Brian Chilson

Seasonal cheer comes in many forms. With the curtain drawn closed on this crazy decade, this bedraggled Hog fan has hope where it once was not.

Sam Pittman’s hiring as head football coach was recently graded a “C-“ by CBS Sports writer Dennis Dodd, who in fairness is a highly competent scribe but has never been all that impressed by anything that happens in Fayetteville. Giving much higher marks for Ole Miss and Missouri’s choices for the same position, Dodd cited Pittman’s lack of head coaching experience, and noted the fact that the University of Arkansas has consistently sought experienced head coaches to fill a vacancy rather than a so-called career assistant.

You know, Dennis, maybe that’s the problem? If the previous six coaches with nearly five decades of head coaching chops didn’t work out all that well, then why on Earth would that be an applicable measure to use? If you look back at that sextet (from most to least recent, Chad Morris, Bret Bielema, John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino, Houston Nutt and Danny Ford) then what exactly inspires any athletic director of competence to stay on that well-worn path? We’ve already covered the fact that the entire group of coaches vying for the national title came into their position by way of promotion from an assistant or coordinator position at their current school or at another.

Pittman has hired coordinators, Barry Odom on defense and Kendal Briles to run the offense, who have name recognition and resumes that advance the new head coach’s cause. Rion Rhodes, the new linebackers coach, was highly successful leading the Hutchinson (Kansas) CC program, and Sam Carter brings a youthful energy to the defensive backfield. Justin Stepp, by far the best hire of Chad Morris’ brief tenure, will stay on to coach the receiving group. A couple of slots remain unfilled but those vacancies aren’t likely to exist in a few days when 2020 arrives and the real test of Pittman’s ability to corral a respectable first class will ramp up.

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With the coaching staff in football coming into shape, and Briles’ hiring in particular having been announced just before Christmas, it might’ve been the “recommitment” of rising senior tailback Rakeem Boyd that signified the crowning achievement for Pittman’s first month on the job. Boyd had been almost unfathomably productive and resilient for two of the most historically inept teams in program’s history, and his combination of size, speed and instincts undoubtedly made him a coveted prospect. It wasn’t necessarily a firm expectation one direction or the other about Boyd’s future, but the fact he chose to invest another year in a rebuilding program speaks enormously to not only the tailback’s character but to the allure of the staff so far assembled.

Excusing the ongoing quarterbacking question for a moment, Boyd’s return does leave the Hogs in better than anticipated shape as far as the skill positions are concerned. Trey Knox, Mike Woods and Treylon Burks are the obvious headliners at the receiver spots, and Hudson Henry will be the primary tight end threat, so Boyd’s presence in the backfield is tremendously meaningful to say the least. Had he not elected to return, the leading returning rusher would’ve been onetime fifth-string quarterback Jack Lindsey.

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The rebuild that is already working is the one authored by Eric Musselman. Having nearly collapsed in a tilt against Valparaiso in North Little Rock the Saturday before Christmas before recovering with a late run, the Hogs managed to actually duplicate that feat, almost point for point, in a road win against 11-1 Indiana in Bloomington.

Valpo wasn’t nearly the quality of foe but had a nine-point lead (60-51) with around eight minutes to go, and Arkansas calmly regrouped, leaned on its fierce defensive approach and salted that deficit away before emerging late with a 72-68 win. Eight days later, the much stronger Hoosiers had planted the Hogs in an 11-point hole early in the second half, and had it at 61-52 with eight to play. Again, it didn’t faze Musselman’s crew, and particularly, Mason Jones.

Arkansas’s leader came up the court in the closing minutes and buried back-to-back daggers directly into the Hoosier hearts. A throaty crowd went into complete stagnation, and Isaiah Joe’s free throws secured the seven-point victory for these feisty, undersized Hogs.

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The Razorback mantra has been defense first, but the offense is now evolving, almost impossibly, at a time when the limited roster presents so many potential deficiencies. Jones is by far the team’s best rebounder at the 2. Nobody on the team boasts a very impressive assist-turnover ratio. The Hogs are getting beat on the boards, as expected, and even with Jones’ bevy of clutch shots so far, Joe’s smooth jumper and Desi Sills being a competent lefty shooter, they’ve all three had their struggles from beyond the arc.

And yet, Arkansas went 11-1 and closed the decade with the program’s first win in a Big Ten arena. And it was in Indiana’s palace, not in the arena of some outlying also-ran in that basketball-rich league.