Going Back To School

FAYETTEVILLE — Pat Jones has experienced plenty in his long and winding coaching career

The former Arkansas player spent time in the collegiate ranks as an assistant at places like Arkansas, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State. He was the Cowboys head coach for 10 years. He even tried the NFL with stops as an assistant at Miami and Oakland.

So Jones, who now lives in Tulsa, had a simple assessment of new Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's abrupt jump from the Atlanta Falcons to the Razorbacks last week.

"Sometimes the NFL is not for everybody," Jones said.

The lure of the NFL and the difficulties that came with it were evident for Petrino, who went 3-10 with the Falcons before resigning to take the Arkansas job last week. But he's not alone. In fact, trying your luck in the NFL, struggling, then returning to the college game has practically become a prerequisite in the Southeastern Conference.

Steve Spurrier went from Florida to the Washington Redskins to South Carolina. Nick Saban went from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama. And don't forget Kentucky's Rich Brooks, who coached at Oregon, spent six years as a head coach (St. Louis Rams) and defensive coordinator (Atlanta Falcons) in the NFL, then was hired by the Wildcats in 2003.

Why has it happened? ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen believes it's the thrill of the challenge followed by the reality that, for some, it's not all it's cracked up to be.

"Every coach wants to try and prove himself at the highest level and the NFL is the highest level in pro football," Mortensen said. "But these guys get to the pro game and realize they've lost an element of control they enjoyed at the college level."

Mortensen said one of the best examples must be Southern California coach Pete Carroll, who struggled in NFL stops with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. But once Carroll landed at USC in 2001, he rediscovered there was much more freedom to operate.

There were no owners, directors of player personnel or salary caps. He made all of the decisions when he landed at USC, ran his program and, as Mortensen said, discovered he had the opportunity to grab "25 first-round draft picks" on the recruiting trail.

Arkansas interim coach Reggie Herring and offensive coordinator David Lee experienced similar feelings during stints as NFL assistants. Herring coached linebackers for the Houston Texans and Lee was an offensive assistant with the Dallas Cowboys.

Both said there was an element missing in the NFL.

"When (veteran quarterback) Vinny Testaverde came to Dallas, I think I gave him one thing that I thought would help him the whole time he was there," Lee said. "I learned more from Vinny than he ever got from me. ... You really have a chance at this level to make a difference in somebody's life. That's the underlying intangible thing that drew me back."

Some details of Petrino's short stint in the NFL have been well-known. He left Louisville for a chance to introduce the Falcons and quarterback Michael Vick to his innovative offense, but the key piece of the Atlanta franchise hasn't played this season because of federal dog fighting charges and was recently sentenced to 23 months in prison.

Others have come to light lately. Players said his disciplinarian approach didn't work in a locker room full of men. He was chastised for having poor communication skills, too.

Whatever the reasons, Mortensen said Petrino's tenure proved to be "the imperfect storm." So it became the perfect opportunity for Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long — who hired Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt after his long career in the NFL — to grab a coach that had a desire to return to the college game.

"Here's a man who pursued that NFL dream," Long said. "He had been an assistant and he had been a head coach and I think that he found where he wanted to be. That would be at college working with young men where he could still make a difference and help mold them."

Petrino offered few details regarding his Atlanta departure during his introduction on Tuesday night and hasn't been available for comment since. However, the one thing he has emphasized over and over again was his desire to work with college players.

"I knew I wanted to come back and coach in college football," Petrino said. "I truly believe in the student-athlete. I'm very excited to get back and bring young men in who are 17, 18 years old and be able to help mold and help him reach his goals."

Petrino took a big paycut — and another public relations hit — to do so. He was working under a five-year, $24 million contract with the Falcons and was earning roughly $4.5 million annually. He signed a five-year deal with Arkansas that will pay him $2.85 million annually.

But walking away from the extra money didn't matter to Petrino, who is among the SEC's highest paid coaches. Instead, Arkansas' new coach said he appreciated his unsuccessful NFL stint but — like Spurrier, Saban and Brooks — is ready to enjoy life in college football again.

"I learned a lot this year in the trials and tribulations we went through," Petrino said. "It was a great experience and I'm looking forward now to getting back and try to utilize what I learned in the college game."

Coach College stop NFL visit College comeback

Steve Spurrier 122-27-1 (Florida) 12-20 (Washington) 21-16 (South Carolina)

Nick Saban 48-16 (LSU) 15-17 (Miami) 6-6 (Alabama)

Rich Brooks 56-79-2 (Oregon) 13-19 (St. Louis Rams) 15-29 (Kentucky)

Bobby Petrino 41-9 (Louisville) 3-10 (Atlanta)

Hawgs Daily Top Stories