Bobby Petrino is coming to Missouri.
The state, not the flagship football program at Mizzou.
Actually, MU is set to host Petrino’s new team in 2029, but a lot can happen between now and then. And when it comes to Petrino A LOT can certainly happen.
On Thursday in Springfield, Mo., the Missouri State Bears will introduce Petrino as their new football coach, the program’s incredibly ambitious move to make an irrelevant FCS program relevant in a highly competitive Missouri Valley Conference. The former head coach at Louisville, Arkansas and the Atlanta Falcons who notoriously drove his motorcycle into a ditch — but somehow not his career — then briefly revived the glory days at Louisville, will replace Dave Steckel, a good man who five years ago left a good job at Mizzou for a major pay cut and his first head-coaching experience. It didn’t work for Stec, who was 13-42 at a program that's had zero sustained success within a community that doesn’t fully embrace its college football team.
Now things could get interesting.
By hiring Petrino, Missouri State is gambling big on a coach who’s made a career of apologizing for poor choices in between a lot of victories. He won big at Louisville in the early 2000s while flirting with every major college job that came open. He even pursued jobs that weren’t open, like Auburn in 2003, when Petrino interviewed for Tommy Tuberville’s job while his former boss was still gainfully employed. Then he bailed for the Falcons and unceremoniously skipped town at midseason to take the Arkansas job.
He won big there, too, until his scandalous demise in 2012. After crashing his motorcycle, Petrino didn’t initially reveal that he was riding with his mistress, a former Arkansas volleyball player whom Petrino had put on the football team’s payroll. Arkansas fired him after concluding he lied to his bosses and the public about the accident and their relationship.
Lesser offenses have sent coaches into retirement, but not Petrino, whose career scatters from corner to corner like a cockroach when the lights come on. In 2013 he resurfaced at Western Kentucky for a season before Louisville brought him back with a seven-year contract worth almost $25 million — never mind that he’d never coached anywhere longer than four years. The Cardinals won eight or nine games each of his first four seasons and produced Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in 2016.
But everything crumbled in 2018, so badly that Louisville swallowed a $14 million buyout to send Petrino packing after a 2-8 start. (Coincidentally, Petrino was in Missouri last April visiting Mizzou spring practices, leading some to believe Tigers coach Barry Odom was eyeing him for a staff position that never materialized.)
“Winning, in football, is an enabler,” Louisville columnist Eric Crawford wrote Wednesday at wdrb.com. “It has enabled Petrino, each time, to walk away from the dumpster fire and come back without even having to worry about re-inventing himself.
"This time, however, is different. Because this time, at Louisville, Petrino didn’t win. He lost big. You can pull the aloof genius act when you’re winning. When you’re losing, you’re just a jerk.”
Something tells me Missouri State won’t tap Crawford to write a blurb for Petrino’s introductory news release. MSU and Petrino agreed to a five-year deal with a $250,000 salary, Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel reported.
Back to Steckel. After the Bears’ 1-10 season the school announced plans to bring Steckel back for 2020, until last week when the school found the money to pay his full buyout of $340,000 - but not before letting 20 recruits sign letters of intent in December thinking they would be playing for Steckel's staff, including St. Louis U. High running back Kellen Porter and De Smet defensive lineman Armon Wallace. (It's the welfare of the student-athletes that always comes first, right? Always.)
For Steckel, leaving the comforts of Gary Pinkel’s Mizzou coaching staff was a professional gamble. He left behind a loaded defense and a $600,000 salary for the chance to build his own program — for less than half what he was making at Mizzou.
In the spring of 2015, before he coached his first game in Springfield, Steckel sat in his new office and wondered about regret.
“I’d probably be sitting on the beach drinking a Jack (Daniels) and listening to Bruce Springsteen and thinking, ‘I wonder if I ever had a shot what I would have done with it,’” he said. “Now, I’m fortunate enough and humble enough to get that shot. Let’s see what I can do with it. It might turn out great. It might turn into, why the hell did I try do to this? Only time will tell, but we’ll find out.”
Late Tuesday night we found out it appeared MSU was making the choice between seemingly unhireable candidates. Conflicting reports broke that MSU was set to hire Petrino, first reported by Springfield KY3 reporter Chad Plein, followed by the usually reliable folks at FootballScoop.com saying the choice was Art Briles. Yes, Briles, the man in charge at Baylor during its massive sexual assault scandal, a coach whose disgraced reputation surpasses international borders. In 2017, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL hired Briles as an assistant coach only to reverse course days later in the wake of severe criticism.
But only when measured against Briles could Petrino look like a man of sterling integrity. Perhaps Missouri State cleverly leaked Briles’ name to soften the Petrino backlash. If so, bravo, Bears AD Kyle Moats, for the crafty subterfuge. You might have hired Darth Vader, but the world is just relieved you didn’t go with the Emperor.
Speaking of Moats, he worked in Louisville’s athletics department during Petrino’s first run with the Cardinals — before the Falcons gig, before the crash, before the Louisville encore. Moats and Missouri State president Cliff Smart are betting big that Petrino hasn’t lost his magic touch when it comes to recruiting and coaching the game. If you’re Missouri State, what’s there to lose from a football sense? The Bears haven’t made the FCS playoffs since 1990. Crowds are spotty at Plaster Stadium. MSU cracked the national rankings in 2018 with a 4-2 start then lost 15 of its next 16 games.
Apathy might be the Bears’ greatest nemesis. Petrino will generate a splash of excitement in Springfield. His offense will score points. The Bears might win some games. Maybe at 58 he’ll break his bad habits this time around, but a year from now, maybe two or three, history suggests he’ll leave the program in shambles and in search of another fixer.
For the Bears, at the risk of hiring a hungry young coach with more upside — and heaven forbid, maybe a minority candidate, like they did with men’s basketball coach Dana Ford — the Petrino gamble means one thing:
For once, the world of college football will be watching Missouri State. Will that become the greatest payoff or a fatal mistake?