Bobby Petrino returns to Arkansas and faces his past

Bobby Petrino has turned things around at Missouri State, but the attention will be on his past in his return to Arkansas. Brett Rojo/USA TODAY Sports

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Bobby Petrino knows what's coming.

He has been called many things over the years, but he is not naive.

The job he's done in resurrecting a moribund Missouri State program and turning the Bears into FCS title contenders speaks for itself. But this week, Petrino's past, and not his present, will be the focus when his team, ranked No. 5 in the latest FCS poll, makes the 120-mile trip to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Petrino is well aware the first thing that pops up when doing a Google search of his name is the picture of him with a battered red face and neck brace after the motorcycle wreck that set off a chain of events leading to his dismissal at Arkansas and turning him into a punchline.

Now, 10 years after the accident and the national embarrassment that followed, Petrino is returning to Arkansas to face the school he took to the doorstep of playing for a national championship in 2011.

"Unfortunately, I will always get to carry that with me, how it ended there," Petrino told ESPN.

Between the end at Arkansas and a previous reputation for job-hopping and profanity-laced tirades (along with a whole lot of on-field success), Petrino knows there's not much middle ground when it comes to his reputation.

"There's instantly a reaction when you hear my name, whether it's negative or positive," Petrino said. "I wish it was more positive, but it's probably more negative and a lot of that's on me. But a lot of those people don't really know me. They know what happened when I was fired at Arkansas and how poorly I handled everything, and that's what sticks with them."

JEFF LONG THOUGHT it was a bad April Fool's joke.

The then-Arkansas athletic director got a call April 1, 2012, that his football coach had been in a motorcycle accident, sliding off a winding two-lane road near Crosses, Arkansas.

Based on what Petrino told school officials, Arkansas released a statement saying the accident "involved no other individuals," Long said. On April 3, Petrino insisted on holding a news conference -- against the wishes of Long and others -- in which he appeared in the now-infamous neck brace. As Petrino was exiting the room, a media member approached him and asked if he was alone on the motorcycle, and Petrino said he was.

But then, minutes before an Arkansas State Police report was scheduled to come out April 5, Long said Petrino acknowledged that Jessica Dorrell, a 25-year-old female staff member Petrino had hired and was having an affair with, was also on the motorcycle. At that point, Arkansas launched an investigation and later that night, Long held a news conference announcing Petrino had been placed on administrative leave with pay. During the probe, Long said Dorrell disclosed Petrino had given her $20,000 to buy a car.

On the evening of April 10, an emotional Long held another news conference and announced that Petrino had been fired for cause.

"I think it's important to remember that it wasn't an extramarital affair that got Bobby fired," said Long, who himself was fired in 2017 after 10 years as Arkansas' AD. "I couldn't fire him for that even if I wanted to. He lied and repeatedly lied, and that's why he was fired. It was the deceitful lying piece that got him. All that said, I remain a believer that Bobby is a hell of a football coach and knew that when I hired him."

Shortly after, Petrino released his own statement accepting "full responsibility for what has happened."

"I let a lot of people down, my players at Arkansas, all the great fans there who had been so good to us and supported us and everybody in my family -- but nobody more than my wife [Becky]," Petrino said last month during a sit-down interview with ESPN. "She's the one it's been the hardest on. I embarrassed her nationally, but she's been incredible, the rock of the family.

"I don't know that I could have come back from any of it had it not been for my family and them forgiving me. We stuck together, fought together and loved together."

While some donors and fans fought for Petrino to remain as coach, it was clear to the Arkansas administration that simply wasn't possible. Just like that, a program that had gone 21-5 in its last two seasons and finished 2011 ranked No. 5 in the AP poll was picking up the pieces from a scandal that resonates to this day in the Ozarks.

"He was winning games, so we knew some fans would not be happy about it," said then-school chancellor David Gearhart, who received anonymous, threatening letters and spent several weeks afterward with a police officer stationed outside his office.

Until Sam Pittman took over in 2020, the Razorbacks were still recovering from Petrino's dismissal. In Petrino's final two years, Arkansas won 12 SEC games. In the eight years that followed, the Hogs won 13.

Now, with Petrino on the visiting sideline, the Hogs under Pittman are flying high, up to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 poll.

"I'm grateful for the guy," Pittman said. "And you know, obviously on Saturday, it will be different, sure. But without him and what he did here, I don't think we ever would have recruited as well because we were able to use his success to show that we can do it here, and it wasn't that long ago."

Petrino said he hasn't thought about what kind of reception he'll get from the home crowd. This will be the first time he's been back to Fayetteville since being fired, although he spoke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club in 2019 and received a standing ovation.

"It will be fascinating to see because so many people equate him to getting Arkansas back to winning, and make no mistake, we were rolling," said D.J. Williams, an All-SEC tight end at Arkansas under Petrino and now a Little Rock news anchor.

"Coach Petrino was always adamant about his guys doing the right things, and I know a lot of the players were like, 'He preached this and preached that and then goes off and acts in ways that's not what being a man is about.' But there's such a thing as grace, and people mess up. Everyone was telling us how great we were, and we thought we were untouchable. Maybe he got to that point, too."

AFTER THE ARKANSAS debacle, Petrino spent 2012 out of coaching. But after one season at Western Kentucky in 2013, he returned to the Power 5 when former Louisville AD Tom Jurich hired him for a second time. Jurich was one of the first people Petrino reached out to after he was fired at Arkansas.

"I told him the only way I would talk to him was face-to-face, and he drove all night to Louisville," said Jurich, who was fired in 2017 at Louisville in the wake of a federal investigation into fraud and corruption in recruiting by the basketball program.

In Petrino's first stint with the Cardinals, he guided the team to top-10 finishes in 2004 and 2006, the only times in school history that has happened. Jurich said former players were especially vocal in their support to bring Petrino back.

"I ended up being a first-round draft pick because of the pressure Bobby Petrino puts on you every day to get better," said Eric Wood, who played for Petrino during his first round at Louisville and was a Pro Bowl center for the Buffalo Bills. "I still quote him often to this day. Now, sometimes, I remove a curse word or two if I'm around my family, but I learned a lot from him."

The end to Petrino's second tour at Louisville was ugly. The Cardinals unraveled after a heartbreaking 28-24 loss to Florida State in Week 5 of the 2018 season and weren't even competitive the rest of the way, losing their last nine games. Petrino was fired with two games remaining by then-Louisville AD Vince Tyra with $14 million left on his contract.

Tyra, who resigned last December as Louisville's AD, said he wasn't interested in discussing any details of Petrino's exit.

"I enjoyed my time there and what we accomplished in athletics, but the time with Bobby was challenging," Tyra said. "I'm sure he would agree."

C.J. Avery, a senior linebacker on that team, said there "just never was a connection" between the players and the coaches that final season. The Cardinals had gone 21-11 in league games from 2014 to 2017 and won nine games twice in four seasons.

Lorenzo Ward, Louisville's assistant head coach and defensive backs coach in 2018, said the death of Petrino's father affected him greatly that season. Bob Petrino Sr. had Parkinson's disease and died a week before the start of preseason camp. Petrino played for his father at Carroll College, an NAIA school in Helena, Montana. Bob Petrino Sr. coached there for 28 years, and after his retirement, was a frequent visitor at his son's practices and wasn't shy about offering his opinions.

"I don't think people realize what his father meant to him," said Ward, now the defensive coordinator at Chattanooga. "Bobby really struggled with that, and I remember sitting in a meeting that summer and we had to make him go back home to be with his father. He didn't want to leave the team."

TO FRIEND AND foe alike, Petrino is something of an enigma. An offensive guru who takes teams to unprecedented heights while often leaving on poor terms and alienating some players, coaches and administrators. A loving father and grandfather who embarrassed his family on the biggest of stages.

One of Petrino's close friends, Steve Cox of Fort Smith, Arkansas, said one of the big misconceptions about Petrino is that he doesn't have a sense of humor and is a stoic football droid. They play golf together and talk 1970s and '80s music (Stevie Nicks is a Petrino favorite), and Cox said Petrino loves to needle him about his lack of athleticism.

"I never played high school sports and used to attend Bobby's fantasy camps when he was at Arkansas," said Cox, who remains a huge Hogs fan. "He still reminds me that I'm one of the most unathletic guys they've ever had at their camps."

Tyler Wilson was Petrino's quarterback on the 2011 Arkansas team that won 11 games and beat Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Wilson, who set 29 school passing records, said Petrino was an acquired taste.

"My sincere statement has always been that Bobby Petrino was one of the greatest coaches that I played for or was around," said Wilson, who plans to be at Saturday's game. "I appreciated the mentality that he brought, even though probably the first two or three years that I was there, I was not in favor of it, didn't like it and didn't like how he talked to people and treated people.

"But, ultimately, I realized that mentality and that demeanor wasn't geared to an individual. It was geared to everyone, and it was designed on purpose -- to create a harder individual, create a tougher individual and create a tougher player."

From a football perspective, Petrino is still widely considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. He coached a Heisman Trophy winner in Lamar Jackson, elevated Arkansas and Louisville to national relevance for the first time in years and has won 67.3% of his games as a college head coach.

"He could take a group of college students on an intramural squad, put them out there on the field and help them win football games," said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who coached under Petrino at Western Kentucky and Louisville. "That's how good a coach he is."

Alabama's Nick Saban added: "Having coached against him -- the things they do on offense, the way his players are coached -- it's phenomenal. I don't know Bobby very well personally, but I've always had the utmost respect for him as a coach. He's one of the toughest guys I've gone against."

And while his on-field success is undeniable, it was his demeanor, his reputation for always looking for his next job and the manner in which he left jobs that drew criticism long before the motorcycle incident. In an industry of professional nomads, Petrino stands apart. Counting a couple of promotions, he's in his 17th coaching job at Missouri State.

There was the "JetGate" scandal in 2003, when Petrino was coaching Louisville and secretly interviewed for the Auburn job when his former boss, Tommy Tuberville, was still the coach. He also interviewed with LSU, Notre Dame and the Oakland Raiders -- he turned down a five-year, $18 million offer from Al Davis -- before signing a 10-year contract with Louisville before the 2006 season. After that season, he left to become the Atlanta Falcons' head coach.

But following Michael Vick's imprisonment on dogfighting charges, the Falcons suffered through a dreadful season, and with three games remaining in the 2007 campaign, Petrino abruptly left to take the Arkansas head job.

Petrino's departure infuriated Falcons players and assistant coaches. He posted notes in the players' lockers telling them he was leaving. His defensive coordinator at the time, Mike Zimmer, skewered Petrino a few years later, calling him a "gutless bastard," among other things.

"There's never an easy way to do it, but that's not how it's supposed to happen," Petrino said. "That's one I'd like to have back, but I have to own it. The other thing is that I wish I would have gotten to know the players better with the Falcons, just communicated better. I was too standoffish."

THE MISSOURI STATE football program was in dire straits.

In 2019, the Bears finished 1-10, their 10th consecutive losing season. They had not gone to the FCS playoffs since 1990. Missouri State president Clif Smart said it was to the point where there was serious conversation about disbanding the program.

Enter Petrino, who sat out in 2019 after being fired at Louisville. He spent the year writing a book about football and traveling to visit different coaches and friends. Two hiring cycles had come and gone, and Petrino didn't get even a sniff for a head-coaching opportunity. But then Missouri State's job became open late, more than a week into January 2020. Missouri State AD Kyle Moats worked with Petrino in his first tenure at Louisville, and Petrino had told him he'd be willing to work in the FCS ranks.

"We needed to make a bold move to change the game," Smart said. "I'd say Bobby has done that and done it very quickly."

Some called Petrino's hiring a Hail Mary. Smart, who grew up in Arkansas and sold sodas at Hogs' games as a kid, called it an "easy risk" to take.

"Football drives everything in college athletics, so we didn't apologize then and we don't now," Smart said. "Whether he's here for one more year or 10 more years, he's shown us that we can win in football at Missouri State and do it the right way."

Larry Benz, a longtime member of the Louisville board of trustees, immediately recommended hiring Petrino when Smart called looking for input. Smart and Benz were old Army buddies.

"Bobby's a good example of the proverb 'fall down nine times and get up 10,'" Benz said.

Petrino, 61, is surrounded by family in Springfield, including his eight grandchildren. They all call him "Coach," at least the ones who are old enough to talk. His son, Nick, is his offensive coordinator. One son-in-law, Ryan Beard, is his defensive coordinator, and another son-in-law, L.D. Scott, is his defensive line coach.

Petrino's small office on the second floor of the 42-year-old Forsythe Athletics Center is noticeably void of mementos from past coaching stops. There are no photos from memorable wins, helmets of previous teams or bowl trophies. Instead, his shelves are filled with family photos, most of which are of his grandkids.

"I've seen a lot of different versions of him. This might be the happiest," said Scott, who played for Petrino on the 2006 Louisville team that went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl as well as coached under him at Arkansas, Western Kentucky and Louisville.

After 34 years in college coaching, Petrino shrugs at the thought of being stuck in the FCS ranks, unsure if he'll ever get another shot on the big stage. His starting salary was $250,000 and is now $325,000, less than most SEC position coaches make. The Bears ride a bus to about half their road games, including those five hours away, and capacity at Plaster Stadium is 17,500.

Back-to-back FCS playoff appearances under Petrino have helped attendance figures at Missouri State, and there are plans for a project that would house a new locker room, meeting rooms, coaches' offices and club seating.

"I'm in a really good place right now, mentally and physically," Petrino said. "And the best part is we're giving a lot of kids second chances here at Missouri State."

Star quarterback Jason Shelley is one of 47 transfers on the Bears' roster. He started his career at Utah and transferred to Utah State before landing at Missouri State and earning Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors last season.

"I kind of gave us a little nickname, the 'Bad News Bears,'" joked Shelley, who threw five touchdown passes in Missouri State's 35-30 win over UT Martin last Thursday. "Everybody has a story here. Everybody has a struggle they went through that brought them to this point, even Coach Petrino."