Asmussen | New Illini Petitbon ready to make immediate impact

Asmussen | New Illini Petitbon ready to make immediate impact

On the list of things you least want to do, telling Nick Saban "I'm outta here" might be at the top.

That's what Richie Petitbon did after the 2018 season. The reaction might surprise you.

"I've always had a good relationship with the coaches at Alabama," Petitbon said. "They've always been there for me. They've pushed me to be better.

"When I decided I wanted to fulfill my dream of playing college football for my last year, they completely understood. They thanked me for my four years.

"It was a very smooth exit."

Petitbon is a big fan of Saban.

"I think he's the greatest college football coach ever," Petitbon said. "Having the opportunity to learn from him and study under him and listen to the words he says every day and things he does and the way he runs his program, it teaches you what it takes to win. And it teaches you the sacrifices you have to make if you want to be the best."

College football fans see Saban stewing on the sidelines and grumbling about reporters' questions during press conferences.

So, what's he really like?

"He's the ultimate competitor," Petitbon said. "He can get very upset some times. But deep down, he truly cares about his players and loves his players. It was a real honor and a privilege to be able to play for him."

In four years with the Crimson Tide, the offensive lineman went to four national championship games. Alabama earned two titles.

Petitbon won enough games to last a lifetime.

"I'm really not a guy that loves winning that much," Petitbon said. "I just really hate losing."

Good news for Lovie Smith's team. Petitbon wanted a new challenge. And found it in Champaign-Urbana. This semester, Petitbon joined the Illini.

"I came here to compete and win games and go to a bowl game," Petitbon said.

He will participate in spring drills with Rod Smith's unit. If it works the way the coach and player hope, he will slide into the vacancy left by Nick Allegretti, the lone departing senior on the Illinois offensive line.

"Coming out of high school, I chose Alabama because I wanted to compete at the highest level," Petitbon said. "My mindset was never, 'I'd like to go somewhere where it's the easiest way or the quickest way to play.'"

A longtime backup, Petitbon could have returned to Alabama for the 2019 season.

"For the last two years, and this would be the third year, I'd be competing to be a starter," Petitbon said. "Wherever they wanted me. I played all five positions. I was a 2 guy my whole career. Played in a lot of games, won a lot of games. My time at Alabama was great."

The move to Illinois was possible because of the hard work Petitbon did in the classroom. He earned his undergraduate degree in three years and spent the 2018 fall semester in grad school.

He is continuing his postgraduate studies at Illinois with all online classes. Petitbon appreciates the flexible schedule.

"When you're a young guy, you've got to wake up early and work out, then you've got to rush to class," Petitbon said. "Then you do it again for five days straight.

"The older you get and the more you take care of your own business, it gets easier for you."

Is Petitbon a good student?

"I believe I am," Petitbon said. "I study very hard. I like to pride myself on common sense.

"I always had to study. I wasn't one of the guys that could show up and get an A on the test. I had to study for it. No shortcuts. Nothing comes easy. You've got to put the work in if you want to be successful."

Friendly face

Once he decided to leave Alabama, Petitbon had plenty of options. He heard from Virginia, Oklahoma, Purdue and Pitt. Among others.

All good schools. All nice places.

But Illinois had an advantage nobody else could match: former Gonzaga Prep teammate Reggie Corbin is on the roster.

"We've been together since we were 13, 14 years old, going into our freshman year at Gonzaga," Petitbon said. "It's been awesome to go on our separate journey and then circle of life, come back together for our final year. I'm very excited about it."

Petitbon and Corbin are rooming together in an off-campus apartment.

"We were really great friends in high school," Petitbon said. "We went over to each other's houses. We played football and basketball together,"

There are other Illinois ties for Petitbon. His grandfather of the same name was a star safety for the Chicago Bears in the 1950s and '60s.

"I've been going to Bears games every year since I was a little kid," Petitbon said. "I'm pretty familiar with the area. It ended up being a pretty easy choice."

The elder Petitbon, 80, lives in Vienna, Va. The two talk regularly.

"He's always been a mentor to me," Petitbon said.

They've got a weekly tradition that goes back to high school.

"He calls me every Friday and asks me about the game," Petitbon said. "It's pretty special.

"Growing up, we used to call him 'Grandpa Football.'"

Extra time

Petitbon needs to learn a new offense. Being here for spring practice helps.

"It's extremely beneficial," Petitbon said. "To have an opportunity to come in and not only learn the offense, but to meet all the guys and build some chemistry."

It's likely Petitbon will become one of the leaders of the offensive line. Anybody else own two national title rings?

Rod Smith is happy to have him on campus.

"It will be interesting to see him in action here in the spring to see exactly what he can bring to us," the second-year offensive coordinator said. "He's an experienced guy. He's had a bunch of practice reps. He's had some game reps at Alabama. He's looking for an opportunity and we had a spot there I thought would provide that for him."

Smith likes Petitbon's background.

"He's been around a great culture, a winning culture, a championship culture," Smith said. "He knows what it looks like. He knows what it smells like."

Smith first reached out to Petitbon between the national semifinal and title game.

"He was talking to me about the opportunity I would have at Illinois," Petitbon said. "Coach Rod is a very genuine guy and I could pick that up on the phone. He let me take my time and take my transition the way I wanted to."

Be on the lookout

Petitbon's dad, Richie, played football at Maryland. His younger brothers appear destined for college football careers too.

Luke Petitbon is a junior offense guard at Gonzaga Prep. Illinois, Boston College, Purdue, Vanderbilt and Virginia have already made offers.

"He's a stud," Richie Petitbon said. "A big strong guy. A competitor."

Younger brother Carson is 14 and plays quarterback.

"We've got two more coming up," Petitbon said.

He won't push his younger brothers toward a particular school.

"It's their choice, just like it was my choice," Petitbon said.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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