Bobby Petrino is back in the college football coaching ranks, on the familiar turf of Kentucky. The newly hired Western Kentucky Hilltoppers coach was already among the sport’s most divisive figures before he was fired from the University of Arkansas for misleading administrators about an extramarital affair with a staff member.
The hire is controversial not only for the circumstances of Petrino’s firing from the Razorbacks program, but also by serious questions about the coach’s loyalty to his employers. He is, after all, the guy who in his first season coaching the Louisville Cardinals met with Auburn officials to discuss a head coaching job that wasn’t even vacant.
Some of the harshest criticism comes from Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, who argued that Petrino’s hiring is indicative of college sports’ greater problems.
Consider this: It’s better for Western Kentucky that Petrino showed blatant disregard for university protocol and basic ethics at his old job rather than break NCAA rules. In NCAA parlance, Jim Tressel committed unethical conduct for lying on a compliance form and is thus persona non grata for five years due to his show-cause penalty. Petrino, on the other hand, is free to return to coaching with no restrictions. The only possible consequence for Western Kentucky is embarrassment if Petrino gets wrapped up in a similarly unethical scandal.
FoxSports’ Greg Couch offered similar criticism:
The lesson everyone is already taking from this is that college football places winning above all else. Well, if that’s still news to you, then shame on you. College football is a money chase, first and foremost. Western Kentucky is starting to smell the money.
Moreover, Couch describes Western as a “half-way house” for Petrino — the place where he gets to rehab his reputation before motoring off to a higher-profile coaching job.
Here’s an interesting point: No columnists or bloggers I’ve read about the Petrino hire have doubted that he can win while coaching the Hilltoppers. On Monday, Petrino discussed his ambitions for WKU.
“We need to consistently, every year, go to a bowl game,” Petrino said during a news conference announcing his hiring.
“We need to win a conference championship, we need to every single year. We need to get in a position where we are ranked in the top 25 and get in a position where we can compete to be in a BCS bowl game. That is where we see our program going. When you look at the Boise State’s of the world and the teams that have been able to do that, that is our expectation. That is where we feel we have the opportunity to go.”
Western Kentucky was winless in the 2009 season. The team is playing in its first bowl — the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit — since joining college football’s top division in 2008. Now the Hilltoppers have a coach who’s talking about BCS bowl games.
Maybe he could do it. The question is, will he be in Bowling Green long enough to see it happen.
Deep in SEC country, Kevin Scarbinsky of Al.com — the website of The Birmingham News — was more charitable about Western’s decision to hire Petrino. He wrote:
Having begun to win early in their move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, they want to win more. They had an opportunity to hire the best unemployed college football coach in the country, and they took it.
And why not? If his wife has given Petrino a second chance, why shouldn’t a college football program?
Scarbinsky noted that schools in the SEC — where Petrino seemed most content coaching, and where he was passed over for three job openings — will eventually try to win him back.
In Louisville, WDRB’s Rick Bozich – no stranger to Petrino during the coach’s three years with the Cardinals — also said that the Petrino era at WKU won’t last long.
Petrino will be with the Hilltoppers for two seasons max – unless he can find a way out of town after one. Petrino signed a four-year deal worth $850,000 per season. Inserting a $1.2 million buyout into the contract was the proper call, but that’s barely tip money for the higher octane schools that will pursue Petrino after his image is repaired and his offense is making scoreboards tilt again. The man can really coach and develop players.
But Bozich noted that Western Kentucky got something rare for the program — publicity.
That dovetails with this column by Brad Stephens, sports editor of WKU’s student newspaper, who argued that the school couldn’t have hired a better coach, baggage and all. With a boots on the ground perspective, Stephens writes on WKUHerald.com about critics of the hire within the WKU fanbase:
There were a lot of folks feeling mighty sanctimonious Monday afternoon when Petrino was introduced.
They cried of morals and integrity, threatened to cancel their season tickets and accused WKU of selling itself out all for the sake of winning football games.
That’s fine, folks. Cancel your season tickets if you want to. I’d imagine that after Monday there will be plenty more people in line willing to take them off your hands.
One last thought on the Petrino-won’t-last-long line of thinking. It’s a valid point. But two or three years may be the best Western Kentucky will ever get out of a successful football coach. Willie Taggart was a star quarterback for WKU in the 1990s and an assistant coach when the Hilltoppers’ won a Division 1-AA national championship in 2002. He left an assistant coaching job with a successful major football program, Stanford, to take over a WKU team that didn’t win a game the previous season. Taggart was a Western guy.
Taggart stayed three season.