It would be bad enough if Arkansas was rolling the dice on Bobby Petrino at the height of his game. At least then setting their standards aside and swallowing their pride may pay off on the field in the form of copious amounts of yards, points, fantastic offensive recruits and the wins that come along with all that.
But, no, Arkansas brass is re-hiring an employee who lied, cheated and helped plunge the football program into the depths of despair. As if that wasn’t enough, the guy’s skills seem to have diminished.
Fired at Louisville, 18-15 at FCS member Missouri State, backed out on UNLV head coach Barry Odom and was part of the reason Texas A&M fired head coach Jimbo Fisher for underachieving this year. It says something that Texas A&M apparently didn’t give Petrino consideration to take over as head coach.
There’s a reason Petrino was available after the new Texas A&M coach, Mike Elko, chose not to retain him. He’s jumping at this opportunity in Arkansas because that is pretty much all that is left. He is not coming to Arkansas the way he did from the Falcons with the swagger of an offensive genius, and Arkansas football fans thinking Petrino can re-create the Sugar Bowl run of 2011 are grasping for straws. This isn’t Back to the Future. Arkansas isn’t getting the Michael Jordan who led the Bulls to the six championships. They are getting the MJ who came back foolishly one more time with the Washington Wizards.
However, the UA administration is banking on Arkansas football fans having a suspension of disbelief and just a couple days in, it is working. Based on the way many folks have been talking, the mood has gone from hateful toward Hogs head coach Sam Pittman to jubilant. Even his neck brace from the motorcycle accident, once a symbol fit for mockery and derision, seems to have become more of a sign of affection from some younger fans who were perhaps 5 or 6 when he last coached at the UA:
The applause given to Bobby Petrino when ESPN cameras caught him perched in Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night during Arkansas’ win over Duke is part of near tsunami of optimism crashing over Razorback Nation this week. That is a sharp contrast from the “Fire Pittman” stance from many fans last week.
Even media member Trey Biddy, who has been thrust into the limelight after his question to Pittman following the Missouri throttling was answered with a “I don’t know’” seemed to have a pep in his step as he made his daily appearance on Drive Time Sports.
Issues with Bobby Petrino after Arkansas
Not to rain on the parade, but here are some points of fact and reality that shed some light on Petrino’s ability and behavior, which is supposed to have been improved since the motorcycle incident.
Western Kentucky took a chance on Petrino and after leading them to an 8-4 season, but he promptly bolted to Louisville, where he had coached previously. There was no loyalty or commitment toward the folks who in Bowling Green, Ky. rolled the dice on him.
Petrino did have a mostly good second run with the Cardinals and part of it had to do with landing potential NFL Hall Fame QB Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals were 9-4, 8-5, 9-4 and 8-5 the first four years he was there. However, the wheels fell off in 2018 when Louisville finished 2-8 and 0-7 in the league. He was fired after that season. He left with a 77-35 record, which begs the question: How was he fired after one bad season?
Louisville, after all, is not a college football Blue Blood such as LSU or Auburn where they fired coaches who won national titles. There were reports that players were not happy with him and as many 20 players were threatening to transfer. A firing after four straight winning seasons at a ‘basketball school’ would indicate something had gone wrong off the field, which may go against the “due diligence” research Hunter Yurachek and Sam Pittman said they performed on Petrino before making this hire. At Louisville, was it that rudeness that he was known for at Arkansas that finally reared its ugly head? The nature of the departure leads one to question.
It should also be noted that no other Division I schools were rushing to hire Petrino following that firing, and he had to settle for the head-coaching job at lowly FCS Missouri State. At a program that hasn’t won big in 30 years, Petrino did lead them to the playoffs twice but only had an 18-15 record overall.
That run wasn’t impressive enough to get a Division I school to offer a head-coaching job, so he landed the offensive coordinator gig at UNLV last year with former Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom. He barely touched down in Sin City before he left Odom at the altar to take a sexier, far more lucrative OC job with Texas A&M. Odom was counting on him to help rebuild UNLV.
Despite all the whitewashing that inevitably comes with a new coach hire, Petrino’s reputation precedes him. In 2002, as Auburn offensive coordinator, he was plotting against then-Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville to take his job. He left the Atlanta Falcons during the middle of the 2007 season, which coincidentally is the season in which current Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams played for the Falcons. You got to think their first meeting may be a little awkward.
He has a reputation as a cutthroat narcissist and that abandonment suggests some of that is still there. Why else would you leave a job after a few weeks? If you truly had changed, wouldn’t you turn Fisher down and stay at UNLV? The answer is ‘yes.” A leopard doesn’t change his spots.
Houston Nutt Knows the Deal
Knowing Bobby Petrino’s history of backstabbing, Pittman should be at least a little nervous. Sure, they looked chummy enough seated together in Bud Walton Arena, but it would also easy to assume that this wasn’t his idea. Kind of like when late UA athletic director Frank Broyles forced then-head coach Houston Nutt to hire up-and-coming local high school coach, an offensive wizard, Gus Malzahn. We all remember how that turned out.
On Wednesday, during a regular appearance on Little Rock talk show Morning Mayhem, former Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt said this is dynamic is “very, very tough on Sam” because, at this point, Petrino is more popular than him and being hailed as a potential savior. For sure, nobody’s chanting Pittman’s name at sold-out basketball games:
“it’s going to be real, real interesting,” Nutt continued, “and I feel sorry for Sam a little bit in this situation because he’s still the leader of the team.”
Despite Petrino’s insistence on Hogs Plus on Wednesday that he’s loving being just a coordinator, I think he’s likely licking his chops knowing that Pittman’s status is shaky and that with a good offensive season, he could get his old job back. If the administration considers after how badly he burned the bridge, that is desperate. But having him on staff opens that door.
In his lone season as the OC for the Aggies, Petrino had an OK run with quarterbacks he wasn’t expecting to play. A&M was No. 25 in the NCAA in scoring offense with a 34.2 points per game average. The Aggies were 53 in total offense with just over 400 yards per game.
Like Nutt said on Wednesday morning, “[Petrino] needs to show more.”
So, let’s review Petrino’s resume post-UA firing. 8-4 in one season at WKU, who continued to be successful under former UL quarterback Jeff Brohm. A great stint at Louisville, which included a Heisman Trophy-winning QB but the tenure ended with an abject failure of a conference season. Just a bit over .500 at Missouri State. A fleeing of UNLV and an average season as a play caller at A&M.
Tip of the cap to him for a good start and WKU and Louisville, but that isn’t impressive enough to forget about him tromping on the state of Arkansas employee handbook and tarnishing the reputation of the school. To make this risk worth it, he needs to have won bigger in the last few years His firing at UL is a red flag. So is the fact that no one other coaches besides Odom, who was rebuilding at a perennially losing program, as well as a lame duck in Fisher, seemed to pursue him.
Arkansas Football Goes Down the List
Texas A&M could have saved a lot of money by promoting Petrino, but that proposal would have fallen flatter than the attempt to hire Mike Stoops away from Kentucky. Zero interest in a guy who was one of the coordinators. None. And no interest from any other programs to serve as an OC or head coach at any of the other programs with vacancies. Only, ironically, Arkansas.
After the Hogs were routed by Missouri on Black Friday, everyone involved in the program understood this was going to be a stormy off-season. Even fans who stood by Pittman for most of the year had turned on him. The UA brass was obviously worried that this season would undoubtedly lead to lower ticket sales next season. But after proclaiming Sam Pittman as the coach for 2024, it would be tough to axe him. That created a major dilemma.
A splashy OC hire would going to add optimism, but as some of the top candidates began to decline, the optics became worse. Now, at least temporarily, it appears many in the fan base are happy. That has to be pleasing to the administration. A PR meltdown – or, perhaps even worse, rampant apathy – has been averted, at least until the season. Many in the national media will have fun with motorcycle jokes, etc. Taming the fan base, and more importantly big-money boosters, is the bigger emphasis. Especially, as the program rolls out a new NIL collective this week which implores fans to donate.
Arkansas was backed into a corner – they went with a quick fix. Bobby Petrino is a band-aid on a gaping wound. Yes, there’s a chance this turns into a long-term solution. Those odds are way less than Petrino not living up to his end of the deal on the field and recruiting trail and showing his true colors. It’s been a recurring theme. One we in Arkansas, of all places, know all too well.
Houston Nutt on Parallels to Frank Broyles/Gus Malzahn Situation
As a Little Rock native and former Razorback himself, Nutt took the state by storm in 1998 in his first season as the Razorbacks head coach. Then athletic director Frank Broyles was essentially hands off and let him do his thing, he told The Buzz 103.7 FM’s David Bazzel and Roger Scott. “
“We took over the state with this unbelievable excitement, passion, and got on a roll.” At times, that’s how Pittman’s run during the 2021 season felt too.
But then a few years passed, some of Nutt’s teams showed inconsistency and heading into the 2006 season Broyles wanted Nutt to bring aboard Gus Malzahn, then Springdale High’s hot-shot offensive genius, on as the offensive coordinator. All the good vibes of those first few years are gone.
“That’s the worst scenario,” Nutt said. “It’s the worst because it wasn’t like the first two, three, four years. Now it’s different. It makes it harder on the head coach because there’s more pressure than ever. And the bottom line is, we all know, one word. It’s how you spell “fun”: W-I-N. You’ve got to win.”
“And Coach Broyles was always honest about that. ‘I love the way your players walk across the stage to get their degree. I love that they’re in the community, but I pay you to win.’… It’s not easy in this scenario for the head coach.”
It takes a lot of ego subduing and humility to pull something like this off successfully as a head coach, as Fayette Villains’ Adam Ford points out. Sam Pittman has “been the very popular face of Razorback football for four years, and he just invited back the only coach in the last decade-plus that was more successful than him. If the offense turns it around, Petrino will get all the credit, but if the turnaround doesn’t happen, Pittman will be fired.”
“There is almost no personal glory for him in this. He just wants to win that badly and is now acutely aware of his own limitations.”
National Media Comes Out Against Bobby Petrino Hire
A few pundits and columnists were not too hot on the Petrino hire on ESPN’s “Around the Horn”:
Kevin Blackstone (Sports Journalist -Washington Post, Journalism Professor-College of Maryland)
“We’re talking about a college campus. We’re talking about a coach who is supposedly there in part to mold young men. How can you have that background of being fired at that institution part of which includes you possibly lying to police officers about the unfortunate circumstances of an accident that are embarrassing. No, you cannot have this.”
Kevin Clark (Host-This is Football on ESPN)
“Selling everything about this including the contract which is for a lot of money, there’s a country club membership in there. Who are they bidding against for Bobby Petrino, who’s not even on the short list of top offensive minds in college football?” [This hits on a similar note to the criticism of Yurachek for re-upping Pittman’s contract in 2021 despite there being little chance of another major program hiring him away.]
“The most worrying part of this is Sam Pittman is on the hot seat. There could be interim head coach Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. This is a disaster for the university.”
Bill Plaschke (Sports Columnist-LA Times)
“I can’t believe the president of the University of Arkansas is down with this. I can’t believe the students are down with this.”
Listen to the full interview with Houston Nutt starting at 2:20 below:
Key UA officials, it seems, would largely disagree with Olson’s perspective. Click below for more on findings that Petrino “has not engaged in any conduct that has negatively or adversely affected the reputation of any institution or their athletic programs” after 2012:
For a contrarian view to this column, go here:
More on Arkansas football from BoAS: