Hiring Bobby Petrino made Western Kentucky the talk of college football Monday.
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WDRB) – Bobby Petrino had an affair and then lied to his boss about it. He put his mistress on the University of Arkansas payroll. Put away the mascara. There is no way to make that look pretty, even eight months later.
Bobby Petrino changes jobs the way that I change sneakers. Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart admitted that Petrino could use the Hilltoppers as his connecting flight to a grander destination in less than 12 months. He said that did not bother him.
Some WKU fans are already wondering if the school has dropkicked its moral compass. Stewart said he took calls from several angry fans Monday, the day he announced the Hilltoppers were hiring Petrino as the replacement for Willie Taggart as the school's next football coach. Most callers were supportive, but some were legitimately upset.
This is one we'll be debating for hours, days, weeks – until Petrino opens next season by beating Kentucky and/or Tennessee and later departs.
Did Petrino deserve a second chance? Sure, doesn't everybody? His wife, Becky, attended the press conference. That's the most important second chance in his life. Petrino admitted his mistakes again Monday, and said he planned to learn from them. The world will be watching.
But a second chance this soon? Reasonable people will fuss about that. Programs with more juice than Western decided hiring Petrino was not worth the inevitable public-relations blowback.
Is he here to embrace and elevate WKU football or simply to mend his image before Petrino races to his next job as soon as a more glamorous school calls?
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.
Is there any reason to believe that Petrino's time at WKU will end better than it ended at Arkansas (motorcycle crash/affair), the Atlanta Falcons (quit on his team) or the University of Louisville (flirted with Louisiana State, Florida, Notre Dame and others before moving to Atlanta)?
I don't know. Neither do you. Neither does Stewart, who said he called administrators (that he declined to name) at Arkansas, Louisville and with the Atlanta Falcons as part of his background check.
That is what makes this story so fascinating. That is why it was The Talk of college football Monday.
Hiring Petrino, a coach that Kentucky, Colorado, Purdue and other schools aching for football love would not touch, generated more publicity for Western Kentucky than the millions of dollars the school has spent on renovating its stadium, constructing its five-star weight and locker rooms and transforming itself from the Division I-AA national champions to a team booked for an FBS-level bowl game in two weeks.
If you believe any publicity is good publicity, as many in sports do, Western has already cashed in on its investment. This is the most national talk the Hilltoppers have inspired since Ty Rogers threw in that jump shot when Darrin Horn's final WKU basketball team beat Drake and eventually advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
For a day, Western was bigger than Kentucky, bigger than Louisville, bigger than Tennessee, bigger than anybody. That's important at Western with a fan base that is often annoyed that UK and U of L suck all the oxygen from the room.
That's even more important to Western president Dr. Gary Ransdell. He missed the frenzied introductory press conference that overflowed with nearly 500 people Monday because he was traveling in China. Ransdell wants his legacy to include praise for making WKU the state's third FBS football program. Everything about this hire screamed Ransdell's name and ambition.
Bobby Petrino wanted a second chance to get to the big time. Western Kentucky wants a first chance to get to the big time. That's all that it took to inspire this strange marriage.
Take all the talk about redemption, character building and working with young men and stick it outside the room. One major college coach explained it to me like this Monday:
"Western Kentucky isn't selling cookbooks. They're selling seats. They have put a lot of money into that program and he's an instant impact hire for a school that wants to take the next step. They couldn't have made a splashier hire."
Sure, they could have – Nick Saban, Les Miles, Brian Kelly, Chip Kelly, Urban Meyer.
But those guys aren't going to WKU. They don't have to.
Petrino is their equal in coaching acumen and nearly their equal in name recognition. This is a guy who went 41-9 at Louisville while dominating Rich Brooks and UK four times at U of L. This is a coach who has won Liberty, Orange and Cotton Bowls.
This is a talented coach that WKU got for about 25 percent of what Petrino was making when he was going full speed at Arkansas last season – and then his motorcycle and career went off the road. Western bought low – and hopes for the best. There are risks, but not guarantees.
Now Bobby Petrino is getting another chance at Western Kentucky. Expect a short, but fascinating, ride.