Bobby Petrino's exit from the college football world earlier this calendar year was never expected to be a permanent one. It was only a matter of time before Petrino returned to coaching college football. It was just a matter of time before Petrino found a program needing a head coach, whether to create a spark in a program in need of a boost or simply to fill a coaching vacancy.
Enter Western Kentucky, a program taking strides as a football program. The Hilltoppers are heading to their first bowl game in program history, six years after making the move up form the FCS ranks. The recent success of Western Kentucky has not gone unnoticed of course, as evidenced by the recent hiring by South Florida of Western Kentucky's head coach Willie Taggart. Relatively late in the coaching carousel along with a smaller profile and limited resources left Western Kentucky with somewhat limited options with finding a replacement, but with Petrino not being picked up by any of the SEC programs needing a new head coach it left Western Kentucky with an interesting candidate.
Seen by many to be a short-term relationship, the combination of Western Kentucky and Petrino has potential for a wild ride. Mopeds not included.
Why We Like the Hire
Despite his past, Petrino is a solid football coach. Simply put, Petrino is a winner at the college level. It was Petrino who took over at Louisville after John L Smith (the irony of this all) was hired by Michigan State after the 2002 season. Smith made Louisville a legitimate top 25 team as a Conference USA member but it was Petrino who took the Cardinals in to the next stage of their program building with the transition to the Big East and forming a program ending two seasons ranked in the top ten.
Petrino's success at Louisville landed him a coaching job with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons that ended in ridiculous fashion as he quickly moved to return to the college game, becoming the head coach at Arkansas. With the Razorbacks Petrino rescued the program from falling too far behind following the Houston Nutt era at a time when the SEC West was developing in to the top division in college football. While LSU, Alabama and Auburn all won BCS titles during his time in Fayetteville, Arkansas developed in to a legitimate contender in many aspects under Petrino. At Arkansas Petrino had a program that was very good, but had the unfortunate luck of playing in a division with great teams. Arkansas and Petrino were good enough to be on the same field as Alabama and LSU, but just could never get over the hump.
What Western Kentucky gets with Petrino is a coach looking to resurrect his coaching career, which ended in bizarre fashion. By all accounts Petrino has spent time reflecting on his personal life, and we all certainly hope he has things in order for a more stable return. Petrino is an offensive minded coach and has a solid track record at the college level. If he continues to build on what Western Kentucky has been working hard to establish, even if for a short period of time, the hiring can be beneficial to both programs.
Why We Don’t Like the Hire
We would like to think that Western Kentucky realizes this relationship with Petrino may be short lived, but what if they do not? Petrino is a relatively big name in college football coaching and he has a track record of moving to a new job pretty quickly if offered. If Western Kentucky wins football games and captures a Sun Belt championship this season it is very likely Petrino will have his name involved with a number of coaching rumors around the country. If Petrino does pack his bags and take a job elsewhere in the next round of the coaching carousel, that leaves Western Kentucky with a need to find a third head coach in as many seasons. This can create some stability concerns for some, but most will probably recognize that Western Kentucky is what they call a stepping stone job.
That can be a good thing and a bad thing. While it speaks highly about the potential of your program, it also will leave a program in constant state of change and there is no guarantee the next guy will be able to continue the momentum moving forward.
We are not expecting much in the way of distractions off the field this year from Petrino, but everyone will be mindful of his watchful eye when jobs start opening up at the end of the year.
What Kind of Talent Does He Inherit?
Western Kentucky looks to return this season's leading rusher, Antonio Andrews (1,614 yards, 11 touchdowns). Andrews will also likely have three offensive line starters back for next season, and the Hilltoppers have a couple of three-star offensive linemen currently verbally committed to the program. Western Kentucky will lose starting quarterback Kawaun Jakes but redshirt freshman James Mauro will get a chance to be Petrino's latest quarterback project. He may not be Brian Brohm or Ryan Mallett, but we will be interested to see what Petrino can do with him. Western Kentucky will lose leading receiver, tight end Jack Doyle, but sophomore Willie McNeal and freshman Austin Aikens will have a year under their belts in 2013.
Where Western Kentucky will suffer next year may be on the defensive line, with just one starter projected to return (redshirt freshman Gavin Rocker). The linebackers should be pretty much set with leading tackler and MIKE linebacker Andrew Jackson back for his senior year and joined by WILL linebacker Xavius Boyd. The secondary also looks to bring everyone back from the Sun Belt's second best pass defense.
Western Kentucky currently has the second highest rated recruiting class in the Sun Belt according to the most recent composite rankings from 247 Sports.
Yeah, But Can He Recruit?
Petrino has always been able to sign a number of talented players as head coach at Arkansas and Louisville, but recruiting at those schools is a big difference from recruiting at Western Kentucky. At his new job Petrino will not have the big stadiums, top notch training facilities and the glamor of playing in the SEC to sell, and the idea that he may only be in town for a cup of coffee will be difficult for some to look past.
But Petrino has some selling points when it comes to his coaching philosophy. In a conference like the Sun Belt Petrino can make a winner pretty quickly with the right blend of talent, and he can do that this season. He knows the region well after coaching at Louisville and Arkansas, so he knows what works and what does not work.
Western Kentucky hiring Bobby Petrino is reminiscent of Washington State hiring Mike Leech last season. Both schools gave a coach with an impressive coaching pedigree a second chance to come back after being fired from their jobs with the possible understanding that neither coach may stick around for very long. In the case of Washington State, hiring Leech was a way to get people to notice their suffering program again in a complete rebuilding process. At Western Kentucky Petrino will look to continue along the winning path already paved by his predecessor.
As long as Petrino behaves himself and does what he does best, Western Kentucky will benefit. If and when Petrino decides to move on, Western Kentucky will have to reopen a coaching search, but as long as they are winning games that may be a small price to pay.
This hiring does not appear to have much long term stability, but few schools will be able to hire a better coach this off-season than Western Kentucky did with Petrino. Petrino is a good coach. Western Kentucky is a good football program. This is a good coaching hire.
Coaching Grade: A-