FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Bobby Petrino was hired yesterday as the football coach at Arkansas, capping a whirlwind day in which he stunningly resigned from the Atlanta Falcons after just 13 games.
Petrino succeeds Houston Nutt, who stepped down at Arkansas two weeks ago and became the coach at Mississippi. Petrino was introduced as the Razorbacks coach by incoming athletic director Jeff Long at a late-night news conference.
"It is a tremendous honor for me to be named the 30th head coach at Arkansas, particularly on a night when we honored coach [Frank] Broyles for his 50 years service," Petrino said, referring to former coach and outgoing athletic director Frank Broyles. "He's such a legend and I can't wait to develop a relationship with him."
In January, Petrino left as 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. Vick was sentenced Monday to 23 months in prison without ever having taken a snap for Petrino.
Also, on Monday 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.
"Today was a day of decision," Petrino said. "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 was the thing that made it most difficult. Coming to Arkansas was the easy part."
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. He 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.
Petrino received a standing ovation from the Arkansas supporters who came to his introductory news conference.
"Coach, this is just the tip of the iceberg," chancellor John White announced.
Petrino's stint was one of the shortest for a non-interim coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Pete McCulley was fired after starting 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.
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 today. 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 32d season of .500 or worse in their 42-year history.
Also plagued by injuries on the offensive line, Petrino was forced to start two players who weren't even drafted, and just hours after Vick's sentencing in Richmond, Va., Atlanta was routed by the Saints.
"Not a good day," Petrino said afterward.
The resignation had to be a major surprise to Blank, who fired Jim Mora just two seasons after he led the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game. Before Monday night's game, Blank said he felt better than ever about his decision to hire Petrino.
"I feel real fortunate we have a terrific guy leading our team, our CEO, in Bobby Petrino," Blank said. "I think he's proven to me he's a better head coach than we thought he was going to be, dealing with a set of cards we didn't see unfold this year, which probably never in the history of the NFL has anything like this happened. Bobby has done a wonderful job dealing with all of these issues."
Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring will coach the 25th-ranked Razorbacks when they face No. 7 Missouri in the Cotton Bowl 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."