The UA Made Exception for Bobby Petrino in 2023 But Apparently Was Ready to Make One in 2012 Too

Bobby Petrino, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / video

April 2012 and November 2023 will now be forever linked.

That was the dismissal of one Robert Patrick Petrino in the former and his return to the University of Arkansas in the latter.

Many people felt that rehiring Petrino in any capacity for the program would never happen. The deceit was too great, they felt. He had given the program such a black eye that bringing him back would be akin to allowing an abusive, alcoholic husband and father back into the family home.

Plus, the Arkansas football program, save for a few brief glimmers of hope here and there, has largely been irrelevant nationally since he was last there.

There’s little reason to hold that against Petrino now, but in the first few years after his hiring of his mistress, motorcycle wreck and subsequent fallout, it was absolutely fair game.

Fast forward to last offseason. Sam Pittman had a dilemma. His offense, which was led by Kendal Briles his first three years with Arkansas, had moved on to TCU.

Pittman needed an offensive coordinator. He had a relationship with Dan Enos from the year they spent at Arkansas together on the same staff in 2015, so it seemed like a reunion that would work out.

That would be a hard “no.”

Pittman had to fire Enos after eight games, six losses and a whole lot of sputtering. He promoted Kenny Guiton and the Razorbacks went 2-2 in November to finish 4-8, their worst 12-game season since Chad Morris’ 2-10 season in 2019.

When Pittman was in need of an offensive coordinator yet again, he wasn’t sure where to turn. Thanks to Texas A&M firing Jimbo Fisher and not wanting to retain Bobby Petrino’s services on newly hired Mike Elko’s staff, the man who was responsible for Arkansas’ last 11-win season was available.

Petrino’s agent reached out. Pittman reached back out. The two talked and Petrino later said the prospect of getting a chance to return to Fayetteville made the “hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

There was one hurdle that needed to be cleared, however.

Process of Arkansas Football Rehiring Bobby Petrino

Dr. Donald Bobbitt, who has been president of the University of Arkansas System since taking over for B. Alan Sugg in 2011, is one of the few holdovers in university administration from when Petrino was originally here as head coach.

Petrino was fired by former athletic director Jeff Long for “cause,” which meant the university owed him nothing upon his dismissal.

A new University of Arkansas employment policy was enacted a year later which stated that employees who were fired with cause from the university were not eligible for rehire. Our Andrew Hutchinson laid those parameters out well and what needed to take place to get Petrino back in the fold.

Bobbitt recently had an exclusive conversation with Best of Arkansas Sports in which he referenced the policy and the due diligence that both UA chancellor Charles Robinson and athletics director Hunter Yurachek took in rehashing the events that led to Petrino’s fall from grace at Arkansas, everything he’s done since then, and then determining if he was still a fit for the current program under Sam Pittman.

The only reason Robinson wrote Bobbitt, though, was because without the president’s approval and waiving of the policy, Yurachek – and by extension Pittman – would’ve been back to square one in the OC hiring process.

Upon reading their findings, the UA president saw no reason to withhold his approval.

According to Bobbitt, no other employees in the University of Arkansas system have ever been fired for cause and rehired since the policy was enacted.

“I’m not aware of any other exceptions made to the policy since its inception,” Bobbitt wrote in an email.

Fans typically only become aware of who the chancellor or president of the university are when a coaching change is needed or sought in a major sport. Bobbitt’s personality lends him to anonymity, as he is a very humble, soft-spoken man.

However, things change when the Arkansas football team struggles, especially as much as it did this past season. Emails can begin to pour in to the board of trustees, who then usually pass them along to the chancellor and the president.

Bobbitt recognized that, but made sure to note that it is not in his best interest to meddle with or control any of the athletic departments within the UA system.

“The President and Board of Trustees will generally receive feedback on a number of issues throughout the year regarding the campuses, divisions, and units across the state they are charged with overseeing and governing,” Bobbitt wrote. “It is important to note that it is not the role of the President and BOT to manage the Razorback football program or any of the athletic programs at other UA System campuses.

“Rather, they are charged with ensuring sound leadership at the institutional level and executing their authority related to Board policy.”

This means they will take charge if needed if the athletic director is unable or unwilling to, or in the absence of an athletic director. Also, they provide their approval on all hires to make sure nothing goes against policy or could be considered unethical.

Not as Controversial as it Seems

Bobby Petrino was a unique case in the sense that he was the head coach winning at the highest level the football program had seen in over three decades when he was let go.

Indeed, it was that success that apparently made Petrino feel like he was bullet-proof and immune from getting fired when things went down back in April 2012. According to a story told by Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin, Jeff Long was ready to essentially allow for an exception back in 2012 and keep Petrino on board if he had agreed to an amended contract. 

After the firing, Petrino apparently called one of his best friends, who knew John Engleman, the former sports director at the Fort Smith-based KFSM-TV where Irwin used to work. He told Engleman’s source that “they actually were going to give him an ‘out.’ He wasn’t going to be fired. He just had to agree to some things.”

“He had to apologize. He had to agree to an amended contract, which would specify things he could and couldn’t do,” Irwin said on the episode of “Ask Mike” below. “And, according to this guy, Petrino apparently told Jeff Long, ‘You’re trying to turn me into a monk, and I won’t do it.’ And then he thought they wouldn’t fire him.”

Petrino was wrong, obviously, but it appears he has been sufficiently humbled and more than anything is ready to capitalize on such a rare shot at redemption. As Irwin says, “This is what I’ve been told: He doesn’t just have fire, he has a burning desire to make up for what he did.”

Petrino had never spoken ill of the program, had never been publically vindictive about wanting to get “revenge” against anyone. The athletic director who fired him met the same fate five plus years later.

All in all, this decision to hire Bobby Petrino looks to be a win-win for the administration. It has renewed hope in the program, is almost guaranteed to sell tickets and put butts in seats for home games in 2024, and isn’t putting Arkansas in a negative light nationally despite what certain columnists and the guests on “Around the Horn” might say.

Quite a few people never wanted Petrino to go in the first place, and the widespread embrace of him in the last week only makes that clearer than ever. 

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Listen to more from Irwin on the Petrino situation starting at 17:12:

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More coverage of Arkansas football and Bobby Petrino from BoAS…

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