FAYETTEVILLE — Hunter Yurachek, University of Arkansas’ Director of Athletics and Vice-Chancellor, offered up praise for Sam Pittman after one season on the job as head football coach of the Razorbacks.
Yurachek held a Zoom Conference with reporters on Thursday and touched on a wide variety of topics over many sports including football. Due to COVID, the athletic department expected to take a big financial hit and Yurachek talked about that.
“I think the last time we gathered today and talked about our budget we were anticipating getting a deficit somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 million dollars on the revenue side,” Yurachek said. “That’s probably closer to 25-30 million dollars after we closed out football season. We’re roughly halfway through basketball season and we kinda feel like we know what we’re gonna be able to do with baseball season. So we’ve had to make a few adjustments to our budget on the expense side because of those anticipated revenue short falls growing, but we feel like we’re in pretty good shape still.”
While the attendance was severely limited during the 2020 football season, but Yurachek has a much more positive outlook for the 2021 season.
“We’re going to launch our football season ticket campaign in late February- early march with the anticipation of having full capacity at Razorback Stadium,” Yurachek said. “We’re going to sell it that way. We’ll release our full football schedule here through the SEC office in the next week to 10 days. We’re anticipating things returning to some sense of normalcy, that’s my crystal ball outlook of what I think right now.”
When the season ended, schools started coming after Pittman’s assistants. Justin Stepp opted to go home to the University of South Carolina. But Pittman was able to retain Barry Odom and others.
“I think he’s done a great job managing that,” Yurachek said of Pittman. “Obviously, Barry Odom was a hot commodity with how our defense played the majority of the season and having been a former head coach. It was important for Coach Pittman that we retain Coach Odom and we did that. We filled the void that Justin Stepp left when he went to South Carolina, that was really for him to have an opportunity to return home. Kenny Guiton will fill that role really, really well for us. So, I think Pittman has handled people coming after his staff really, really well.”
How important was it for Pittman to keep Odom?
“It was very important,” Yurachek said. “Barry has that experience sitting in the head coaching chair in the Southeastern Conference and it’s been invaluable to coach Pittman this year and it will be invaluable going forward. Our student-athletes on the defensive side of the ball love him. He obviously created schemes that put us in positions to have some success throughout the season and he’s an important piece of our puzzle. Just continuity in general among your coaching staff is very important. Being able to retain all three of our coordinators, how Pittman has that set up with Coach (Kendal) Briles, (Scott) Fountain and Odom was very, very important.”
Yurachek explained the process that was used to retain Odom in such bleak economic times.
“When I let Coach (Chad) Morris go, I anticipated we were going to have some financial hardships prior to COVID just because we were going to have to pay Coach Morris out,” Yurachek said. “That was no longer the foundation’s responsibility. We had Coach (John) Chavis and a couple other coaches in retainer. I went out and met with several of our donors and created through our Razorback Foundation what I call the ‘Football Enhancement Fund’ that would provide Coach Pittman the opportunity to spend those resources to hire and retain the best coaches, to buy the type of equipment he needed for the Smith Center, to recruit where that didn’t have to come from an operational budget. When COVID hit, it was more than necessary. The raises that were given to Coach Odom and any of his other staff members, they’re coming right now, at least for the next two years, from hat Football Enhancement Fund, not coming from any operational dollars.”
The Razorbacks finished 3-7 against an all-SEC schedule. Was Yurachek surprised with how quickly that Pittman got the program seemingly head back in the right direction?
“Absolutely,” Yurachek said. “He exceeded my expectations. When you think about bringing a new staff on board and roughly 65-70 days after that, you go into a COVID situation like we did, you cancel spring practice, you’re meeting virtually, you’re trying to install offenses and defense virtually during the spring, you have limited workout availability during the months of June and early part of July. He and his staff overcame a number of obstacles to really create a level of confidence amongst our student-athletes that they were going to be put in positions to have success.
“Then you put on top of that an SEC-only schedule. I still think it was one of the toughest schedules in the history of college football. We played four teams that were in New Year’s Six bowl games and we played, obviously, the eventual national champion in Alabama. To win three of those games, and we haven’t won three SEC games in the last three years, I think that was a significant accomplishment and step in the right direction for our program.”
When Pittman was hired, it was met by skepticism from many in the national media. Yurachek said proving them wrong held no special meaning to him.
“Well, I try not to pay attention to a lot of the scrutiny that goes on in hiring coaches,” Yurachek said. “I felt like Sam Pittman was a great fit for what we needed at the University of Arkansas with his ability to build offensive and defensive lines, his ability to recruit and just his personality and how it fit within our state. I felt like he was going to be successful. To say that he was going to be successful out of the gate like he was, with all the obstacles we overcame, I would be lying to you if I said that, but I thought Sam Pittman – I wouldn’t have hired him if I didn’t think he was the right person for the job.”
Yurachek also addressed the incentive portions of Pittman’s contract.
“Coach Pittman and I have discussed some parameters within his current contract multiple times, and we’re working through some of those,” Yurachek said. “I think you’ll see something here in the next month or so related to that.”
The Razorbacks have 10 seniors returning for the extra year permitted by the NCAA due to COVID. The only one who hasn’t stated any plans is kicker AJ Reed. He is finishing out the semester at Arkansas and will then have business degrees from both Duke and Arkansas. He doesn’t plan to play another year of college football. But the additional seniors will present financial issues for Arkansas and other schools.
“That’s not just for football,” Yurachek said. “I mean, that’s for all of our sports. That’s happened now for all of our fall sports and all of our winter sports. So, that’s a challenge we’re going to have to address with all of our sports moving forward.”