Ex-NFL head men clash in SEC West

Published 2:57 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

Coach Bobby Petrino bolted from the NFL after his rookie year. Nick Saban stuck around a little longer but headed to Alabama after saying he wouldn’t.

Now, the two coaches are back where they want to be — in college football.

Petrino leads his new team, the Arkansas Razorbacks, against Saban and No. 9 Alabama Saturday in Fayetteville.

The game is not just two short-term NFL coaches matching up. It’s the Razorbacks’ offensive guru vs. the Crimson Tide’s defensive mastermind. ‘Bama safety Rashad Johnson looks forward to facing Petrino’s offense for the first time.

“It’s going to be fun, but we’ve got an NFL coach who’s coaching our defense who’s going to have us ready,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be like two NFL-style teams going against each other in the SEC. It’s going to be fun to see who can execute their style of NFL play.”

The Southeastern Conference Western Division isn’t the AFC East but it’s not too shabby either.

Both coaches had to endure criticism when rejoining the college ranks where they made their names, and each took a paycut.

Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons after one season, bidding farewell with an 86-word note left behind for the players. Saban spent two seasons at Miami before leaving for Alabama a couple of weeks after proclaiming, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”

If all that’s old news, Saban and Petrino are still part of a pretty small fraternity: Head coaches who leave the NFL for college ball of their own accord, instead of getting nudged out.

Saban said he and Petrino spoke at the SEC meetings during the spring, but their NFL exits or experiences didn’t come up. Too bad, because if anybody could relate to Petrino’s experience, it would have been Saban.

“I know that we love college football,” Saban said of his own family. “We’re very happy to be back, we’re very happy to be here. Not to say there’s anything wrong with the NFL, it’s just kind of where your heart is. That’s where our heart is. (Wife) Terry likes it better here. I like it better here. Our family likes it better.

“We’re really happy to be here.”

Saban also knows some of the criticism comes with the jobs — and the multimillion-dollar contracts.

“There’s always going to be a lot of scrutiny in our business,” he said. “It’s difficult sometimes in the circumstances that you’re put in. There’s a lot of tough decisions that you have to make. Bobby’s a great coach and a good guy. I’m sure he’s going to do a great job and is doing a great job at Arkansas.”

Saban and Petrino have matched wits before. Petrino was Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2002 when Saban was at LSU.

Incidentally Auburn won that one, 31-7. Petrino 1, Saban 0.

Petrino also just finished preparing for a Texas defense coached by former Saban protege Will Muschamp, though the game was postponed because of Hurricane Ike.

There is some carryover from that, he said.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for coach Saban,” Petrino said. “I’ve been watching how he coaches and what he’s done for a long, long time. He’s a terrific coach and he does an unbelievable job.”

Alabama players are familiar with Petrino’s offensive reputation. Quarterback John Parker Wilson was a high school senior in 2004, when Petrino’s Louisville offense led the nation in yards and scoring.

This offense might not have quite the same firepower but the Razorbacks do rank 10th nationally and tops in the SEC in passing offense.

“When he was at Louisville they’d put up 40, 50 points a game every week,” Wilson said. “You know they’re capable of doing that.”