A dozen years after scandal, Bobby Petrino beloved at Arkansas as he rejoins team to run offense

Arkansas offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino speaks during a press conference Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. (UA Athletics)

Bobby Petrino felt like he was back home.

The once-disgraced, now-beloved coach was introduced as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator at a news conference Thursday alongside the man who hired him, coach Sam Pittman.

It was the first time Petrino took questions from the Arkansas sports media since his now-infamous motorcycle crash in 2011, amid the scandal that led to his firing as the Razorbacks’ head coach.

Petrino, who appeared at that news conference wearing a neck brace and with skid marks on his face, initially said he had been riding alone, but a police report revealed a woman was riding with him. The woman, a football staffer, was in a romantic relationship with the married Petrino, and he was fired for misleading his bosses about the accident and his relationship with the subordinate.

The 62-year-old Petrino joked Thursday that one of the biggest things that changed in his decade-plus absence was the growth of the Northwest Arkansas metro area and that he couldn’t find his way around on the roads quite as well anymore.

The irony appeared to be unintentional. What changed most, really, was the way Arkansas — the university and its fans — felt about him. Petrino was considered an embarrassment when he left, but he was welcomed with cheers and chants of his name Wednesday night at Bud Walton Arena when the Arkansas basketball team beat No. 7 Duke.

Petrino said there was no ill will on his part toward the university, suggesting the administration did what it felt it needed to do.

“There never was any anger at all. I was always a Hogs fan,” Petrino said. “People would ask me, ‘Are you going to watch the game?’ I watched as many games as I could. I cheered for them. I rooted for them.”

Petrino was out of football for two years before Western Kentucky hired him as head coach in 2013. He spent one season there before Louisville, the team that gave him his first head coaching job in 2003, lured him away. He was fired from that job in 2018, then coached at FBS Missouri State for three years before Jimbo Fisher hired Petrino as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M for this season.

Pittman said he knew, especially once Fisher was fired earlier this month, he wanted to talk to Petrino about making a return to Fayetteville.

“One of the things I said, in one of my criteria that I wanted, was a man that loved the University of Arkansas,” Pittman said. “It would be hard to find someone that felt stronger toward Arkansas than coach Petrino. … Once I knew his interest back in us, it was really a no-brainer at that point in time. It was just about making the contract and timeline and all that, making those things work.”

University regulations meant that Petrino’s hiring had to be approved by university president Donald Bobbitt. School policy prohibits schools in the University of Arkansas system from re-hiring employees who were terminated for cause, except with the approval of the president.

The Razorbacks hadn’t been the same since Petrino left, making the decision, football-wise, easier than the off-field incidents might have suggested. Arkansas’ offense ranked 108th out of 133 FBS teams. Pittman fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos halfway through the season, replacing him with then-wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton, whose job status for next year is unclear.

The Razorbacks have had five head coaches, including interim coaches, since Petrino’s firing. They’ve won four games or fewer in seven of those 12 seasons. Pittman’s 2023 team went 4-8 with a 1-7 record in Southeastern Conference play, putting his job in jeopardy.

On the field, Petrino’s tenure was an unqualified success. He increased Arkansas’ win total from five to eight to 10 to 11 in his four seasons at the helm.

As for any fans, staffers or administrators who may not approve of Petrino’s re-hiring, the offensive coordinator said he gets it. He wants a chance to prove himself and win games.

“Everybody’s different. You know that. You’re different than you were back then,” Petrino said. “Hopefully, I’ve grown as a coach, a teacher, as a husband, as a father. I believe totally that I have. Hopefully, I’m better tomorrow than I am today.”