Jeff Brohm was a star quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals in the ’90s.
These days, he’s the assistant head coach at a school a couple of hours south in Bowling Green—at Western Kentucky University.
And he sees similarities between UofL then and WKU now.
“When I was there, we had a well-known coach who had success winning Super Bowls and national championships in Coach Schnellenberger and a program that, you know, a little bit before I got there almost shut down,” Brohm said.
“This program stepped up to [the Football Bowl Subdivision] four or five years ago. We have a great leader that’s leading us through this. And hopefully, we can get things done the way that things happened at Louisville.”
He’s talking about Bobby Petrino, the Hilltopper’s coach who—in addition to trying to build a program relatively new to the Football Bowl Series, college football’s highest level—is on something of a redemption tour. Petrino’s college teams have won over 75 percent of their games. He’s coached in the NFL and the Southeastern Conference, among college football’s toughest leagues.
He’s considered a genius with offense. But he’s also a bit offensive to some.
Louisville fans will remember how he left for the NFL a year into a 10-year contract extension. He quit the Atlanta Falcons after a single season, notifying his players with notes in their lockers. He returned to college football with Arkansas—where found success.
But then he was fired.
“Coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff,” Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long said in a news conference last year.
Petrino had been in a motorcycle accident. It was later revealed that his passenger was an employee—with whom he’d been having an affair. He has said the incident has made him a better person, that he’s trying to make things right at Western this year.
But WKU’s football program is significantly smaller than any team he’s ever led. Western’s Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium seats about 22,000; Arkansas’s stadium seats 72,000. Western played in its first bowl game last season; Arkansas has won 13 bowl games.
There’s also this: the Hilltoppers have gone 16-33 since joining college football’s highest division in 2009. Petrino said he picked WKU—after being approached by Western athletics director Todd Stewart—largely because of his connections to the state.
“You know, first thing that catches your eye is being back in the state of Kentucky and the familiarity with how to recruit here and the people here and what is the best thing for my family,” Petrino told reporters earlier this month. “That’s what initially caught my eye. As we progressed with our conversations, I really enjoyed what Todd had to say and what [WKU President Gary] Ransdell had to say from China.
“We made it happen fast.”
Petrino said he’s not interested in drawing parallels to his past career stops.
“You don’t try to compare any of the different places I’ve been; you just focus on what we have to do right now to get our program where we want it. I’m excited about the players we have coming back and the experience we have.”
It’s difficult to not make comparisons, especially when Petrino’s first game at WKU is against in-state rival Kentucky on Saturday. Petrino’s teams are 4-1 against the Wildcats.
Concerns about Petrino’s past haven’t completely faded yet, but Hilltopper’s star running back Antonio Andrews said he’s not concerned.
“You’ve got to make plenty of mistakes to get things right,” Andrews said. “I mean, obviously, he’s making good decisions here. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s being a great coach and setting good examples. Everybody deserves another chance, you know?”
Yet he question of how long Petrino will stay at WKU lingers—and rivals’ fans rarely let the Hilltoppers forget it.
Brohm said he sees Petrino sticking around.
“I think Coach Petrino has a plan,” Brohm said. “He’s here at Western Kentucky. He’s got pretty much the same plan he had at Louisville. He wants to come here and for the next four years he wants to win a bowl game. We want to not only got to a bowl game but win one. We’re hoping by the fourth year we can go to a BCS bowl and go win that. That’s kind of what we did at Louisville and that’s his plan.”
That is, build in Bowling Green what Petrino and others built in Louisville.
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers play the Kentucky Wildcats at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday.