He has a new seven-year contract with Arkansas in hand, and his eighth-ranked Razorbacks are capping a strong season with a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where they will play No. 6 on Tuesday.
Why not address lingering questions about his much-criticized exit from the Atlanta Falcons?
Petrino insists the only time that matters is now. Three years after his sudden departure from the , Petrino is hugely popular in Arkansas and prefers to let the wins speak for themselves.
“This is the place I want to be, I’m very happy,” Petrino said last month. “I like what we’re building here. It’s a place I’m very excited about what we’re building, what our staff has done and how we’re competing at the highest level possible in football.”
Petrino arrived at Arkansas with what seemed a career’s worth of battle scars from less than a full season in Atlanta. After being hired from Louisville in January 2007, Petrino took over a Falcons team that was supposed to be led by .
The Petrino-Vick marriage never materialized because the quarterback came under investigation for his involvement in a operation. Vick was sentenced to prison without ever taking a snap for Petrino, who resigned from the Falcons after just 13 games.
His late-night departure, 3-10 record and four-sentence farewell note posted on players’ lockers brought an onslaught of criticism — including attacks from former assistants and players.
Petrino turned down an interview request, and Arkansas said he preferred not to discuss his time in Atlanta or his departure.
South Carolina Coach , who left Florida and spent two seasons with the before returning to the college game, watched Petrino’s experience from afar.
“When he went to the Falcons, I originally gave him two years,” Spurrier said. “He didn’t last two. I lasted at least two and found out that league wasn’t for me. I think he found out in less than one year that league wasn’t for him, either.”
Spurrier said the N.F.L. coaching lifestyle was difficult for many college coaches to adjust to, saying “it’s just not as much fun.” He also called the N.F.L. “more of a players’ league” and noted that college coaches had more control over their teams than their professional brethren.
“I just think in college when you know you’re pretty much running the show, if it doesn’t work out, well, at least I did it my way,” Spurrier said. “If it doesn’t work, then O.K. You expect to be fired and move on.”
The N.F.L. experience is considered a stain on Petrino’s career, but he brought an impeccable college résumé with him to Arkansas. After successful stints as an assistant, Petrino engineered a four-year run at Louisville that resulted in a 41-9 record and a 2007 Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.
That success did not carry over immediately with the Razorbacks, who finished 5-7 in 2008, Petrino’s first season. But led by quarterback Ryan Mallett, Arkansas improved to 8-5 last season and won the Liberty Bowl over East Carolina.
With Mallett and an array of talent returning, expectations were high for the Razorbacks before this season. They overcame losses to Auburn and Alabama to win six straight games to finish the season.
The result was a 10-2 record and the program’s first trip to a game. Petrino’s success does not seem to surprise the former coach John L. Smith, who has worked with Petrino on four different staffs and has coached Arkansas’s special teams the past two seasons.
“He cares about the kids, No. 1,” Smith said. “He’s going to kick them in the tail and he’s going to force them to be the best they can be, and demand the right things out of them and that all comes along with being a football coach. But at the same time, I think they definitely understand that he loves and cares about them and is going to do what is best for them.”
The Arkansas senior tight end D. J. Williams said the criticism surrounding Petrino when he arrived at Arkansas was a rallying point for the team. Williams also said Petrino had been willing to discuss problems after being criticized for not being personable enough in Atlanta.
“I’d say he has gotten comfortable with being here,” Williams said. “He’ll crack jokes now and then, and I’ll even crack a joke with him once in a while. He’s turned into that player’s coach, but also kept a business attitude.
“It’s exactly what you need in college football if you want to be successful, and Coach Petrino is doing it.”
Petrino agreed to the new contract earlier this month, a deal worth $3.56 million annually with a mutual buyout clause that begins at $18 million should the university fire Petrino or he leaves.
For a coach who had 15 jobs with 11 teams in 14 years before arriving at Arkansas, the contract was as much as about making a statement as it was about security.
“The reason that we have such a big buyout is next December at this time we don’t want to have to hear names come up in conversations about other jobs being open,” Petrino said after signing his contract. “Everybody understands that this is where I’m going to be, this is the job I want and next year, we don’t have to worry about anything.”
Petrino said other programs have used his frequent job changes against him in recruiting, and there was brief speculation that he was a candidate at Florida after Urban Meyer’s resignation. But his new contract includes a noncompete clause for Southeastern Conference teams.
It is one more sign the eternal wanderer has found a home in Arkansas, where he has made a point of meeting people, learning about the university and enjoying the weekly SEC battles.
“Certainly, the competition that you have week in and week out, it’s very, very tough, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
And that makes it easy to not look back.