has won an SEC game for the first time since Oct. 2018 and once again become competitive. Despite having many of the same players, the Razorbacks own a 3-4 record before they play LSU at 11 a.m. Saturday, winning almost as many games as they did the past two years combined (4).
“They have a completely different football team,” Orgeron said. “They have a darned good football team. They play with great fundamentals. They play with energy.”
Pittman, a college defensive end, spent 32 years in coaching before he became the head coach at a Division I program. He built a career coaching offensive linemen, doing so at eight different schools for more than two decades.
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Until Arkansas hired Pittman last December, he hadn’t been a head coach since 1992-1993 at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Pittman cried when Arkansas offered him the job and again during an introduction as the head coach. Offensive line coaches around the country sent him congratulatory messages.
“When this came open,” Pittman said during his introductory press conference, “I felt like I was ready for the job.”
Meanwhile, Orgeron’s career twisted from Arkansas as an assistant strength coach to USC as a defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. He became the head coach at Ole Miss in 2005 without any experience calling plays. Orgeron lost the job three years later. His only experience as defensive coordinator happened during his second stint at USC.
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“The key is surround yourself with great players and great coaches,” Orgeron said. “And for the most part we've done that here.”
Though opposing coaches rarely speak the week of a game, Pittman felt a deep appreciation for Orgeron, a man one year older than him. Watching Orgeron win a national championship at LSU last season inspired Pittman, showing him someone who built their reputation on coaching linemen, recruiting and motivating players can win a title.
“I think he's one of the guys that have paved the way for non-coordinators because of the great success that he's had,” Pittman said. “It allows for some of us non-coordinator guys to get the opportunity.”