Bobby Petrino’s Embrace of Less Responsibility Should Tamp Down That Interim Head Coach Talk

Petrino Rides Again

Bobby Petrino

The words “dumpster fire” get thrown around a lot these days. Particularly when the subject of the Arkansas Razorback football team’s 2023 offense is the subject under discussion. While watching the Arkansas – Mississippi State debacle (or was it during the Texas A&M sack fest or the drubbing by Auburn or the unwatchable and unwatched Missouri game?)  I had an old familiar feeling. A “will we ever get another (insert favorite expletive here) first down” feeling.

As an Arkansas football fan, years of my life have been spent living with this feeling. 

For a few years, Bobby Petrino-era football banished this dreaded fear. No longer were you a prisoner to falling behind schedule after running the ball on first down. You weren’t relying on your QB to manufacture a first down by tucking the ball and running on a broken play. A third and short was an opportunity to punish the defense for selling out to stop the run. Football was fun. Sure Arkansas might not have the most talented team in the SEC, but it still had the best offensive mind in the SEC. Perhaps the best in college football. And that kind of mind attracts talent.

When the rumors started about Petrino’s return to Fayetteville geared up earlier this week I was about as giddy as a college football fan can be after coming off a 4-win season. When the hiring was confirmed my Texas fan “friends” immediately sent me an AI generated photo collage in an attempt to mock me. I immediately made it my screen saver and forwarded it to my little brother. “This is why AI was invented” he replied. 

So I was fully on board with the controversial decision to bring Petrino back, especially given his emotional return to the Little Rock Touchdown Club a few years ago.

During the Arkansas vs Duke basketball game, when Petrino flashed on the screen, I nudged my nephew and told him Arkansas football was going to be fun to watch again. My nephew, correctly, jumped off the Razorback football train early this season. As the hoops Hogs delivered the best night for an Arkansas fan in 2023 (the Kansas victory came in the afternoon), Arkansas fans chanting “Bobby” was just a cherry on top. Petrino was back and all was right in the world again. 

I thought every right-thinking Arkansan shared my sentiments. Apparently I was wrong

Houston Nutt and fellow BoAS columnist Nate Olson raised some valid concerns about the Petrino hire. 

2023 Petrino may not be 2011 Petrino. The game evolves and it’s not clear whether Petrino still has his fastball or not. 

Petrino has demonstrated repeatedly a certain infidelity when it comes to his employers over his career. 

Adding a highly regarded hotshot offensive coordinator did not work out for at least one former Arkansas coach. One wonders if there will be too many cooks in the kitchen, and if Pittman will be coaching with one eye looking over his shoulder. USA Today’s Dan Wolken went so far as to ask him followers this:

Post 2012, Petrino’s record has not been a string of unmitigated success. If Petrino is so great, why was the Arkansas offensive coordinator position his best option?

I would add another concern as to how much can be expected in one off season implementing a new system with what looks to be many new players at many positions including quarterback. Especially in a season that is do-or-die for the coaching staff.

Countering Concerns about Bobby Petrino

And while these are valid concerns, I am still completely on board for the second Petrino era. 

People are quick to point out Petrino’s Machiavellian career trajectory. But Petrino is only going to have the opportunity to cash out and move on if he is wildly successful turning around Arkansas’s offense next year. 

Still, even if he did turn the offense around, he’s not exactly an up and comer at that point. I doubt any major  programs would line up for the head coaching services of a 63-year-old or 64-year-old in the next one or two years. 

It’s clear Petrino wants to be back at the highest level of college football. It’s also clear he’s enjoying not having his plate as full as it would be if he were head coach. 

“Calling a game is a lot easier nowadays than being a head coach, so I’m certainly enjoying it,” he said on the Razorback Daily. At Texas A&M, “I think I probably had one of the funnest years I’ve ever had, just being in the classroom with the players and teaching again.

He also like that the “hour meetings that you had before practice go like 10 minutes and it’s over and you got to get out on the field.” Plus, as a coordinator, he hasn’t had to dig into the weeds as much on NIL and transfer portal as a head coach would dealing with both sides of the ball and making final calls in recruiting. “I think football is a little crazy right now with the NIL and the transfer portal and all that,” he added. “I think I’ve just taken a step back and enjoying teaching and coaching and still having the same relationship with the players and having fun.”

That doesn’t sound like a man whose appetite for power is the same as it once was. Plus, moving down in competition to be the head coach again seems unlikely. I do not think it is unfair to say this is Bobby Petrino’s last, best chance to be successful in the college football big leagues. 

Which leads me to my next word of the day – redemption. Sometimes in life you get a second chance. A chance to right previous wrongs and do better a second time. Petrino has that rare opportunity. He is coaching for his legacy. The past is not static. Our view of history often changes based on events in the present. Should Petrino Part Deux prove successful he turns the darkest moment in his life into a rousing redemption story. I assume this is a powerful motivation and Arkansas might get the best of Petrino. And that is a Petrino you want on your team. 

To understand why he wasn’t made head coach at Texas A&M after they got rid of Jimbo Fisher, must understand Texas football fans. University of Texas fans all believe they are the Alabama of college football. Texas A&M fans all believe they are the University of Texas of college football. Of course neither is true. A&M believes they should be a perennial national championship contender and perennial national championship contenders are not promoting Bobby Petrino to be the head coach. Since Petrino was only hired to try and correct the Jimbo problem, there was no way the Aggies were going to keep him after Fisher’s dismissal. 

More Freedom = Better Arkansas Football?

For those who worry about what went down this past fall represents the ceiling on Petrino’s current capabilities, take solace: he was limited to Jimbo’s plays and schemes. There’s no way Pittman will make the same mistake.  Sam is going to tell him to open that playbook up and let’s go get us some wins so we can hit Lake Hamilton together and do some water skiing. As an aside, one of the other revelations from Petrino’s press conference was that he’s an avid water skier. Who knew?

Can Petrino still bring the high heat? The performance of Petrino’s Missouri State team at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2022 suggests he still can. The big cigars at a certain school in College Station, Texas believed he still was an offensive guru less than a year ago. 

Some insight into how Petrino’s offensive concepts have evolved can be read here. I was going to link to Petrino’s 2020 book “Inside the Pocket: An In Depth Analysis of the Xs & Os” but it is out of print at the moment. Not the greatest sign, I admit. I am not a football guru, but these concepts seem better than this year’s “Let’s make sure all of our receivers run to the exact same place before KJ gets sacked”  offense. Also, I like the sound of spreading a defense to open up the run as opposed to maybe our running back can pick up some yards after contact for a two-yard gain.

In addition to improved schemes and play calling I expect Petrino to help in other areas. Listen to his former Arkansas players discuss his impact on their development and his general no-nonsense approach. His despotic approach, which apparently has mellowed with age, does come with certain positives. 

Despite the prevalence of the NIL, most players choose a school based on which staff they feel can best help get them to the next level. And this is where I think Petrino can help immediately and in the long run at Arkansas.

Helping Sam Pittman on Recruiting Trail

Perhaps no recruit will be familiar with his success at Louisville and Arkansas. But Petrino can talk at length about players he helped on to NFL careers. When you are sitting with a recruit this is a real advantage and one that Arkansas will need to lean on in the upcoming transferpalooza and trying to keep together a promising recruiting class after the aforementioned “dumpster fire.”

This hiring may also prove to give Sam Pittman one more year as head coach should next year’s team falter and fail to reach six or seven wins. I threw up in my mouth typing that sentence, but I can imagine a scenario where the team gets better as the season goes on, wins two SEC games and there is a cautious optimism they are on the right track. 

The cupboard looks pretty bare and at least a year of rebuilding is needed unless the transfer portal comes through in a major way. At this point, the portal may taketh more than giveth. 

I would argue for cautious optimism at a minimum. A little more than 10 years ago a lot of Arkansas fans were making the argument Petrino was the best coach in college football with a straight face. That is what happens when you take a school to their only top 5, hell top 10 finish, in over 40 years. Petrino took the Arkansas football program to heights they haven’t seen since I was born. 

How can you not be excited to have a coach like that back at your school?


Go to 11:43 to hear Pat Forde, Ross Dellenger and Dan Wetzel discuss Petrino’s return:

For more on Arkansas football and Bobby Petrino from BoAS:

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