Game Day: Under Bobby Petrino, the State of Missouri sheds its ravaged past

Missouri State University’s basketball arena is one of the best in the country. The Bears baseball stadium that it shares with a minor league franchise is a beautiful park north of campus. Drive south on National Avenue, turn right on East Grand Street, and the allure of Plaster Stadium makes it feel like great football.

The west side has two-story seating. The east side includes a place on top for students to relax. Enrollment in the state of Missouri is large, with nearly 24,000 students, and the campus is built to handle the student crowd.

It is the second most populous university in the state behind the University of Missouri. Formerly a directional school (southwestern Missouri state), it changed its name in 2005 to reflect enrollment growth.

A mystery remained, however.

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Missouri State's Plaster Stadium underwent a renovation that was part of a $ 21.8 million project to modernize sports facilities.  Special at the Forum

Missouri State’s Plaster Stadium underwent a renovation that was part of a $ 21.8 million project to modernize sports facilities. Special at the Forum

Why was his football team so bad for so many years?

Since winning a title at the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 1990 – the league was then known as the Gateway Football Conference – the program has struggled. The best season was a pair of 7-4 records in 1993 and 1996.

The program has lived in mediocrity for decades with .500 seasons considered a success. From 2015 to 2019, the Bears were eighth, ninth or 10th in the Missouri Valley. The end of former head coach Dave Steckel came in 2019 when MSU was 1-10.

Enter Bobby Petrino. Times have changed rapidly.

“I think it’s double or triple,” Missouri state athletic director Kyle Moats said. “First, his philosophy is credible for children. They understand that they have a chance to level up or win a championship because he did it. I think “hope”, simple and easy as that word is, our kids believe they are championship caliber. And second, he has better players. You get better players, and the ability to train those players helps you become better as a team. “

Missouri State Head Coach Bobby Petrino led a team that finished 1-10 in 2019 to an FCS playoff contender.  Missouri State Track Photo

Missouri State Head Coach Bobby Petrino led a team that finished 1-10 in 2019 to an FCS playoff contender. Missouri State Track Photo

Another factor: Petrino’s assistants understand how he rides. His son, Nick Petrino, is the Bears offensive coordinator. Ryan Beard, the defensive coordinator, is his son-in-law. MSU’s recruiting coordinator, Ronnie Fouch, trained with Bobby Petrino in Louisville.

Moats previously hired an older and more well-known coach in Steckel, who was popular as a defensive coordinator in Missouri. He was a bust. Petrino was the opposite. Moats said the difference is that Petrino had been a head coach for Louisville, Arkansas, Western Kentucky and the Atlanta Falcons, while Steckel was not.

There have been hires, fires and problems off the pitch, but at 60, Petrino is back with a winning football schedule.

“I can’t talk to X’s and Bones, but it’s a combination of a lot of things,” said Rick Kindhart, MSU’s deputy athletic director for communications. “(Petrino) and his team made an immediate impact much earlier and better than we imagined and that’s fantastic.”

Touring the Bears is no small feat. There have been obstacles for some Missouri Valley teams due to a lack of success, such as funding and facilities in Western Illinois and Indiana State, or the recruiting competition in eastern Ohio at Youngstown State.

Missouri State Bears head coach Bobby Petrino talks through his helmet during the second quarter of a September 4, 2021 game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla.  Brett Rojo / USA TODAY Sports

Missouri State Bears head coach Bobby Petrino talks through his helmet during the second quarter of a September 4, 2021 game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla. Brett Rojo / USA TODAY Sports

Not in the state of Missouri.

“I got tired of hearing (opposing) coaches come in here and say he’s a sleeping giant,” said Art Hains, former play-by-play radio presenter. “How many times have I heard that?” High performing coaches haven’t been able to do that here. I don’t know if I have already had the answer to this question. This coach did it here for several reasons and the main one is his recruiting network.

Out of their 11 opponents this year, the Bears have a winning record against just one. They are 20-14 against Indiana State. They are close to a few others with a 21-22 record against Southern Illinois, 17-22-1 against Illinois State and 3-4 against South Dakota.

But they are also 6-35 against Northern Iowa and 2-11 against NDSU. Petrino wasted no time trying to find talent to compete with the Panthers and Bison. A revolving door of 34 transfers on the current roster landed Utah State quarterback Jason Shelley and Western Kentucky wide receivers Xavier Lane and Central Michigan Tyrone Scott.

Shelley has over 200 yards in her six games, and Lane and Scott are the top two in receptions. Rusher leader Tobias Little is from Louisville and third-best fullback Kevon Latulas is a transfer from Kilgore College (Texas).

Noah Gindorff of North Dakota State wins a 7-yard touchdown reception against Missouri State on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Springfield, Missouri David Samson / Forum News Service

Noah Gindorff of North Dakota State wins a 7-yard touchdown reception against Missouri State on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Springfield, Missouri David Samson / Forum News Service

The fans responded to the victories. The turnout last weekend was 14,336 against Indiana State. Kindhart said media interest in the area was on the rise.

“The basic function of what we do doesn’t change, we don’t control the results,” he said. “But when you have a solid, fun base of media following the program and there is a full stadium for games, that makes for an exciting campus.”

The state of Missouri has long been known as a school of basketball and baseball. Hains points out that many communities did not play high school football until the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Kansas City Chiefs are more popular than ever.

“People are looking to college to set the pace,” Hains said, “and people are looking to theater, basketball and education. Football has finally arrived and joined the other things that are good.


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Joseph D. Whitman

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