Say this much about the man, Bobby Petrino can still bring Arkansas people to their feet.
Petrino's address to the Little Rock Touchdown Club Monday may not equal the drama of Little Rock-born Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines in triumph (as he predicted) during World War II. But it's one of the nicest moments in Razorback Nation since Petrino went motorcycle riding, and crashed, on April Fool's Day 2012.
Jeff Long, the athletic director who hired Petrino to replace Little Rock native Houston Nutt, also fired the Montana-born coach, and not just for careless driving. Turned out that his female passenger, who was not his wife, was on the University of Arkansas athletic-department payroll and that he had given her $20,000 to buy a new car.
Seven years after he left the state with Razorback football relevant both in the Southeastern Conference and nationally, coming off consecutive 10-win seasons and three bowl appearances, only to find it in disarray, Petrino tried to mend fences. The reception he received in Little Rock left the impression that Bobby might be welcome if, like Grover Cleveland running the country, he ever wanted to coach the Razorbacks again.
The line of fans to shake Petrino's hand stretched halfway around the room. Extra tables were required to handle the overflow crowd for an event that sold out in one day last week. What they heard made one think of more glorious days that Arkansas routinely played big football games and won its share.
"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 the people in this room and this state did for me and my family. You were great to us."
Arkansans tend to be a forgiving bunch. Bill Clinton, denied a second term as governor in 1980, spent the next two years basically going around the state and apologizing for not doing a better job. Clinton returned to the statehouse in 1983 and, you can look it up, never lost another election.
I'm not saying that Petrino's mea culpa will win over the masses, just that it could promote the coach's rehabilitation. If a 76-year-old Joe Biden is trying to unseat a 73-year-old Donald Trump as president, age won't disqualify, at 58, a Petrino return (Mack Brown is back in the workforce at 68 and has North Carolina at 2-0). In an era that offensive football is exploding in all directions, Petrino can engergize a program immediately.
But to say that Robert Patrick Petrino would not carry baggage into his next job would be misreading the matter entirely. Like Lou Holtz, but without the snappy one-liners, Bobby doesn't stay anywhere long. Four years at Louisville, four years at Arkansas, one year (clearly re-establishing his credibility after the Fayetteville fiasco) at Western Kentucky and then four more years and 10 games of a fifth season at Louisville.
Unless he has taken a Dale Carnegie course on the subject, Petrino is not a people person (in full disclosure, I felt this way before Petrino begged out of a scheduled one-on-one interview during a Hot Springs visit for a Razorback Club meeting). But neither was Ken Hatfield, a Razorback football hero of the 1960s who as head coach in the 1980s could not get along with his athletic director and former head coach, Frank Broyles. Ken, who can be a charming person off the field but a most stubborn individual on the job, finally patched things up with Razorback Nation. Perhaps Petrino will be equally successful (who knows, he might find a receptive audience also in Knoxville, Tenn., or Tallahassee, Fla.).
What Petrino does best, and which he has done everywhere he has coached in college, is win games -- and with top talent. He coached a Heisman Trophy winner (Lamar Jackson) at Louisville and turned Arkansas for a time into Wide Receiver U with Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton snagging passes. He was the first "hired gun" brought to Arkansas, and until April Fool's Day 2012, with a 34-17 record and three bowl games, Petrino had the fan base in the palm of his hands.
It was written that Petrino, like the Beatles musically, took Arkansas (achieving No. 3 nationally in his fourth season) to the "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" level of greatness and to a point they could envision "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as the next production. Without Petrino, it has been one struggling pianist after another trying to perform "Chopsticks," much less Chopin.
Petrino made his remarks Monday in the wake of a 31-17 road loss to Ole Miss that left Chad Morris 3-11 overall and 0-9 in the SEC as Razorback head coach. The immediate reaction came from opposite directions.
"Now that BP has apologized what would folks think of him coming back to be an offensive coordinator?" someone said on Twitter, hoping that "Bobby's outside life wouldn't be a problem." A former co-worker expects "a contrite Petrino [already still favored by much of the fan base] to become ever more present in the Arkansas zeitgeist."
After a standing ovation, Petrino said, "You're a special, special group, a special crowd. You don't really understand how much effect you have upon players and their families.
"There's no question the Hogs can come back. Just keep supporting them because you are what makes the University of Arkansas such a special job; there's no question about it."
Make of this what you will, but with a thunderstorm arriving in late afternoon, a rainbow covered the sky about the time Little Rock TV stations went on the air about Bobby Petrino.Sports on 09/10/2019
Print Headline: Petrino gets hero's welcome on LR return