FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Petrino is returning to Arkansas.
Nearly 13 years after his fall from grace, the 62-year-old is nearing a deal to become the Razorbacks’ new offensive coordinator, according to multiple reports. He seemingly confirmed the news Tuesday night by sharing a video of his granddaughter calling the Hogs, plus adding “#WPS” to his Twitter bio and updating his location to Fayetteville.
Just in case there was any shred of a doubt about his meaning, on Wednesday morning he posted a tribute to the late Ryan Mallett, one of his star quarterbacks at Arkansas when he was head coach. “It’s you and me 15,” he Tweeted. “Proud to be coming home. Now let’s bring the Hogs a Championship!! #WooPig” A few hours later, the U of A made if official.
Petrino fills the void created by the in-season firing of Dan Enos.
It is a wild full-circle moment for a man that once led the program to back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins before crashing it into a ditch — literally.
Since his motorcycle accident that brought to light multiple indiscretions, though, Petrino has bounced around college football, most recently returning to the SEC as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M.
The Aggies’ firing of Jimbo Fisher left him without a job and, with Pittman needing to resurrect his abysmal offense while also injecting some excitement into an apathetic fan base, he found a landing spot in familiar territory.
By and large, over the course of his career, Petrino has not been a run-first play caller – even though Pittman insinuated that’s a top priority. That said, he appears to check the other boxes he laid out following the regular-season finale against Missouri.
“The first thing is you’ve got to go and find an offensive coordinator — one that wants to be here,” Pittman said when asked how he’d change the momentum of the program. “It would be fun if the guy understood the state and understood the SEC and all those type things.
“I feel very, very good that we’ll get an offensive coordinator that wants to be here and wants to help lead our program to a lot of great things. … If we can get a coordinator that we believe can score points and then go get some (transfers), starting obviously with shoring up the offensive line, I think we can get momentum back.”
Task with Arkansas Football
Bobby Petrino will be tasked with fixing a unit that went from being one of the best in the country to being among the worst this season.
The Razorbacks ranked 27th and 15th nationally in total offense in 2021 and 2022, when they were led by offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. He left for the same position at TCU after the season, though, and Sam Pittman replaced him with former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
Despite returning what many considered the top quarterback-running back tandem in the SEC, if not the country, the Razorbacks were nothing like the feared offense of the past two seasons in 2023.
KJ Jefferson struggled with consistency and Rocket Sanders battled multiple injuries, but both were playing behind a porous offensive line that rendered the unit hapless.
They averaged only 26.6 points on 326.5 yards, figures that ranked 72nd and 108th, respectively, out of 133 FBS teams. It was also their lowest yards per game output in more than two decades, when they put up 323.9 per game in 2001.
Even after Enos was fired during the open week, the offense still sputtered. Its best game was the next week at Florida, and it also did well against FIU, but couldn’t move the ball at all in blowout losses to Auburn and Missouri.
The big question is what pieces Petrino will have to work with in 2024. Every offensive starter could technically return, but it’s unclear how many of them will choose to do so.
Jefferson indicated on social media that the regular-season finale was his “Last One” and Sanders is eligible for the NFL Draft. Center Beaux Limmer has already accepted an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Bowl, likely ending his career, and several other starters would be super seniors using their extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic.
He’ll presumably have a pair of promising tight ends back from injury in Luke Hasz and Ty Washington, plus a room-full of talented running backs – including Isaiah Augustave, who flashed in the final two games of his freshman year.
However, Pittman has openly discussed the need to overhaul the aforementioned offensive line, which they’ve already begun by landing a commitment from Michigan State transfer Keyshawn Blackstock.
Reaction to Bobby Petrino’s Hiring
The hiring of Bobby Petrino as its next offensive coordinator moved the needle on a national scale unlike any other person Arkansas football could have brought in.
This idea of Petrino potentially taking over for Sam Pittman one day is something that DJ Williams, one of this star players at the UA during that first run, referenced on his Fourth & 5 podcast on Tuesday night. He thinks that Petrino may not initially feel that desire, but it could develop once he enters the Fred W. Smith football complex that was in large part built because of the success from his 2008-2011 run.
“My thing is when Bobby comes back, his first day at work, you don’t think that he’s going to walk through those walls and he’s going to see all this amazing stuff that was being built before he left, and he’s not going to think ‘I built this. This was my house. Sam, I’m your offensive coordinator, but don’t slip up.'”
Much like it when he returned to Fayetteville as Missouri State’s head coach in 2022 and played the Razorbacks as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in 2023, Petrino’s controversial history – which was even evoked by Hunter Yurachek himself back in 2021 – was immediately at the forefront of college football fans’ minds.
Even before his infamous motorcycle accident, Petrino drew negative headlines for the way he left the Atlanta Falcons to become the Razorbacks’ head coach.
The top memory, however, is the accident that seemed all too like an April Fool’s joke. It left Petrino in a neck brace and led to the revelation that he not only had an extramarital affair, but had hired his mistress to his staff. On top of that, he lied about the nature of the improper relationship to his boss, then-AD Jeff Long.
All of that led to Petrino being fired with cause. A policy prohibiting such people from being re-hired was passed in 2013 and revised in 2019, but it left a loophole that allowed for special exceptions to be approved by the UA System President, Dr. Donald R. Bobbitt.
The UA presumably went through that process, as news first surfaced Tuesday that Arkansas was “vetting” him as a candidate.
It’s certainly a gamble by the Razorbacks, but one that was likely put into motion four years ago when Petrino returned to the state and received a standing ovation for his tearful apology at the Little Rock Touchdown Club in 2019.
“I wanted to be able to come here and apologize to everybody — the fans, the players — and truly tell you how sorry I am for the way it ended,” Petrino said. “But I also wanted to come here and thank you for everything people in this room and this state did for me and my family. You were great to us.”
Whether or not it works out for Arkansas remains to be seen. His offense didn’t quite produce like it has in the past at Texas A&M, as it ranked 26th in scoring (34.2 ppg) and 54th in total offense (403.8 ypg). Still, the Aggies had quarterback issues and were vastly improved over the previous year when they averaged just 22.8 points (101st) and 361.2 yards (93rd) when Darrell Dickey was the OC.
Sam Pittman’s job may depend on a similar, if not better, improvement by the Razorbacks’ offense in 2024. Some were surprised when Yurachek announced he’d return as head coach next year and it seems unlikely he’d survive another season like the 4-8 disaster that unfolded this year.
Petrino has a track record of putting exciting and explosive offenses on the field throughout his career, but it’ll be interesting to see how his personality and pass-happy scheme meshes with Pittman in a subordinate role.
For more on how Petrino could improve the Arkansas offense: