Kirby Smart gives much credit to first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman for helping to make No. 4 Georgia an annual contender for the Southeastern Conference championship.
“He helped build the foundation of what we have now,” Smart said Monday.
Smart and his Bulldogs will be reunited with Pittman when Georgia opens its pandemic-delayed season at Arkansas on Saturday.
In four years as Georgia's offensive line coach, including the 2019 season with the added title of associate head coach, Pittman was a key member of Smart's staff.
How much Pittman's impact on the Bulldogs extended beyond the field was evident this week when Smart and Georgia players talked about the popular coach who now heads the Arkansas team.
“I respected just how family-oriented he was and his energy on and off the field,” said junior center Trey Hill when asked about Pittman's popularity. "What you got on the field is what you got off the field. The way he takes care of his players and the love and support he gives them.”
Similarly, Pittman's ongoing commitment to Georgia players showed Monday when he was asked about Bulldogs quarterback D'Wan Mathis, who could start against the Razorbacks. Smart hasn't announced a starter.
Mathis needed brain surgery to remove a cyst after enrolling at Georgia. He returned to the scout team late last season. After Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out of the season, Mathis is competing with JT Daniels, freshman Carson Beck and junior Stetson Bennett.
Smart said Monday he expected Daniels, the Southern Cal transfer, to be cleared before Saturday's game following his recovery from knee surgery.
Pittman said he wouldn't be surprised to see both Daniels and Mathis play. Pittman said Mathis, a dual-threat quarterback, “is really fast.”
“And to be honest with you guys, I’m really excited if he plays against us,” Pittman said of Mathis.
"I’m excited for him. Because he had surgery that might not have allowed him to play. He’s come a long way. Certainly, we’re not wanting to play against him because he’s such a talented young man. But I’m certainly thrilled that he has been cleared and is ready to get his football career back on course. A wonderful kid.”
Pittman's continued support for Mathis shows why he was so popular in Athens.
Asked if he will root for Arkansas after Saturday, Hill said “Yeah, something like that. Coach Pittman, he was my guy for two years. He did a lot for me.”
Pittman was a top Arkansas assistant before being hired by Smart in 2016. Smart says he knew Pittman, who he says is “a very good friend of mine,” treated his players like family members.
“He was a really good recruiter,” Smart said. “He was a relationship-driven coach. His players just love him and they all enjoy playing for him. He created that family atmosphere.”
Smart said when he hired Pittman from Arkansas, "every offensive lineman that he had coached there prior to coming back here he had a really special relationship with, and they tried to keep him there. We were lucky to get him. He certainly contributed to our success.”
Pittman's rebuilding job at Arkansas grew more difficult when Georgia and No. 5 Florida were added to the Razorbacks' 10-game SEC schedule following the coronavirus pandemic.
Smart said he has always seen Pittman's potential to lead a team.
“He always had the traits of a head coach,” Smart said. “Number one, he’s a great leader, he’s a great person. He commands the respect of the room when he speaks. He can be very emotional and you don’t always find that with an offensive line coach because they’re usually a little rough around the edges and he wears his feelings on his sleeve. He is very open with his players and I think he lets them in more than most O-line coaches do. That relationship really stands.”