Mike Irwin Goes Ham on the Bobby Petrino Conspiracy Believers

Bobby Petrino, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: There’s a very real chance that Bobby Petrino will be the next Arkansas football head coach. It’s far from a certainty. Heck, it’s not even more than likely. But it doesn’t take a lengthy stretch of imagination to envision Petrino as the Head Hog once again.

However, longtime Arkansas sports reporter Mike Irwin adamantly disagrees:

“I don’t see [Sam] Pittman getting fired,” Irwin said in a recent episode of Ask Mike. “The people that say that he’s going to get fired before the season is over, are the same people that believe Bobby Petrino is just waiting there to be the next head coach. 

“They’re not paying any attention. Go talk to anybody that knows him. He doesn’t want to be a head coach anymore. He’s toward the end of his career, his head coaching stuff is behind him. He never liked any of that stuff. It brought out the worst in him, and now he’s back on the advice of his agent, who originally proposed this: You might like to go back. You’ve always talked about how much you liked the start of your career when you were an offensive coordinator.

“And I think he would be perfectly happy to stay here for the next four or five years and help this school. I think he wants to give something back for the way he left the first time he was here. And I just think it’s a combination that’s going to work.”

We have a lot of respect for Irwin at BoAS, but insistence that Petrino doesn’t want to be the Arkansas football coach again just a year removed from his Texas A&M OC gig seems pretty naive. Petrino is a known liar. All coaches are to some extent. Deception and misdirection are part of the game, whether it’s on the field, in front of the media or in a recruit’s living room. But it’s pretty clear that Bobby’s penchant for deceit extends well beyond the job.

Anybody with a couple decades of life under their belt can tell you, liars lie to their family, their friends, their employers and especially themselves. They have to. In their minds, they’re still the hero of their own story. That’s Bobby Petrino.

So, when his agent and his friends, and the man himself, all say he’s done with head coaching, I’m not buying it. 

But Irwin is an Arkansas sports insider. Maybe he knows something we don’t. So let’s just break Irwin’s take down a bit further:

  • Petrino’s toward the end of his career, and his head coaching is behind him.

Petrino’s 63. One year older than Pittman, who is the 13th-oldest College Football Head Coach coming into the 2024 season. But the oldest coach is Mack Brown at 72, so there’s no reason to think that Petrino doesn’t have another 8-10 years of football coaching ahead of him. And I’ll give you 3.75 million rea$ons why Petrino would happily fill a Razorback head coaching vacancy.

  • Head coaching brought out the worst in Petrino.

It sure did, and as far as anyone could tell, he loved it. As former Louisville wide receiver JaQuay Savage once wrote of his former coach, “That mf hated everybody.”

  • Petrino’s back on the advice of his agent.

Does it sound like Petrino is positioning himself to deflect blame before there’s been a live snap of football? Yes, it does.

  • He would be perfectly happy to stay here for the next four or five years and help this school. He wants to give something back for the way he left the first time he was here.

Bobby… feels bad… and wants to give back? That’s just not the man we’ve come to know over the years, and it’s hard to believe that BMFP has donned a halo and come back to Arkansas to pay penance.

Texas A&M Football Fan on Petrino

To gain some perspective, I turned to a fanbase that was in a similar situation this time last year—the Texas A&M Aggies.

The r/Aggies subreddit had some interesting things to say about their former offensive coordinator. There was some initial excitement about Jimbo Fisher hiring Bobby Petrino within some Texas A&M football circles. But the big question was whether Fisher would actually relinquish his offense to Petrino. 

The consensus was that if he did let Petrino call the shots on the offensive side of the ball, the Aggies just might have success. Alas, that was not the case.

“I honestly thought he was going to kick some life into our offense and let Jimbo do the recruiting and CEO duties rather than playcalling,” Redditor u/keato-n wrote. “However, Jimbo is a stubborn a-hole who couldn’t let his offense go.”

The Aggie quarterbacks also suffered behind a shoddy offensive line. The team ended up starting three different quarterbacks because they couldn’t keep them healthy.

There was also a perception within Aggie nation that Fisher and Petrino’s offensive styles are “washed-up.” Arkansas fans should have that concern, too. What worked in Petrino’s first stint at Arkansas may not work in his second.

“[Petrino’s] washed up style wasn’t going to drastically turn around the offense with a roster of recruited mercenaries that neither him (sic) or Jimbo showed any desire to adapt around,” wrote u/DeathRose007.

And, of course, there were character concerns. 

“I was really disappointed in the university for again hiring a coach with so much baggage,” u/busche916 wrote. “I value character as much as the results on the field, but that view has not often been shared by our AD.”

Interestingly, there was very little desire (or fear) that Petrino might take over the head coach role if Fisher was fired mid-season or in the offseason. Mostly, the hire was seen as a last-ditch effort for Fisher to keep his job. 

Fisher was eventually fired in early November with more than $75 million left on his contract, and the team limped to 7-6 with a bowl loss against Oklahoma State. Fisher was 45-25 over his six-year tenure at A&M.

He was replaced by longtime Aggie assistant coach Elijah Robinson, who had served as defensive line coach, co-defensive coordinator and run game coordinator at A&M.

Duke head coach Mike Elko, a former Aggie coordinator (2018-21), was hired to lead the team for the 2024 season.

Arkansas Will Differ from Texas A&M

First and foremost, Bobby Petrino won’t be butting heads with his head coach on the offensive side of the ball. Sam Pittman’s not a play-caller and he’s always handed the offense off to his coordinator – for better or worse. 

But is Petrino’s style washed up as Aggie fans suggested? It’s really hard to say. The college football landscape is in a state of rapid change right now. It’s impossible to predict how that will play out. With so much roster turnover across the major college sports, we may see more simplified schemes and playbooks. 

It may also be hard to tell if the style is solid or not, because Arkansas may very well be outclassed on both sides of the ball. Remember what Petrino offenses looked like when they played Bama? In those games, the Hogs have looked more like an FCS school than an SEC school, averaging less than 14 points per game under Petrino. That’s what happens when the other team is far more talented, which could be the case with the majority of Arkansas’ schedule this year.

There’s clearly much more fan support for Petrino to be the next head coach than he had at Texas A&M. The Razorbacks’ last 10-win seasons were under Petrino and fans haven’t forgotten that. Much of Hog Nation has been vocal about their willingness to overlook his character flaws in exchange for wins. Aggie fans didn’t have that connection with Petrino.

And unlike was the case with Texas A&M football, there isn’t really an obvious Arkansas assistant to take over in the event of a midseason firing. Special teams coordinator Scott Fountain is the only long-time assistant now that Jimmy Smith jumped ship, but he hasn’t been a head coach in three decades, and that was at the high school level. That leaves Petrino as a likely candidate to fill in as interim head coach if Pittman is sacked.

Scenarios for Petrino’s Potential Promotion

Now let me be clear: I don’t think Bobby Petrino will be the next Arkansas head coach. My gut feeling is that there’s a 20% chance at best. But the chance is there.

Internal offensive coordinator-to-head coach promotions are not that common, after all.

There have been some high-profile cases over the years, like Jimbo Fisher taking over for Bobby Bowden at Florida State in 2010, Gus Malzahn replacing Gene Chizik at Auburn in 2013 (with a stop at Arkansas State in between) and Lincoln Riley getting the promotion at Oklahoma when Bob Stoops retired in 2017.

But over the last 10 years, there have been 56 coaching vacancies in Power 5 football. Only six of those vacancies, roughly 10%, were filled by the school’s current offensive coordinator.

So, what would have to happen for Petrino to become the next Head Hog?

Scenario 1: Pittman Retires at the End of the Season

Over the last 10 years, this is the most common path for offensive coordinators to become head coaches at the same school. Fisher took over for Bowden who retired at age 80. Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer at Ohio State when he retired for “health reasons” and Lincoln Riley took over for Bob Stoops when he retired.

In all those cases, those teams were moderately to very successful prior to the OC’s promotion. Ohio State and Oklahoma were still winning 11-plus games when their OCs took over. Bowden at Florida State was the exception, going 7-6 with a bowl win before Fisher took over.

While this is the most common scenario in Power Four football, it’s hard to imagine the Hogs having the kind of success it typically takes for an OC to get the head coaching job.

Scenario 2: Pittman is Fired at the End of Season

It’s not a perfect example because he had a one-year stint at Arkansas State in between, but think Gus Malzahn replacing Chizik at Auburn. 

The Tigers were 3-9 the year Chizik was fired. This is a weird scenario that requires an odd mix of team losses and offensive success. When a team goes 3-9 to cap a multi-year backslide, most administrations clean house, offensive coordinator included. Malzahn’s successful year with the Red Wolves led to Auburn bringing him back. The Tigers appeared in the national title game the following season. 

Scenario 3: Pittman is Fired Mid-Season

The Hogs would have to get off to a pretty terrible start. But looking at the schedule, that’s a real possibility. A 2-4 start with wins over UAPB and UAB could happen. From there, it’s nothing but SEC play until Nov. 23 against Louisiana Tech. There’s only so many losses this fan base will tolerate before they demand a change. Will the administration pull the plug on Pittman at 2-4? Maybe. But it’s hard to imagine the fans or Hunter Yurachek sticking with Pittman if they get to 2-6. 

With Petrino right there on campus and fans clamoring to give him a shot, it stands to reason they would want to give him four or more games to see what he can do as interim coach. 

To be fair, this scenario doesn’t happen much, if ever, in Power 5 football. Typically, when there’s a mid-season firing, the interim coach is somebody lower on the totem pole like a defensive line or tight ends coach – think Ed Orgeron replacing Les Miles, or even Barry Lunney Jr. filling in for the-coach-who-shall-not-be-named.

Even more rarely does the interim coach get the permanent job as Orgeron did. Still, it’s a possibility, and given his previous success in the state of Arkansas, this seems like the most likely scenario that ends with Petrino as the head coach.

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See Irwin’s full take on the situation starting at 30:00 here:

More coverage of Arkansas football and Bobby Petrino from BoAS… 

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