Villain No. 1 Bobby Petrino: The middle-of-the-night escape artist

The AJC continues its countdown of the top 12 villains in Atlanta sports history, with former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino No. 1.

We dubbed them Atlanta’s Dirty Dozen – the villains of Atlanta Sports. We used the term villain loosely. Some are simply sports figures who proved a thorn in our side, stood in our way, or prevented greatness. OK, some are true villains. We’ll let you decide who is who.

In an 11-week series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighed one of the Dirty Dozen. We presented the series in ascending order, from No. 12 to No. 1. Each story was accompanied by a video with our staff discusses why each made our list.

Now, at the series’ conclusion, with the No. 1 villain, we will post a poll allowing you to vote on your top villains.

“Coward” was written on the letter with a red Sharpie, and Bobby Petrino’s name was scratched out by Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy.

The Falcons’ coach quit on his team 13 games into the 2007 season and was seen on national television, hours later, calling the hogs in Arkansas.

“Woo Pig Sooey.”

As things unfolded, the Falcons’ position wasn’t the job Petrino signed up for. So he bolted.

When he agreed to a five-year, $24.5 million deal to coach the Falcons, Michael Vick was his starting quarterback. Petrino said he was looking forward to working with Vick and was illegally installing his high-octane attack under the cover of darkness at the team’s indoor facility.

But things came to a screeching halt when Vick was involved in the federal dogfighting investigation that led him to prison.

Instead of Vick at quarterback, the Falcons opened the season with Joey Harrington (who made 10 starts) and also started Byron Leftwich (two) and Chris Redman (four). At 3-10, Petrino was done.

Petrino bolted during the early evening Dec. 11, 2007, the player’s Tuesday off-day. The day before, Vick was sentenced in Richmond, Virginia, to 23 months in prison.

Petrino left the players a typewritten “Dear John” letter announcing his departure. Milloy wrote “Coward” over Petrino’s name with the red marker. The players were irate.

Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy scratched through Bobby Petrino's letter to the players and replaced his name with the word "Coward!" at the team facility in Flowery Branch.    CURTIS COMPTON / Staff

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

Tight end Alge Crumpler blasted Petrino. Even the mild-mannered Warrick Dunn ripped into the departed coach. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer called Petrino a coward for leaving the coaches and their families in limbo.

In later years, it was reported that Blank and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had a frosty relationship. It may have started with Petrino’s departure. Jones, who played at Arkansas, had a hand in luring Petrino away.

Jones contacted Blank on Arkansas’ behalf. Blank blocked the talks. But if Petrino resigned, he was free to negotiate with Arkansas.

Defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas was named the interim coach for the final three games (two of them losses) as the Falcons finished 4-12.

There were longtime whispers around Flowery Branch that Vick looked spectacular in secret workouts that allegedly were voluntary at the time. Wide receiver Roddy White confirmed those reports in a 2020 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Absolutely, when we were going through meetings and stuff like that, Mike was picking up the offense so fast,” White told the AJC. “In that offense, you had so many different checks, out of two-by-two and three-by-one sets, that we could check to colors that were actually plays.”

Vick was looking forward to playing for Petrino.

“Mike was like really grasping that joint and just checking down,” White said. “We would just go, two-minute drills and stuff like that, blue, green, black, different colors for different plays and he was looking really, really good.

“Everything was looking smooth. The ball was coming out of his hand quickly.”

With the federal dogfighting case, the public and the media never got to see Vick in Petrino’s offense. Once it became clear that Vick was in deep trouble, it was too late.

Petrino was not up to the task of seeing it through, of meeting trouble face-to-face.

So he left.

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