Updated at 8:34 p.m., Tuesday, December 11, 2007
NFL: Petrino quits Falcons, hired by Arkansas
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
Petrino was hired today by Arkansas, capping a whirlwind day in which he stunningly resigned from the Falcons after just 13 games. Petrino succeeds Houston Nutt, who stepped down at Arkansas two weeks ago and became the head coach at Mississippi.
"Today was a day of decision," Petrino said at a late-night news conference in Fayetteville. "It was difficult on one side, very easy on the other. It was difficult to leave Atlanta, the staff, players, fans. The timing of it probably is the thing that made it most difficult. Coming to Arkansas was the easy part."
Petrino got a five-year deal worth $2.85 million per year to take over the Razorbacks, according an athletic department spokesman.
In January, Petrino left as head coach at Louisville to take over in Atlanta, agreeing to a five-year, $24 million contract handed out by a team that felt he could help Michael Vick reach his full potential.
However, the star quarterback came under investigation for a grisly dogfighting operation that led him to plead guilty to federal charges.
Yesterday, Vick was sentenced Monday to 23 months in prison without ever taking a snap for Petrino. That night the Falcons lost to New Orleans 34-14, and hours later Petrino left the team with a 3-10 record to return to the college ranks.
Arkansas had been looking for a coach for two weeks to replace Nutt, who resigned after a tumultuous season of his own. The Razorbacks came close to hiring Wake Forest's Jim Grobe last week, but Grobe remained with the Demon Deacons and Arkansas fans had to wonder whether the school could attract a big-name coach.
In Petrino, the Razorbacks found one. Petrino went 41-9 in four years at Louisville, coaching some of the highest-scoring teams in the country before leaving in January to join the Falcons.
In 10 seasons at Arkansas, Nutt built the Razorbacks into one of the Southeastern Conference's top rushing teams. Tailback Darren McFadden finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting the last two years, but Nutt's teams often lacked balance. Petrino said his Arkansas teams will be aggressive.
"You have to be able to run the football when you want to, and run the football when you have to," Petrino told a crowd full of Razorbacks supporters. "You have to be able to pass the football when you want to, and pass the football when you have to."
Petrino said he didn't speak with anyone from Arkansas about the job until today.
"It was one of the most difficult things I've had to do," he said. "I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that I made the right decision."
Jeff Long, Arkansas' incoming athletic director, handled the search for a new coach. Long takes over for Frank Broyles, who is retiring at the end of the year.
"It is a tremendous honor for me to be named the 30th head coach at Arkansas, particularly on a night when we honored coach Broyles for his 50 years of service," Petrino said, referring to former head coach. "He's such a legend and I can't wait to develop a friendship with him."
Long said he wasn't deterred as the search appeared to drag on and many wondered if the Razorbacks needed to lower their standards.
"I wasn't listening or reading," Long said. "I was going to work to find the best coach."
Petrino's stint in Atlanta was one of the shortest for a non-interim coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Pete McCulley was fired after starting out 1-8 with San Francisco in 1978, and Sid Gillman lasted only 10 games in his second stint as San Diego coach, going 4-6 in 1971 before quitting.
In an interesting twist, Lou Holtz coached the New York Jets for 13 games in 1976. He went 3-10, then left the team with one game remaining to become the coach at Arkansas.
Atlanta owner Arthur Blank and general manager Rich McKay were scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday. There was no immediate word on who would take over for the team's final three games.
After losing Vick, Petrino tried three quarterbacks without success. The Falcons have lost four straight, all by double-digit margins, and are assured of the 32nd season of .500 or worse in their 42-year history.
"Anytime you're without one of the best athletes in the National Football League, it's going to be tough," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said earlier in the season. "Take Peyton Manning from the Colts, and they'll go through a little slump."
Arkansas played in the SEC championship game in 2006, but the Razorbacks finished that season with three straight losses and Nutt faced unrest from fans and dissension in the program.
Fans used the Freedom of Information Act to investigate Nutt's cell phone records. As the team struggled this year, planes were spotted at games towing anti-Nutt banners.
This season started with Nutt's long-term status shaky, and the mood in Arkansas worsened when the Razorbacks began SEC play 0-3. They finished strong, beating then-No. 1 LSU in their regular-season finale to go 8-4.
However, within days of one of his biggest victories at Arkansas, Nutt departed and defensive coordinator Reggie Herring was named interim coach.
Herring will coach the 25th-ranked Razorbacks when they face No. 7 Missouri in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. Then Petrino is the only person in charge.
"I knew I wanted to come back and coach in college football," Petrino said. "I'm very excited to get back and work with the student-athlete."