Even as a young man, Bobby Petrino knew he was going to get into the family business — coaching. He would walk the sideline during Carroll College football games, clipboard in hand, and track plays for the Fighting Saints, who were coached by his dad, Bob Sr. Young Bobby would jot down the formation that was used on each play, the play call and the result, then repeat the process.
He was no more than 12 years old at the time. And he was smitten.
“I knew right from the start,” he said, “what I was going to do.”
Named head coach at Missouri State in January 2020, he is approaching his 37th year in the profession, and his 16th as head man. To date he is 119-56 in the latter role, having notably served as head coach at the University of Louisville (2003-06 and 2014-18) and the University of Arkansas (2008-11), in addition to stints at Western Kentucky (2013) and with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (2007). His college teams have finished in the Top 25 seven times, including Top 10 showings at Louisville in 2004 and 2006 and at Arkansas in 2011. He has also seen his clubs play in 11 bowl games, winning five.
Frequently lauded as an offensive mastermind, he authored the 2020 book “Inside the Pocket: an In-Depth Analysis of the Xs and Os” with Joe Metzka, PhD. Petrino is also known for his role in the development of quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy at Louisville in 2016 and was named NFL MVP in 2019, while playing for the Baltimore Ravens.
Bobby Petrino’s roots in the profession lie, however, back at Carroll. Bob Sr., who died in 2018 at the age of 81, served as head coach at the Helena, Mont.-based school from 1971-98, going 163-90-2 and winning 15 Frontier Conference championships. All but eight of his teams fashioned a winning record, and four of them finished the regular season unbeaten. The elder Petrino, named conference coach of the year 13 times, also guided his team to the NAIA playoffs nine times.
To hear others tell it, Bob Sr. was a no-nonsense coach. A former assistant, Steve Jones, told the Louisville Courier-Journal following his death that the players were forbidden from speaking at team meals on the road, save basic requests for food and expressions of gratitude. Nor were they allowed to say anything when they walked the hallways of hotels.
“Even though it wasn’t necessarily verbalized by him as a teaching moment,” Jones told that media outlet, “everything he did was a teaching moment for life, not just football.”
Bobby Petrino, a quarterback as a young man, could have gone to Montana State on a scholarship. Instead he chose to play for his dad.
“It wasn’t too bad,” the younger Petrino said. “He was hard on me. He wanted to make sure everybody knew he wasn’t giving me any favors. But he was hard on me.”
Bobby recalled, for instance, that there was a sizable hill next to the Fighting Saints’ practice field, and the punishment for making a mistake was to run that hill.
“I certainly led the team in hills,” he said with a laugh.
He led Carroll to three straight conference championships (1980-82), and was twice named an NAIA All-American, and a two-time Frontier MVP. Then he joined his dad’s staff as a graduate assistant and coached his younger brother Paul, who also played quarterback and also turned down a scholarship offer (from Montana) to play at Carroll.
“So,” Bobby said, laughing again, “I made sure he ran more hills than anybody, too.”
The Saints won four Frontier titles with Paul at QB, and like Bobby he gravitated to coaching as well. He is now the head coach at Idaho.
“Some people say you shouldn’t coach your own kids,” Bob Petrino Sr. once told the Great Falls Tribune, “but for me, it was a great thing.”
Bobby built on the things he learned from his dad, but also adapted. Bob Sr. had been a proponent of the running game, but his elder son is a passing guru. And the era of the authoritarian coach has for the most part come to an end. These days the younger Petrino, while hardly a pushover, concentrates on developing his players as students and citizens, as well as athletes.
“You bring them in, get them when they’re 18 years old, and basically raise them,” he said.
So there is nurturing, but there is also tough love.
“I like them to grow through their obstacles,” he says. “One of the things I would tell them all the time was, ‘When you have your own kids and it’s 6 a.m. and the alarm goes off and you don’t feel good, you’re still going to get up and go to work and do a good job.’ That’s what you’re looking for — the ability to develop that mental toughness and character to be able to fight through the hard times and the obstacles.”
Everybody has a hill to climb, in other words. Sometimes that is literally true, sometimes not. But either way, there is an ascent.