Bobby Petrino to Arkansas football: Drastic times call for drastic measures

April 3, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino speaks at a press conference at Razorback Stadium following a motorcycle accident he sustained on April 1. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports
April 3, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino speaks at a press conference at Razorback Stadium following a motorcycle accident he sustained on April 1. Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports /

No conference features more of an arms race than the SEC, and in such heated conditions, it often takes drastic measures to keep up with everybody else. For Arkansas football, that has come in the form of Bobby Petrino’s return to Fayetteville.

There are few images in recent college football history more shocking than the official announcement, from the official Arkansas Football X account, of Petrino’s hiring as the next Razorback offensive coordinator.

Why is this move so shocking?

The short answer is: Petrino was extremely successful as the head coach at Arkansas, and then he was fired for off-field issues.

The long answer is, well, strap in.

After a four-year stint at Louisville in which he won 41 games, and then a single season with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons in which he quit on the team with three games left in the season a day after promising Arthur Blank he wasn’t going anywhere, Petrino arrived in Fayetteville.

Petrino was hired by Arkansas football in 2008 to succeed Houston Nutt. The Razorbacks went 5-7 in his first season, then won 8 games in 2009, 10 games in 2010, and 11 games in 2011.

One of the hallmarks of Petrino’s Arkansas football tenure was his offense under quarterback Ryan Mallett. In 26 games over two years, the late Mallett threw for 7,493 yards and 62 touchdowns in Petrino’s offense.

The final game of Petrino’s time at Arkansas was a 29-16 Cotton Bowl win against Kansas State on January 6th, 2012.

The following April, Petrino was involved in a motorcycle crash, and despite initially stating that he was alone, he later admitted that riding with him was Jessica Dorrell, a former Arkansas volleyball player whom he hired just weeks earlier as a student-athlete development coordinator for the football program. He also revealed an affair between the two.

Petrino was placed on administrative leave by athletic director Jeff Long, and then fired just a few days later.

What is the reaction in Fayetteville?

When a coach with a checkered past is hired, there is typically a portion of the fanbase that pushes back. Just last offseason, a sizable chunk of vocal Auburn fans made it clear that they weren’t pleased with the hiring of Hugh Freeze, despite his success at Ole Miss and his knack for beating Nick Saban.

In Fayetteville, however, it’s tough to find upset Razorbacks.

Winning, indeed, seems to heal all wounds, and as Arkansas football looks back at Petrino’s tenure, the controversy is outweighed by one thing: winning.

For everyone else, that image of Petrino wearing a neck brace at a press conference is the lasting image of his time at Arkansas, but in Fayetteville, it’s beating four ranked teams in 2011. It’s beating sixth-ranked LSU for the Golden Boot in 2010. It’s watching Ryan Mallett play quarterback better than anyone ever had in over 100 years of Arkansas football, and better than anyone has since.

In the SEC, controversy fades, but the memories of big wins last forever.

Why now?

If you asked Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yuracheck, off the record, if he really wanted to bring back the most controversial figure in the program’s history, he’d probably tell you that it’s not ideal.

You know what else isn’t ideal? A 4-8 overall record and a 6th-place finish in the SEC West.

While Yuracheck isn’t quite ready to give up on head coach Sam Pittman, it’s clear that 2024 will be the last chance for the Razorbacks to capitalize on the energy that Pittman brought to Fayetteville when he was hired.

After a 3-7 debut year, the Hogs won nine games in 2021, but a 7-6 campaign in 2022 and this season’s four wins have undone so much of that momentum.

Not to mention, the lone bright spot in Fayetteville, quarterback KJ Jefferson, seems to be considering transferring out of Arkansas:

So, 2024 is a make-or-break year for the Razorbacks. Can they retain Jefferson and produce more consistently on offense? Or, does the Pittman era continue to deteriorate, creating a future in which a multi-year rebuild begins in 2025?

It’s especially urgent because of what is happening around the conference. Mississippi State just hired Jeff Lebby, one of the hottest young candidates in the country and an offensive mind with a strong track record. Texas A&M just hired Mike Elko, previously the Aggies’ defensive coordinator during the best of the Jimbo Fisher years. Auburn showed plenty of positive signs in Freeze’s first season. After what many called a down year for the SEC, 2024 should see improvement for much of the league’s current middle.

Next. Playoff scenarios for all eight national title contenders. dark

If Pittman can’t turn things around, Arkansas will find itself solidly in the basement of the conference. No measure seems more drastic than the Razorbacks welcoming back Petrino, but these are drastic times in Fayetteville.