Jimbo Fisher to hire Bobby Petrino, bad guy and diminished coach

Jimbo Fisher is getting paid Nick Saban money at Texas A&M while delivering Kevin Sumlin results. Fisher supposedly is an offensive guru, but his Aggies stink on offense. So, Fisher is doing what college football decision-makers tend to do when they get desperate for results and don’t care how it looks.

Hire Bobby Petrino.

Petrino is set to become Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator, according to multiple reports. ESPN said Fisher still will be heavily involved in the offense, but that Petrino will be the primary play-caller. Petrino took the job in his typical fashion. He’d agreed to be UNLV’s coordinator less than a month ago.

Fisher’s calculation is obvious. He figures that taking on Petrino’s baggage, which is well over the weight limit, is worth it. Everyone knows the list of Petrino’s questionable behavior. It includes slinking away from the Falcons for the Arkansas job in 2007. The apex of Petrino’s misbehavior lives on forever via the image of a battered Petrino wearing a neck brace after a motorcycle crash with his mistress at Arkansas.

Credit: Gareth Patterson

Credit: Gareth Patterson

The Aggies are getting a coach with a terrible personal and professional reputation. They also are getting a brilliant play-caller. That seems to be the prevailing view of Petrino’s pending hire. I don’t share it.

My skepticism has nothing to do with Petrino’s personal failings. Do we still really expect college football coaches, of all people, to be models of good behavior? Rather, I doubt Petrino will work out at TAMU because he’s no longer a great offensive football coach.

In Louisville, they refer to the two Petrinos: Petrino 1.0 and Petrino 2.0. Both versions had questionable ethics and few interpersonal skills. But Petrino 1.0 won big by Louisville’s standards with a high-scoring offense before doing the same thing at Arkansas. Petrino 2.0 produced a below-average offense until Lamar Jackson became his quarterback.

The Aggies think they are getting Petrino 1.0 because of what he did at Louisville from 2003-06 and at Arkansas from 2008-11. Maybe that will be the case. I didn’t pay close attention to what Petrino was doing during his three-year exile at FCS Missouri State. Perhaps he’s regained his mojo.

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I think TAMU will be something closer to Petrino 2.0. That won’t be enough to bring Fisher’s offense up to SEC standards. It’s been more than a decade since Petrino has shown the acumen that made him probably the top play-caller and scheme designer at the FBS level.

From 2003-06, Petrino’s Louisville teams ranked 15th, first, third and fourth in scoring among FBS teams. Petrino really was brilliant back then. He zigged when opponents expected him to zag. His players executed with precision. Petrino molded modestly talented quarterbacks into stars. Petrino had similar results at Arkansas, where his offenses ranked 91st, ninth, 17th and 15th in scoring.

After his Arkansas tenure ended with public humiliation, Petrino resurfaced at Western Kentucky in 2013. The Hilltoppers ranked 53rd in scoring that season. Louisville took Petrino back the next season. The Cardinals ranked 52nd, 65th, sixth and 11th in scoring during the four full seasons of Petrino 2.0.

Jackson deserves a lot more credit than Petrino for those last two seasons. The coach only reluctantly altered his offense to harness Jackson’s extraordinary talent. Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 2016, but he never did sort out his throwing mechanics with Petrino as his coach. That didn’t happen until he got to the NFL, where he’s been a much more accurate passer against better competition.

Credit: Timothy D. Easley

Credit: Timothy D. Easley

Jackson’s rare talent masked Petrino’s increasingly obvious shortcomings. I remember the moment when I first realized that Petrino was losing his edge.

Louisville trailed 23-17 late in the game at Clemson in 2014. Petrino’s offense had done next-to-nothing, but suddenly a 73-yard pass play got the Cardinals to Clemson’s 8-yard line with 1:08 to play. A first-down pass gained 7 yards, a run on second down lost 1 yard and then ... Petrino had his quarterback spike the ball with 30 seconds to play.

What the heck was Petrino thinking?

“I thought that we would run the one touchdown play we have practiced and be able to get in on fourth down,” Petrino said after the game.

I’m no offensive genius, but running a play on third down seemed like the better choice. And about that fourth-down play: Clemson sniffed it out so easily that it seemed like the Tigers knew it was coming. That’s because they did, according to defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Clemson had studied Petrino’s tendencies and, based on the formation, anticipated where the ball was going. The play-caller who once was always a step ahead of the opposition had become predictable. The Cardinals lost a big game because Petrino wasted a play before calling one that Clemson saw coming.

My doubts about Petrino that began on that day were confirmed later. Jackson ended up saving Petrino, but once he was off to the NFL, the mirage was over. The Cardinals were 2-10 and averaging 18.6 points per game when Louisville fired Petrino in November 2018.

Petrino’s return to Power Five football shouldn’t be a surprise. A coach can be forgiven for pretty much any moral wrongdoing so long as they help a school win and make money. If that weren’t true, then D.J. Durkin’s career would have been finished after Maryland player Jordan McNair died of heatstroke under Durkin’s watch in 2018. Lane Kiffin hired Durkin as an assistant in January 2020, and Fisher made Durkin his defensive coordinator last year.

Petrino’s known transgressions don’t rise to Durkin’s level. Petrino got a second chance at Louisville because he had a track record of being a good coach. Petrino is getting yet another chance at TAMU because Fisher believes he’s still a good play-caller.

We’ll see if Fisher is right. It’s more likely that he’s hiring Petrino 2.0.