Midway through Sam Pittman’s day three appearance in front of sportswriters at SEC Media Days a reporter started off his question with a clear compliment. “You’re the most likeable coach in the conference,” Saturday Down South’s Chris Marler offered, “Possibly the country.” It was a subjective opinion but one that would not likely be disputed by anybody in the media familiar with Arkansas’ third-year head coach.

In his two appearances at the SEC’s midsummer hypefest Pittman has made himself at home like the next door neighbor you love to invite to your backyard barbecue. Not exactly a comedian, Pittman still manages to sprinkle light hearted humor into his comments spurred on by many of the questions he gets, like this gem: “The hog statue on your property, can you explain the backstory as to what led to that?”

Pittman quickly obliged with a story. The original statue in back of a second home he purchased at the edge of a lake in Hot Springs featured a large Marlin being hooked by a fisherman. “Jamie and I bought it on August first and August third a storm came through and knocked the Marlin down,” Pittman explained. “The insurance company came through. My mind went to a slobbering Hog. (as a replacement) I just thought it was going to be a Hog out there but this thing is incredible. It’s got lights on it. Whatever color you want. Boats on parade come to the house down there. Guys go by and they call the Hogs. Try to get on it. It has a lot of signs that says, Don’t get on the Hog but there are a few people that do. I wish that they’d read the sign.”

It’s not just Arkansas fans or the media that relish Pittman’s banter. Recruits and his own players say it’s a big factor in what makes him a successful coach. “There’s never a day that goes by that he’s not joking,” junior quarterback K.J. Jefferson told reporters. “He’s always joking on the field and just being able to have a coach like that who is really in tune with the players and not just treating the players like robots and building a relationship with the players is extremely amazing, the way he interacts with us on a daily basis.”

Pittman’s personality aside there were some serious subjects addressed by Jefferson, linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon who made the trip to Atlanta with the head coach. In a 2021 season of exceeding expectations Catalon recalled a sobering moment for the Razorbacks after starting off 4-0 with wins over both Texas and Texas A&M. A trip to Athens, Georgia reminded all of them that the SEC is a brutal test from beginning to end.

“It was humbling,” Catelon said of a 37-0 wipeout loss to the eventual national champions. “Hats off to Georgia. A lot of players went pro from that team. At that point we just looked at it and said, Okay. That’s the level we want to be at. We want to be a dominant football team like that. Now we’ve got to get better off of that game.”

The Razorbacks did clearly learn some lessons from the painful setback. A road test against the second best team in the league six weeks later was no wipeout as Arkansas fought Alabama to an eventual seven point loss.

“I think Alabama beat us a hundred to nothing (actually 52-3) our first year,” Pittman recalled. “Last year we got a little bit closer. It (the 2021 Alabama game) gave us a level of confidence if there is such a thing in a loss. We don’t play to lose. We’re the University of Arkansas. But Alabama, that night, it did give us a little bit of confidence that we can compete.”

Super senior linebacker Bumper Pool has seen up close Arkansas football’s rise from the bottom of the conference to the excitement generated by a nine-win season as the Razorbacks head into the 2022 season.

“I’ve been a part of teams that have been 2-10,” Pool remembered, “and obviously last season things completely changed. But it wasn’t an overnight success. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. You talk about repeating that success, the work is what will ultimately determine the wins and losses and this team is extremely hard working.”

Continued hard work is just one way this football team hopes to continue its rise in the toughest division of the toughest conference in college football. Pool said there is a new component at work this summer thanks to some outside help through college football’s transfer portal. Former LSU starting cornerback Dwight McGlothern has come in stressing the need for a tighter bond among teammates.

“When you have a transfer come in and talk about how important it is for everyone to be close it’s huge,” Pool emphasized. “He came up one day and was just talking about when you see a guy talk to them. You don’t know how important that is to them.”

“This team is close,” Pool continued, “but when your outside pieces are talking about it you feel like you’re even closer as a family.”

Jefferson’s appearance on the big stage in Atlanta was a successful one with the TV guys largely because he gave them what they are always looking for. Clear, brief, sound bytes with useful information. Of the improvement he made in his first season as Arkansas’ starting quarterback and the work he still needs to do, Jefferson said, “I improved in decision making and being disciplined with the ball. Putting my teammates in the best position to win. Looking forward, I want to be more consistent and keep being more vocal in a leadership role.”

Pittman left left the SEC media with a clear picture of how he views Arkansas’ football program as he heads into his next challenge on the Hill. Asked if he was comfortable in saying that Arkansas has arrived, Pittman responded with a quick, “No, no, no. We’re a ways from that.

“Arkansas is just trying to compete. We’re trying to get better,” he continued. “We will compete. We’ll do that. Roll it out there and let’s play ball but no, no, no. Not that.”