Before competing in the biggest bowl games and being near the Heisman Trophy stage, Bobby Petrino was a young coach growing up in Helena, Montana.
It was in Helena where Petrino first fell in love with football.
That love eventually led him to the biggest of stages at the college football ranks and now he’s taking over a football program that hasn’t had a postseason appearance since he was on the opposing sideline defeating the Bears with the offensive play-calling that made him a coveted coach.
It was also in Helena where Petrino learned life lessons that he still holds dear as he now dons the maroon and white.
“It was a great way to grow up,” Petrino said in a recent interview with the News-Leader. “I knew from a very young age that I was going to be a football coach.”
His father, Bob Petrino Sr., was coaching at Butte Central Catholic High School in Montana when Bobby was growing up. Bobby was always able to hang around the practices and be in the locker room.
In the fifth grade, Petrino’s father was offered the head coaching job at Carroll College, which was just coming off its fifth-consecutive losing season.
Petrino Sr. was advised to not take the job.
“My two uncles were at school at Carroll College when my dad was the head coach at Butte Central and he has one of the best teams in the state,” Petrino said. “When the job was offered to him, both my uncles said to him, ‘No, no, no, don’t take the job. Nobody’s ever been able to win here and no one’s been good here.’
“And my dad said, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong,’ and took the job and did one heck of a job there.”
Petrino Sr. was the head coach at Carroll College for 26 seasons and went 163-90-2 during that span while winning 15 conference titles. He was inducted into the NAIA National Hall of Fame and proved his doubters wrong.
Early in those days, Petrino went with his dad and lived in the dorms for a few months. As a fifth-grader, he hung out at practices and watched workouts.
At the age of 12, Petrino was responsible for keeping the offensive chart on the sidelines where he’d keep track of formations, plays and gains. He remembers a tailback named Dan Rambo that would run up to him after each series to ask how many yards he had because he was leading the nation in rushing.
One of the observations Petrino had early on was how “big time” his dad made the players feel. His dad took care of the players, taught them how to compete and play really hard.
“He always said, ‘You might not always have the best talent but you can always find a way to win the game,'” Petrino said.
The influence of his father continued to grow when Petrino started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Petrino Sr. in 1983. He had multiple stints at Carroll and Weber State with the goal of coaching in the Big Sky Conference.
He accomplished that goal when he moved on to Idaho as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under John L. Smith for three seasons.
In 1990, Petrino’s Idaho Vandal offense had the nation’s top FCS rusher in Devon Pearce and the nation’s leading receiver in Kasey Dunn. The duo helped lead the Vandals to a Big Sky Conference title and FCS Playoffs berth.
On Nov. 24, 1990, Petrino sat in the press box at Plaster Stadium while Southwest Missouri State took the field in the first round of the FCS Playoffs. The Jesse Branch and DeAndre Smith-led Bears were 9-2 and had won eight of their last nine games.
“I remember seeing them run through the tunnel to take the field,” Petrino said. “I thought that was really cool. That game was a tennis match.”
Idaho couldn’t stop Smith while the Bears couldn’t stop Dunn. After the Bears tied the game in the fourth, the Vandals knocked in two field goals to come away with a 41-35 victory.
Petrino’s offense racked up 578 yards of total offense in front of 8,750 fans.
The Bears haven’t been to the postseason since.
“It’s quite a coincidence,” Petrino said. “No doubt.”
Idaho finished the 1990 season in a one-point quarterfinal loss. When coaching in the Big Sky, Petrino’s new goal was to coach in the PAC-10 and he was able to do so when he left to be Arizona State’s quarterback coach where he was allowed to recruit whatever quarterback he wanted.
Petrino’s first call was to a high school quarterback in New Orleans by the name of Peyton Manning — who told him that he didn’t have any interest in playing in that part of the country. Instead, Petrino eventually made a trip during a snowstorm to Boise, Idaho, and recruited Jake Plummer to be a Sun Devil.
Petrino eventually made stops at Nevada, Utah State and a first stint at Louisville as an offensive coordinator. Tom Coughlin then called and asked him if he’d coach quarterbacks for the Jaguars in the NFL.
After three years in Jacksonville, Petrino was sitting around when he received a call from Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville — who was looking for an offensive coordinator.
The one thing Petrino didn’t like about coaching in Jacksonville was that his kids couldn’t be around the organization as much. They weren’t able to grow up with the access that he grew up with and loved so much.
He told Tuberville that he’d take the job as long as his kids were able to be on the sidelines during games. Tuberville agreed and Petrino became the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.
“That’s how I grew up,” Petrino said. “The most important thing to my mom, to my dad and my grandparents was family.”
After a season at Auburn, Smith left the Louisville head coaching job for Michigan State. Louisville reached out to Petrino and eventually gave him his first head coaching job.
Success with Louisville quarterbacks led pundits to call Petrino as a “quarterback whisperer.” After four years as the Cardinals’ head coach, the Atlanta Falcons hired Petrino with the hopes that he could help Michael Vick reach his potential.
After accepting the Falcons’ job, Vick came under investigation for a dogfighting investigation that led him to plead guilty to federal charges. He was eventually sentenced to 23 months in prison and never played a snap for Petrino.
Instead of coaching Vick, Petrino coached backup quarterbacks for his entire 13-game tenure. Barely 24 hours after a blowout loss to fall to 3-10, Petrino announced he was leaving the Falcons to become the head coach at Arkansas.
Before Petrino left Atlanta, he infamously left a 78-word letter on the players’ lockers.
At Arkansas, Petrino had success in coaching some of the best teams in the country. In his final two years, he lost in the Sugar Bowl and won a Cotton Bowl.
In the offseason before the 2012 season, Petrino was fired after a motorcycle accident during which it was later discovered Petrino was riding with his mistress. That led to revelations that Petrino had hired the woman to a position in the athletic department and that he had given her $20,000 to buy a new car.
It was discovered he was misleading officials about his extramarital affair with the athletic department employee.
Petrino has since apologized for his actions.
“Certainly, I made a mistake when I was at the University of Arkansas,” Petrino said at his introductory press conference. “I was fortunate enough to have a great wife and a great family and stay together and work forward. That’s what we did. We were able to go back to the U of Louisville, a place that we love. A place that we put a tremendous amount of energy into, a place we were extremely successful at, brought a Heisman Trophy winner to.
“But now it’s on to a new challenge. Like I said it’s going to be a daily process and you’re going to get the best I have. I can guarantee that.”
After a year off, Petrino was the head coach at Western Kentucky where he led the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 season. In 2014, he returned to Louisville.
His second stint at Louisville was highlighted by Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy-winning campaign in 2016. The Cardinals went 9-4 and 8-5 in 2016 and 2017 before the 2018 season started 2-8 and he was fired before the season ended.
During his year off, Petrino traveled and watched his family coach.
His son, Nick Petrino, was the co-offensive coordinator at UT Martin and his son-in-law, Ryan Beard, was the special teams coordinator at Central Michigan.
“I really liked going to the different towns and stadiums and watching the guys compete,” Petrino said. “It really sparked my interest that ‘Hey, I’m not done with this yet.'”
On Jan. 15, Missouri State announced Petrino would be its next head football coach and would replace Dave Steckel.
Petrino has since hired Nick Petrino, Beard and L.D. Scott — another son-in-law — to be on his staff. Having family on his staff is something he’s had throughout his coaching career and wants it to continue because of the way he grew up.
Now Petrino is tasked with turning around a program that hasn’t been to the playoffs since he helped hand the Bears their last postseason loss 30 years ago.
The atmosphere of Plaster Stadium won’t be the same as coaching at the Cotton Bowl or Sugar Bowl, but Petrino is going to lean on the advice he learned from a young age when trying to turn the Bears into a winner.
“I’m going to follow the directions of my father and make it big time wherever you’re at,” Petrino said. “It’s up to us to bring the fans in there. We have to put a great product on the field. I like some of the new recruits that we got and I think it gives us a chance for the fans, the students and the public to relate to some really, really good players.
“I think that’s what fills the stands and then winning games. That’s the end result. it’s up to us right now is everything right an do things the way they’re supposed to be done. I’ve always felt like winning is the end result of doing everything else right.”
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