Jimbo Fisher Throws Wrench into Barry Odom’s “UNLV Razorbacks” + Other Arkansas Coaching Ties

Bobby Petrino, Barry Odom, Texas A&M football, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger / UNLV Athletics

It turns out that Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman may have to deal with Bobby Petrino every year after all.

After a brief stint as UNLV’s offensive coordinator, the former Arkansas coach will instead make his return to the FBS ranks as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, according to ESPN’s Chris Low.

Petrino, a controversial head coach who led Arkansas to back-to-back seasons with double-digit victories before his infamous motorcycle accident — and the events that followed — derailed the program, returned to Fayetteville in 2022 as Missouri State’s head coach and nearly handed the Razorbacks what would have been arguably the most embarrassing loss in school history.

A long punt return for a touchdown by Bryce Stephens saved the day, though, and torpedoed what many expected to be a special season in Springfield, Mo., as the Bears — once ranked in the top 5 of the FCS — ended up losing five straight and finishing 5-6.

It was Petrino’s third season at the helm of the FCS program and reports surfaced after the regular season that the Aggies, on the heels of a disappointing 5-7 season in which they had one of the worst offenses in the SEC, might be interested in his services.

When he instead signed on to be part of Barry Odom’s staff at UNLV about a week and a half later, it seemed as though Arkansas had avoided the possibility of an annual matchup with one of the game’s best offensive minds.

Led by Petrino, Missouri State put up 409 yards and scored on five of its first 10 possessions against the Razorbacks in Week 3 of this season. That was with an offense made up of FBS rejects. Now he’ll be armed with the four- and five-star talent Texas A&M routinely brings in and head coach Jimbo Fisher is reportedly relinquishing the play-calling duties.

The first meeting between Arkansas and Petrino’s new team is scheduled for Sept. 30 at AT&T Stadium, where the Razorbacks won all four of its games (including three against the Aggies) under Petrino, but have since lost seven of eight — all against Texas A&M.

The series is widely believe to return to campus sites after next season, first in College Station and then Fayetteville. That means, if he makes it to a third season and depending on how the SEC scheduling format plays out with the addition to Oklahoma and Texas, Petrino would return to Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2025.

Building the “UNLV Razorbacks”

Until Jimbo Fisher threw a wrench into things by hiring away Bobby Petrino, Barry Odom appeared to be building an Arkansas football outpost in the Mountain West.

Even without Petrino, though, the former Arkansas defensive coordinator’s staff still has a strong Razorback flavor — and for his sake, he better hope the conference treats them better than it did Chad Morris.

Odom spent three seasons in Fayetteville before taking the job at UNLV, which shares a conference with Colorado State and San Jose State, and will have a pair of familiar names running his defense and special teams.

Michael Scherer will be the Rebels’ defensive coordinator after serving as Arkansas’ linebackers coach the last two seasons and filling in as interim defensive coordinator in the Liberty Bowl.

That had been speculated since Odom was first hired by UNLV, but it didn’t become official until earlier this week. At just 29 years old, the young up-and-comer will reunite with his former college head coach in Las Vegas.

It was a move reminiscent of Jim Mackenzie leaving Arkansas to become the head coach at Oklahoma in 1966 and bringing a young running backs coach from the Razorbacks’ staff named Barry Switzer to be his offensive coordinator.

Somewhat lost in the hoopla of the Petrino and Scherer hires, Odom also hired James Shibest as his special teams coordinator to put the apparent finishing touch on the staff of these “UNLV Razorbacks.”

Shibest was an all-conference wide receiver for the Razorbacks and still ranks 10th on the school’s career receiving yards list — a record he actually held when he graduated in 1988. He returned to Fayetteville as an assistant coach from 2000-07.

Kiero Small Gets Head Gig

He didn’t land the head job at his alma mater this offseason, but former Arkansas fullback Kiero Small did end up getting his first opportunity to run a strength program for a major college football program.

After four seasons as the No. 2 guy at Michigan, where he assisted former Arkansas strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert and helped the Wolverines make back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, Small was hired as Purdue’s director of strength and conditioning.

In addition to playing for the Razorbacks from 2011-13, Small also worked on the strength staff at Arkansas before following Herbert to Michigan.

The hire means there are now two Big Ten West programs with a former Arkansas player running their strength programs, as Tenarius “Tank” Wright just completed his second season in that role at Illinois.

More Arkansas Ties at Illinois

Tank Wright is far from Arkansas’ only connection to Illinois, which might as well take on the alias of the Razorbacks of the Big Ten.

The Illini are led by Bret Bielema, who guided them to an 8-5 record in his second season at the helm. They capped the season with a 19-10 loss to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Monday.

Both of their coordinators for that game had previously worked at Arkansas.

Most fans are aware of the fact that Illinois hired Barry Lunney Jr. — a former quarterback, tight ends coach and interim head coach for the Razorbacks — to be its offensive coordinator last offseason. He did help the Fighting Illini improve their scoring output by 4 points per game and yardage output by 48.3 yards per game, but they still ranked 95th and 74th nationally, respectively, in those categories.

On the other side of the ball, Aaron Henry — who was a graduate assistant at Arkansas from 2014-15 — got his first action calling the defense after spending the last two seasons as Illinois’ defensive backs coach.

Interestingly enough, Henry was elevated to defensive coordinator when Ryan Walters left to become the head coach at Purdue — where he hired Kiero Small as his head strength coach.

Bielema’s staff also features wide receivers coach George McDonald, who was part of Bielema’s original staff at Arkansas, but resigned after four weeks on the job to become the offensive coordinator at Syracuse.

Other Arkansas ties at Illinois include offensive analyst Taylor Reed and director of football equipment operations Jake Rosch. Reed is an El Dorado native who spent one year at Arkansas as a walk-on quarterback and was also a graduate assistant for the Razorbacks, while Rosch was the head equipment guy at Arkansas from 2014-2021.

Heartbreaker Caps Lashlee’s 1st Season at SMU

Most of the attention may be on SMU’s former head coach, as Sonny Dykes has guided TCU to the national championship game, but the Mustangs’ current coach is Arkansas native Rhett Lashlee.

Following a record-breaking high school career at Shiloh Christian in Springdale, where he played for Gus Malzahn, Lashlee joined the Razorbacks as a walk-on quarterback.

His coaching career began at Springdale High School under Malzahn, whom he followed to Arkansas as a graduate assistant in 2006. He climbed the ranks with Malzahn before finally splitting from him in 2017 and making stops as an offensive coordinator at UConn, SMU and Miami (Fla.).

When Dykes left, Lashlee returned to SMU for his first head coaching gig. He guided the Mustangs to a 7-6 season capped by a heartbreaking 24-23 loss to BYU in the New Mexico Bowl. SMU scored a touchdown with 8 seconds remaining, but its game-winning two-point conversion was stopped.

It was still a solid first season for Lashlee, though. SMU had a pair of one-possession losses to Power Five programs — Maryland and TCU — and also lost to Cincinnati by two. The Mustangs also ranked 12th nationally in scoring offense (37.2 ppg) and 15th in total offense (472.8 ypg).

Malzahn Takes UCF to Brink of New Year’s Six

Despite an ugly loss to Navy and a near catastrophic upset loss to South Florida in the final two games of the regular season, Gus Malzahn still had UCF on the brink of a return to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

The Knights were No. 22 in the CPF rankings entering championship week, but lost to No. 18 Tulane 45-28 in the AAC Championship Game. A win in that game would have sent them to the Cotton Bowl against USC. Instead, UCF played — and lost to — Duke in the Military Bowl.

Malzahn, a Fort Smith native who played and coached at Arkansas, is now 18-9 in two seasons at UCF. He’s won at least nine games in six of his 11 seasons as a college head coach and has a career .667 winning percentage.

Successful Reboot as OC for Craddock

After being part of back-to-back two-wins seasons at his last stop as an offensive coordinator, Joe Craddock helped Troy to a two-loss season in 2022.

The former Arkansas offensive coordinator under Chad Morris, he was hired to run the Trojans’ offense after spending the previous two years as the tight ends coach at UAB.

Things got off to a bit of a shaky start, with losses in two of their first three games, but the Trojans ended up rattling off 11 straight wins to end the season. That includes a win over Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt Championship Game and in a top-25 showdown against UTSA in the Cure Bowl.

While Craddock’s unit put up a season-high 48 points in his return to the Natural State, as Troy crushed Arkansas State 48-19 in the regular-season finale, and 45 points in the conference title game, those were outlier performances.

The Trojans averaged just 25.6 points (81st in FBS) and 358.6 yards (95th) this season and their offense ranked 106th in SP+, compared to their defense ranking seventh and special teams ranking 16th.

Still, Craddock was the offensive coordinator for a team that will finish inside the top 25, as Troy was No. 23 entering the bowl games and knocked off No. 22 UTSA.

Another Conference Title for Traylor

Speaking of UTSA, it was yet another great season for former Arkansas running backs coach Jeff Traylor, who guided the Roadrunners to an 11-3 overall record in his third season at the helm.

Similar to Troy, UTSA opened the season 1-2, with a triple overtime loss to a ranked Houston team and road loss at Texas. It then won 10 straight games, going a perfect 8-0 in conference play and then beating North Texas in the C-USA Championship Game. That winning streak was of course snapped by the Trojans in the Cure Bowl, in which Traylor’s squad jumped out to a 12-0 lead before losing 18-12.

Even with getting shut out in the second half of that game, UTSA had one of the best offenses in college football this season. The Roadrunners averaged 36.8 points (14th in FBS) and 476.0 yards (12th).

Traylor, who signed an extension to keep him at UTSA through 2031 last season, is now 30-10 overall and 20-3 in C-USA play since taking over the program in 2020.


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