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Why Bobby Petrino Got a Hero’s Welcome in his Arkansas Return

Petrino

by Evin Demirel

Time heals.

This was never so evident as in Little Rock on Monday when Bobby Petrino at long last apologized to Razorback fans, more than seven years after breaking hearts statewide.

“I wanted to be able to come here and to apologize to everybody, the fans, the players, and truly tell you how sorry I am for the way it ended,” Petrino said as a guest speaker of the Little Rock Touchdown Club. “But I also wanted to come here to thank you for everything people in this room, in this state, did for me and my family.”

At the end of Petrino’s apology, many of the 600 people attending the luncheon stood to applaud. It was such a release and apparent healing moment that, in the following hours, a majority of Razorback fans across social media and media polls said they would welcome Petrino back as a Razorback coach again if such an opportunity ever arises. 

That’s a much higher percentage than those who would have welcomed Bobby back in the aftermath of the spring 2012 scandal that involved his hiring of a mistress, crashing a motorcycle and lying to Arkansas’ former athletic director Jeff Long.

Within 10 days, Petrino was fired. Although his own fault, he never had a chance to publicly say goodbye and reminisce about the good times that had just ended. Petrino’s final two teams went a total of 21-5, reached the Sugar Bowl and wiped out Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. The chance to get that closure was a big reason he came back, said club founder David Bazzel. “It had been hanging over his head the whole time.”

The 39-minute staged interview with Bazzel was Petrino’s first public appearance in the state since 2012. He was at his charming best, cracking jokes about being a “players’ coach,” razzing on former Hogs receiver Cobi Hamilton and taking photos with attendees for almost 30 minutes afterward. Normally, the coaches and former players who speak at the Little Rock Touchdown Club charge a fee between $2,500 and $25,000 but Petrino refused to receive payment, Bazzel told me.

 

Bobby Petrino

Petrino also talked about how much he misses coaching. His current pursuits — running a chain of infrared heat fitness studios in Colorado with his son and co-authoring a book on offensive philosophy — don’t quite scratch the competitive itch.

“I miss being around the coaching staff. I love sitting around with the coaches and game planning and working with them on preparing the guys,” he said. “Saturdays are a little boring right now. The competitive spirit is still there and I’m trying to get myself in the best possible shape I can. And if I get another opportunity to coach, I’m going to come out and do the best I can.”

Although Petrino has always had a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-driving coach, he added: “I miss being around the players. I miss trying to help players excel and become the best they could possibly be, on the field and off the field — and understanding their responsibilities in the classroom.”

The reason a sizable percentage of Razorback fans would now welcome Bobby back to play some role in a future Arkansas staff is because he’s a proven winner at the highest levels of college football. His 2010 and 2011 teams did things no SEC Arkansas team had done before, and no Hogs team has gotten anywhere close to doing since.

What’s changed since spring 2012 is all the lack of success afterward. It makes Petrino look better in hindsight.

The caveat is that wherever Petrino goes, the good times are short lived. It’s happened not just at Arkansas, but at the NFL level (though his winning with Atlanta was minimal), at Western Kentucky and twice at Louisville. Petrino’s last Louisville season, 2018, ended with a 2-10 record and his firing.

More and more, Hog fans want to believe that Petrino has been humbled by his failures and has learned from them. His Little Rock speech shows they are willing to forgive him and be OK with the risk inherent in any potential return.

For some, the chance to again enjoy good times, however fleeting, is better than none at all.

READ MORE: Petrino Headlines Little Rock Touchdown Club’s 2019 Speaker Series 

Photos courtesy of the Little Rock Touchdown Club

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