Say what you will about how it all ended, but this much is certain about Bobby Petrino’s tenure in Arkansas: He meant victories and money during his four years there.
From former coach Houston Nutt’s final season in 2007 to the 2010 season under Petrino, the Razorbacks saw donations to the football program rise a whopping 359 percent, with a more than 80 percent growth from 2009-10 to 2010-11, to $15.4 million. No other SEC school saw such growth in that time period: Auburn’s donations increased by 15 percent, while Florida saw a 9.7 percent increase. Georgia came in lower at 3.9 percent, and LSU saw donations decrease by more than 13 percent.
The figures come from data each university provides to the NCAA, and while it’s important to note that every athletic department handles donations differently -- some schools only take what they need each year from their fund-raising pots -- there’s no arguing Arkansas has seen a huge influx of cash during Petrino’s tenure.
Football revenue overall rose by 54 percent during Petrino’s first three years, to $61.1 million. Auburn, which won a national title during that time period, saw a 30 percent increase. LSU’s revenue growth came in at 13 percent to $69.1 million.
Petrino, who was in the middle of a seven-year contract under which his salary averaged $3.53 million, put teams on the field that had fan-friendly high-powered offenses.
“Under Petrino, the team averaged 94 percent capacity for home games. It was only 91 percent under [Houston] Nutt,” said Scott Prather, one of the founders of Coaches by the Numbers, a website dedicated to gathering statistical data on football coaches. “If you figure each ticket at an average of $50 per ticket, that’s nearly $600,000 per year.”
Petrino’s last two teams won 81 percent of their games, the best two-year record for any Razorback coach since 1988-89 under Ken Hatfield. In his Tuesday press conference announcing Petrino’s firing, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long acknowledged he has a tough road ahead as he searches for a new football coach.
“It's a difficult time of year to be searching for a head football coach, no question,” said Long.
Replacing a successful coach is also potentially difficult timing for the athletic department, which broke ground on a new football complex last fall as part of a comprehensive athletic facilities master plan for many sports. The master plan, which aims to be funded solely by private donations, is estimated to cost up to $327 million at full completion.
Heather Collart, a former athletics administrator who now works for the Detroit Pistons, said the loss of an administrator or coach can have a definite impact on donations and capital campaigns.
“While talent reigns supreme within athletics, the personality of leadership has a stronger tie than most people realize to donors, alumni and especially former student-athletes,” said Collart.
The message from the university will be key in the next weeks several weeks, she said.
“Boosters will always question difficult decisions, especially when it results in the loss of a figurehead who had an enduring personality or winning record -- however if you can point to a long-standing process that holds a mission statement as gospel, boosters will come to accept the decision much more quickly and in most cases will remain loyal to a program.”