Before Bubba Pittman’s introductory press conference began on Tuesday afternoon, his oldest daughter got a kick out of a 1991 Rock Hill High School yearbook photo of her dad from his freshman year at the school.
Madeline Pittman laughed at Bubba Pittman’s mug shot on the yellowing page, pointing out his punky haircut and saying, “daddy was skinny!”
Pittman may not be quite as thin or brash as his teenage years, but he still retains all the passion he had for Bearcat football back in 1991.
The 37-year-old, who graduated from Rock Hill in 1994, beat out inquiries and applications from more than 70 coaches and five other unnamed finalists to win the school’s head football coaching job. It’s a circular landing spot for a guy who grew up on Ferguson Drive, just a patch of woods removed from the school, and was named Mr. Bearcat as a senior quarterback in 1993-94.
“I’ve been a Bearcat all my life,” he said. “And I have a personal desire to see this program succeed.”
Rock Hill hired Pittman from Northwestern last year to become Joe Montgomery’s offensive coordinator. There were rumblings and rumors that Pittman had been hired as a coach-in-waiting, but that’s illegal in South Carolina. Even though Pittman was eventually hired after Montgomery retired in January, Rock Hill athletic director Bill Warren stressed that the search proceeded above the table.
“We opened it up. The only thing told to Bubba when he came over was ‘you’ll have the opportunity to apply to be head coach.’ That’s the only advantage he had, other than his interaction with the kids and the coaches,” said Warren. “He’s got support from both, and he did a great job in his interview.”
The year under Montgomery certainly helped Pittman, who acknowledged that he missed out on helping coach Northwestern last season as it went undefeated and won the state title. His coaching fingerprints were all over the Trojan offense, but the chance to return to his alma mater was too good to forgo.
“It was a year of planning for me, to try and design what I felt the program should look like,” he said. “When I did finally get that call it was a relief, because it was kind of like a vote of confidence, that they agreed with the way I think things should go.”
Pittman’s holistic understanding of being a Bearcat is what set him apart. Warren was impressed when he came to his interview with a full plan for the football program, one that included Air Raid offense, but also academics and community service.
“Bubba is a Bearcat; always been a Bearcat,” said Warren. “He has great passion for the school and great football knowledge. A lot of times when you go away and learn under other coaches at other schools, then you learn valuable knowledge to bring back.”
Pittman doesn’t have to hit the ground running, because he already has been running, a luxury that a number of schools hiring new coaches around the state haven’t had. The Rock Hill assistant coaching staff, all of which will be retained, helped in that aspect, as did Pittman’s camaraderie with the returning Bearcat football players.
“Personally, for me, I felt that was an advantage,” he said.
Warren and the rest of Rock Hill’s search committee, which included administration, several parents from the community, and former Bearcat and NFL standout Chris Hope, agreed.
“We’ve seen him interact with kids, the way he cares about kids, the way he cares about Rock Hill High,” said Warren.
Pittman teaches special education, a calling that undoubtedly has fostered compassion and patience, while forcing him to adapt to a number of different learning styles. He’ll need those skills to pull together a group of players that haven’t been very successful in the last few seasons. The two-time defending state champions are 15-31 since 2010.
“The biggest focus is getting these kids to try and buy into what it means to be a Bearcat,” said Pittman. “We’re trying to instill in them the importance of a team. It’s not about individual accolades. It’s about how they’re going to be together that gets us to the next level.”
A program that’s been usurped at the top by its rivals South Pointe and Northwestern needs someone to believe in it, to kick the slumbering Bearcats awake. In Pittman, Rock Hill High School certainly has a coach that will kick and scrap, but more importantly, one that seems to believe. Among the smattering of questions tossed his direction during Tuesday’s press conference, Pittman was asked what he was most looking forward to “that last Friday night in August,” the 2014 season opener and his head coaching debut.
“August?” he replied. “I’m already thinking about the first Friday or Saturday in December.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T