Petrino brings toughness, family lineage to Illini offense

Paul Petrino is a busy man.

On Sunday, he couldn’t catch his son’s entire eighth-grade championship football game.

The Illini offensive coordinator did, however, watch the third quarter, when Mason, a quarterback like his father, threw two touchdown passes on his way to earning the MVP of the league.

“He can throw better than dad, I don’t know if he’s as tough as dad,” Petrino said. “We’ll get him there.”

Mason’s championship game came the day after the Illini suffered their first loss of the season to Ohio State. Petrino’s offense had its toughest game of the season, scoring just seven points and turning the ball over three times. After the game, there were no excuses. Petrino took the blame for the loss.

“It’s one of those deals where we got knocked down,” Petrino said. “You know, what are you going to do in life? If you get knocked down you have to get up and fight. … You can stay on the ground and let them put the boots to your ear or you get up fighting, and we’re going to get up fighting.”

Inspirational euphemisms of toughness and resilience have become commonplace in the two seasons Petrino has served as the Illini’s offensive coordinator. But the roots for his unique coaching style stem from his father.

Bob Petrino Sr., alongside his eldest son and current Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino Jr., coached Paul at NAIA Division II Carroll College to 16 school records, Kodak All-American honors, a 36-6 record and four Frontier Conference titles between 1985-88.

“When you grow up as a coach’s kid, nobody really understands it,” Petrino said. “Your whole family is either happy or sad by whether your team wins or loses. Unless you’ve been a coach’s kid, you don’t understand that. And so when I got to go play for my dad for four years I made everyone happy. I made my sisters happy, my mom happy and my dad happy. We were going to win.”

Petrino and his brother Bobby were reunited at Utah State in 1995, receiving the chance to coach together for the first time. After three seasons with the Aggies, the brothers moved to the University of Louisville together. With Bobby as the quarterbacks coach and Paul coaching receivers, the Cardinals had the No. 1 passing offense in the nation in the 1998 season, averaging 39.4 points a game. After a brief stint away from each other, Bobby was named the head coach at Louisville in 2003, where he coached for four seasons with his brother as his offensive coordinator.

“We had a lot of great years like that,” the younger Petrino said of the brothers’ record-breaking 1998 season. “All four years where he was head coach at Louisville were that way. It was pretty great. He was six years older than me, so we weren’t around each other that much when we were growing up.”

In 2007, less than a year into his job as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Bobby Petrino Jr. left to take the head-coaching job at Arkansas. Petrino, serving as Bobby’s receivers coach in Atlanta, rode out the remainder of the season in the NFL before joining his brother as the offensive coordinator of the Razorbacks. Under Petrino, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White had a breakout campaign, catching 83 balls for 1,202 yards.

Petrino coached with his brother at Arkansas for two seasons. With Ryan Mallet at quarterback, the Razorbacks broke the school record for passing yards in 2008 and raised it even more in 2009.

When Illinois offered Petrino the offensive coordinator position in 2010, he was faced with a tough decision. He had coached with his brother for seven consecutive seasons, but a new start meant a chance to prove himself on his own merit.

“I felt like at some point I had to leave him to go out and prove I could do it on my own,” Petrino said. “I felt like that was the best time to do it because I had coached all those receivers as freshmen and sophomores, they had great players, they had their quarterback back, they had all their linemen. If I was ever going to leave them it wasn’t going to be to hurt him, and I knew he had a great team coming back. The opportunity arose, and it was a great situation.”

Petrino and his brother still talk two or three times during the week, and they make sure they talk every Sunday.

“It’s only about football usually,” Petrino said. “Well, not only. We’ll mention our kids and what’s going on there, but when we call each other we’re both so busy it’s usually just a quick, ‘Hey, I’m getting under G4Q, this formation, what do you think I should do?’ or he’s like, ‘Hey, what was that play you ran against Michigan last year that got you two easy touchdowns?’”

Last season, his first at Illinois, he broke the school record for total points and points per game. He’s developed a hands-on coaching style, where he treats his veteran players Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins the toughest.

During positional breakdowns at practice, Petrino doesn’t just run the wide receiver drills — he participates in them. He plays tight pass coverage by grabbing receivers and harassing them, forcing his unit to make tough catches.

“He’s one of the best,” freshman running back Donovonn Young said. “If you work that hard, eventually you reap the benefits.”

In training camp, Illini head coach Ron Zook said he expects Petrino to become a head coach sooner rather than later. Make no mistake about it, Petrino wants to be a head coach somewhere.

“When your dad’s a head coach, your brother is a head coach, there’s no question that’s the goal, but it’s not something I sit around and worry about,” Petrino said. “I’m going to do the very best job at what I’m doing now. My family loves it here. It’s a great situation with Coach Zook, he obviously corrects me and tells me what’s right and wrong, but he pretty much lets me run the offense the way I want. … If something comes up, then you always evaluate it, sit down as a family and make a decision.”

The Ohio State game was the first of Petrino’s losses at Illinois that his father witnessed in person. After the game, Bob Petrino Sr. gave Paul an honest critique of what he thought went wrong.

According to Petrino, none of what his father said can be printed.