For years, Sam Pittman aspired to become a head coach. So did most of his peers around college football. They all wanted to know whether they could handle a pressure-packed role that garners all the praise and all the criticism. Plus, at the time only head coaches reeled in what Pittman described as “money money,” so naturally he wanted to reach that peak.

But that ambition waned, probably around the time he started coaching the offensive line at Georgia. He felt content. By then, prominent assistants at Power Five schools made plenty of money, and Pittman had long excelled at his craft of recruiting and developing talented linemen. As a coach in his 50s, Pittman didn’t think he would ever become a Division I head coach. And that was fine. He didn’t feel like a failure.

When the top job at Arkansas opened at the end of the 2017 season, Pittman didn’t consider trying. He graduated from high school about 90 minutes away in Grove, Okla., and he previously worked with the Razorbacks. But Pittman didn’t want to distract from Georgia’s playoff push, and he didn’t think he had much of a chance anyway. Two years later, after Arkansas plunged into deeper struggles on the field and the school fired another coach, Pittman still didn’t know whether he would be a strong candidate.

Arkansas took the gamble that hiring a career offensive line coach would somehow work, that a recruiting guru beloved by his players could lift the Razorbacks from irrelevance in the SEC. And he already has. In his second year in charge, Pittman has Arkansas off to a 3-0 start and ranked 16th, matching the program’s highest mark since 2012. The team recently knocked off Texas and has an even bigger opportunity this weekend against No. 7 Texas A&M.

When he searched for a new football coach to revitalize this program, Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek wanted someone who, in turn, wanted Arkansas. Pittman and his wife, Jamie, broke down in tears after Yurachek offered him the job. When Pittman met his new players, “I told them that they didn’t choose me,” he said, “but I sure as hell chose them.”

Power Five programs rarely hire head coaches who lack experience at least as a coordinator. But when former Arkansas offensive lineman Travis Swanson heard about the firing of Chad Morris, he thought about what his school needed — someone who could recruit and develop players — and his mind bolted to his former position coach. Swanson called Pittman, who answered the phone laughing. He remembers that Pittman had to hurry off to a meeting, but he said, “I know why you’re calling, and I want it.”

Swanson, who played in the NFL for five seasons, then tweeted that Pittman was the “perfect fit.” Dan Skipper, another lineman who played for Pittman when he worked at Arkansas from 2013 to 2015, wrote a then-anonymous letter to the school’s administration expressing the same belief. As former Razorbacks, they knew Pittman matched Arkansas’ culture. He loves the state and its people.

“This truly means something to him,” Swanson said.

Pieces of the head-coaching gig were novel for Pittman, who had been a head coach only at the high school and junior college levels: He’s running an organization with dozens of employees. He must listen to both offensive and defensive coaches blaring through his game-day headset. Those decisions about whether to punt or accept a penalty lie with him. The quantity of problems needing solutions each day is vast. But the way the 59-year-old is thriving in Fayetteville makes sense, too.

“He's kind of like glue,” said James Hurst, a lineman for the New Orleans Saints who played for Pittman at North Carolina a decade ago. “He brings people together. He's a very unifying personality. Everyone wants to get behind him to play for him because of the person that he is.”

Pittman arrived in Fayetteville with a genuine belief that Arkansas didn’t have to be a bottom-feeder in its conference. These players had gone two years without an SEC win. But Pittman said he had “a whole building full of people that believe in the Razorbacks, and it’s contagious.” He set out to ensure his program reflected the state, which he says is filled with tough, blue-collar individuals.

Pittman had to convince the players that the results from 2018 and 2019 weren’t bound to repeat themselves. He spoke honestly with them and set high expectations.

“He connects so well with players because he’s very down-to-earth, very honest with them, and he can relate to them,” said Frank Barden, who has coached at high schools in Georgia for nearly four decades, including at Stephens County when former University of Georgia lineman Ben Cleveland played there.

Hurst remembers Pittman visiting his Indiana home with an individualized plan. Hurst, a former four-star recruit, had no ties to North Carolina, the university or the state. But he noticed how Pittman, the Tar Heels’ offensive line coach at the time, acted like a gracious guest at his high school, not a big-timer who deserved special treatment. Pittman was the only coach who didn’t try to sway Hurst by speaking poorly about other programs. Hurst was sold.

Pittman has repeated some version of that process for years as he worked to bring the best players to schools all over the country throughout his journeyman career. Early in Pittman’s tenure, Arkansas has climbed to seventh in the SEC in 247 Sports’ recruiting rankings for the 2022 class.

Once players arrive on campus, Pittman is “very flexible in his coaching habits,” said Cleveland, who was recruited by the previous Georgia staff but spent four years under Pittman and developed into a third-round NFL draft pick. After Cleveland enrolled as a 17-year-old, his coach ensured a smooth adjustment.

When Pittman inherited players from previous coaching staffs, “there is this natural awkwardness, and he knew how to pierce straight through that,” Swanson said, “and make it seem as though we had known each other for the last 10 years.”

Pittman’s laid-back approach in the ultra-high-stakes world of college football gave players a comfortable reprieve. His linemen laughed through Pittman’s jokes and stories, and they would get to work. Because, to be clear, “he’s tough, too,” said Barden, the high school coach of Cleveland, who’s now a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens. “He coached Ben hard.”

That development leads these players to the NFL. When Hurst, who started his professional career in 2014, talks with other Pittman products around the league, they share the same love for their former coach.

Pittman is comfortable being himself, and at Georgia, that involved videos of him saying, “Yessirrr!” after a recruit committed. That started after he told his players “a simple ‘Yes, sir’ will take you a long way in the world.” The linemen would say the drawn-out version of the phrase back to him, and Pittman did the same around the building. Fans and players loved the videos, so Pittman didn’t mind if anyone else thought it seemed foolish.

With the Razorbacks, a new ritual emerged when the team took a 2020 trip to Mississippi State, which had just knocked off LSU, and Pittman was missing a few key starters. On the plane, he thought to himself, “​​Oh, man, what have we done?” But he knew he needed to convince the players that the team had everyone it needed. After Arkansas won, the school’s first conference victory since 2017, Pittman asked the team to turn down the music while he spoke. Once he finished, he yelled, “Turn that damn jukebox on!”

Now that phrase accompanies post-win celebrations, and that was the moment Pittman felt, “Hey, we’re not the same team anymore.”

Arkansas won three games in the conference-only schedule a year ago, and the upcoming slate will be difficult. The Razorbacks’ next four opponents — Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi and Auburn — are all ranked. Pittman tells his players not to worry about that. The schedule is for their parents to book travel, not for them to look ahead.

But this season, there’s a new buzz in the community. Former Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick is the head coach at Fayetteville High, which is separated from the campus by only a road. Dick noticed traffic and enthusiasm early in the week before Arkansas played Texas, reminding him of when ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town for his 2006 team’s game against Tennessee. Swanson thinks about his seasons in 2010 and 2011, the last time the program finished with a double-digit win total. This excitement feels similar. Pittman watched the team decades ago, giving him even more examples of what’s possible in Fayetteville.

“I knew that Arkansas,” Pittman said, which is why he believes the Razorbacks can be better than they showed in recent seasons. And that conviction is why all his players want him to be the one who turns it around.