Sam Pittman figures it's been about 30 years ago. Back then, he was a high school coach in northern Missouri. Small time.
That's the way Arkansas' coach plays it when he recounts how he got to this moment.
"I went to a Missouri game. I'm walking across the parking lot. The tight end coach at Missouri, walking across the parking lot, he yelled my name. That was the greatest thing. I'll never forget that, the way I felt," Pittman recalled this week.
He can't remember the coach or the game or the exact year. It just happened, and it stuck in his mind. All of us like to be recognized, even the SEC's version of the accidental head coach. That's why, on one of his regular walks around campus, Pittman will gladly stop to take a selfie, sign an autograph or merely pause to talk about the Hogs.
"I still don't get that part of it, but I appreciate it," Pittman told CBS Sports. "If they're young girls, they've got a grandpa [who will be impressed]. If it's a guy, then it'll be they went to the game and they're so excited."
Most of them are students. Pittman always smiles. Since he stepped on campus 22 months ago, his face seems to be frozen that way. His career head coaching record now stands at 6-7 heading into Saturday's SEC on CBS Game of the Week against No. 7 Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET kickoff).
The Razorbacks enter the game ranked No. 16, in the AP Top 25 for the first time since Oct. 16, 2016.
That 6-7 might be the best such record to start a career given the positive karma wafting from Fayetteville, Arkansas, these days. There's a future. There's hope. Certainly, the sub-.500 record fails to tell the story of a coach embraced so early by the fans and state he loves. The man wants to be there so much that, 13 games into the job, he's decided to retire there.
"Got to," Pittman said. "Hot Springs."
Has there ever been a coach so early in his tenure who wants to be there so much and embraces the state and the culture and fans as Sam Pittman?— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) September 13, 2021
That's the Arkansas resort town 185 miles south of Razorback Stadium. But that's for some future back-deck glass of wine to mull over. For now, Pittman's Hogs are 3-0 and riding high.
The 40-21 win over Texas a couple of weeks ago remains one of the most stirring results of the season. The (formerly) beaten-down Hogs scored 40 on the Longhorns for the first time in 40 years. Arkansas had to leave Texas with the lingering feeling of what actual football is going to be like in the SEC.
Texas can switch conferences, but can it switch conferences and get better at football? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Arkansas has an identity and a significant memory from that night. It can run the ball (No. 8 nationally in rushing) and storm a field.
Pittman, that smile plastered on his 59-year-old face, watched the stands empty of students after the biggest win of his young head-coaching career.
"You know, the students are most likely going to turn down on the field," Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek told SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who was standing next to him at the game.
"Yup," Sankey responded.
"We're going to get fined for that?" Yurachek asked.
"Yup," Sankey replied.
It's the best flat $100,000 Yurachek ever spent.
It doesn't matter right now that Pittman was not the first choice at Arkansas … or that he wasn't even on the betting odds that once featured Mike Norvell as the favorite behind Eli Drinkwitz and Lane Kiffin.
One website listed 17 candidates, none of them with the last name Pittman. Arkansas even kicked the tires on Deion Sanders.
"I don't think it matters," Yurachek said. "What I will tell you is, in the end, Sam Pittman was the best choice."
You don't usually hire rookie head coaches in the SEC. You certainly don't hire guys who have never been so much as a coordinator. That was Pittman, who was fine if his career ended with the label as one of the best offensive line coaches in the country.
"Absolutely," Pittman said. "I had come to that realization."
Since starting out in Oklahoma at Beggs High School in 1986, Pittman had coached at 13 schools. But fate called, and Yurachek figured he at least needed a guy who could build an SEC program from the inside out -- starting with the offensive and defensive lines. That's how Mario Cristobal, Alabama's former offensive line coach, has done it at Oregon.
Pittman had coached under Bret Bielema early on at Arkansas. That contributed to his love of the place. His junior year in high school, Pittman's dad moved the family to Grove, Oklahoma, 75 miles from Fayetteville.
Pittman attended Lou Holtz's Arkansas camps in the late 1970s. The fun was rubbing off on a kid who admired a free-wheeling feel of the program. Holtz's Hogs made bowl history, upsetting No. 2 Oklahoma, 31-6, in the 1978 Orange Bowl.
Kirby Smart had hired Pittman at Georgia in 2016 to build an offensive line room that has Pittman's fingerprints to this day.
But, gosh, was it a risk to promote a career assistant to head an SEC program? Then again, what was there to lose? Nothing else had worked since Bobby Petrino crashed that motorcycle in 2012. The program had been 37-62 … until Pittman walked on campus.
"I was sad. I was sad for the players. I was sad for the coaches. I was sad for the state of Arkansas. And the fans," Pittman said. "To me, that's not the Arkansas. … I just never believed Arkansas should be like that."
In the end, Pittman was a finalist for the Razorbacks because "he wanted to be the head coach at Arkansas," Yurachek said.
In the depressed and uncertain times, maybe that was enough. Pittman and his wife, Jamie, started crying in front of Yurachek as the coach agreed to the deal without asking about salary. Pittman had to hustle and get a lawyer to peruse the details of the deal. He never even had an agent. Judy Henry, a Little Rock-based agent, did the deal.
"To this day, I don't have a signed contract with her," Pittman said. "She trusts me; I trust her."
Pittman got Arkansas back on the college football radar simply by playing competent football in 2020. That was in the aftermath of the disaster that was Chad Morris (4-18 in two forgettable season).
The Razorbacks snapped a 20-game SEC winless streak. They were 3-3 -- having won at ranked Mississippi State -- before losing the final four games of the season.
Pittman blames himself for getting COVID-19.
"We didn't win another game after I got COVID," the coach said. "I don't know, it affected the team."
That's in the past. The task ahead is beating a Texas A&M squad that has won the last nine in the series. It's a big game.
Taking those walks across campus is part of the preparation. He'll never forget how that attention makes him feel.
"I'd rather take selfies and sign autographs instead of nobody knows who I am," the coach said.