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Game Day: Under Bobby Petrino, Missouri State shedding its blighted past

Long considered a sleeping giant, football program awakening to success under the veteran head coach.

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Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino has not been afraid to bring in transfers in trying to bring the Bears' talent level up. Missouri State Athletics photo

FARGO — Springfield, Mo., is a community with vibrancy and a metro population of around 460,000 people. Just a half hour to the south, neighboring city Branson is a vacation destination, especially for country music fans.

The Missouri State University basketball arena is one of the best in the country. The Bears’ baseball stadium it shares with a minor league franchise is a beautiful park north of campus. Travel south on National Avenue, take a right on East Grand Street and the curb appeal of Plaster Stadium gives the feel of big time football.

The west side has double decker seating. The east side includes a plaza on top for students to hang out. The enrollment at Missouri State is large, almost 24,000 students, and the campus is built to handle the crowd of students.

It’s the second most populated university in the state behind the University of Missouri. Once a directional school (Southwest Missouri State), it changed its name in 2005 to reflect the growth in enrollment.

One 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 upgrade athletic facilities. Special to The Forum

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

Since winning a Missouri Valley Football Conference title in 1990 — the league was known as the Gateway Football Conference then — the program fell on hard times. The best season was a pair of 7-4 records in 1993 and 1996.

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

Enter Bobby Petrino. Times changed quickly.

“I think it’s two- or three-fold,” said Missouri State athletic director Kyle Moats. “One, his philosophy is believable for kids. They understand they have a chance to go to the next level or win a championship because he’s done it. I think ‘hope,’ as easy and simple as that word is, our kids believe they are championship caliber. And two, he’s gotten better players. You get better players and the ability to coach those players helps you become better as a team.”

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Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino has taken a team that finished 1-10 in 2019 to an FCS playoff contender. Missouri State Athletics photo

One other factor: Petrino’s assistants understand how he rolls. His son, Nick Petrino, is the Bears’ offensive coordinator. Ryan Beard, the defensive coordinator, is his son-in-law. The MSU recruiting coordinator, Ronnie Fouch, coached with Bobby Petrino at Louisville.

Moats went the route of hiring an older, name coach before in Steckel, who was popular as the defensive coordinator at Missouri. He was a bust. Petrino has been the opposite. Moats said the difference is Petrino had been a head coach at Louisville, Arkansas, Western Kentucky and the Atlanta Falcons, whereas Steckel was not.

There were hires, fires and off-the-field issues, but at 60 years old, Petrino is back fielding a winning football program.

“I can’t speak to the Xs and Os, but it’s been a combination of a lot of things,” said Rick Kindhart, the MSU assistant athletic director for communications. “(Petrino) and his staff have made an immediate impact a lot sooner and better than any of us envisioned and that’s fantastic.”

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

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

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Not at Missouri State.

“I got tired of hearing (opposing) coaches come in here and say this is a sleeping giant,” said veteran radio play-by-play announcer Art Hains. “How many times did I hear that? Very successful coaches have not been able to get it done here. I don’t know if I ever had the answer to that question. This coach has gotten it done here for a couple reasons and the main one is his recruiting network.”

Of its 11 opponents this year, the Bears have a winning record against just one of them. They’re 20-14 against Indiana State. They’re close on a couple of others with a 21-22 mark against Southern Illinois, 17-22-1 vs. Illinois State and 3-4 against South Dakota.

But they’re also 6-35 vs. Northern Iowa and 2-11 against NDSU. Petrino hasn’t wasted time in trying to find talent to match the Panthers and Bison. A revolving door of 34 transfers on the current roster landed quarterback Jason Shelley from Utah State, and receivers Xavier Lane from Western Kentucky and Tyrone Scott from Central Michigan.

Shelley has passed for over 200 yards in all six of his games, and Lane and Scott are the top two in receptions. Leading rusher Tobias Little came from Louisville and the third-best back, Kevon Latulas, is a transfer from Kilgore College (Texas).

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North Dakota State's Noah Gindorff hauls in a 7-yard touchdown reception against Missouri State on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Springfield, Mo. David Samson / Forum News Service
Forum Communications Co.

The fans have responded to the victories. Attendance last weekend was 14,336 against Indiana State. Kindhart said media interest in the area is seeing an uptick.

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

Missouri State has long been known as a basketball and baseball school. Hains points out a lot of communities didn’t play high school football until the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The Kansas City Chiefs are more popular than ever.

“People look to the university to set the pace,” Hains said, “and people look to theatre, basketball and education. Football has finally come along and joined the other things that are good.”

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