BOWLING GREEN, KY. (WDRB) -- I had the strangest dream last night. I hate writing about these kinds of things, but this one was different.
They had hired Bobby Petrino at Western Kentucky.
Yeah, I know. Crazy.
I'm sitting in this jam-packed booster room and Dan Wolken of USA Today is there and Clay Travis is sitting behind me. (Yes, that can only mean my subconscious is telling me I'm spending WAY too much time on Twitter.) And ESPNNews is rolling live. Kentucky and Tennessee both just hired head coaches. I can't recall if ESPNNews was broadcasting live for them.
Becky Petrino, Bobby's wife, walks in and sits down in the front row. Everything was so lifelike.
Then I feel this pulling and shaking on my shoulder, and it's my WDRB colleague Pat Doney, telling me to snap out of it. By now you know. It all actually happened.
Things at Western Kentucky University just got real.
Petrino is coach of the Hilltoppers. Not Auburn. Not Tennessee. Not Kentucky. They all took a pass. Amount of SEC head-coaching experience between the guys they hired? Zero. At WKU, Todd Stewart did not take a pass. Todd Stewart passed Go and collected the one coach who hung over the entire coaching carousel in these parts like some kind of play-action apparition.
Stewart had a recurring dream of his own the past several weeks. He dreamed he'd wake up and one of those big names would've taken Petrino off the market. Stewart had tried to lock in Hilltoppers' coach Willie Taggart, and tried hard. But he knew when Taggart didn't jump at it that he might be looking to make a hire. And he knew what the home run hire would be, because everybody knew it.
"I hate to speak for somebody, because I don't know what their criteria was," Stewart said. "But was I nervous? I sure was. I was not expecting him to really be available, just because of all he brings to the table."
Ah, yes. All he brings to the table. Petrino brings as much football coaching talent to the table as anyone hired this offseason. He also brings enough baggage to send you scrambling for a second table.
Stewart talked about wanting to make a hire that would move the program forward, that would take it places it has never been, that would put it on a national stage it has never known. He accomplished that Monday. Within two hours of Petrino's press conference ending, WKU had been ripped by USA Today and Sports Illustrated online.
The litany of criticism is long. It's too soon. Does integrity stand for nothing? In college football, winning trumps everything else. And one final concern -- it's a big risk to take with your program.
And maybe it was too big a risk for traditional big-time programs.
But here's the risk-reward reality for WKU. This is no gamble. The chances of Petrino going crazy are pretty slim given the stakes involved for him and the painful humbling experience he put himself through. The chances of him repeating some improper hiring scenario should be zero, if he's monitored correctly.
So let's say he does the expected. Let's say he coaches one season at WKU, does a great job and is lured away by a bigger school. Stewart, by virtue of a $1.2 million buyout against an $850,000 salary, actually winds up getting paid by Petrino for the pleasure of coaching one hit season. Same if Petrino leaves after two years. In either event, Stewart gets the wins, and the windfall.
The other more philosophical questions are tougher to dismiss. How soon is too soon to hire Petrino again? It sounds like something for an ethicist to tackle. Or a therapist.
None of us knows where Petrino's heart is. His wife was sitting there in the front row. She's moving forward. If she's ready to do that, I suspect the rest of America can fall into line.
"This was a family decision," Petrino said several times. "My wife Becky and I consider this coming home."
None of us knows where Petrino's head is, or where it was during the events that led to his Arkansas downfall.
But we do know one thing about Petrino. He lives for football. You ask him his favorite color, he's going to say, "Football." He was getting and watching coaching tapes during his prolonged absence.
"I didn't want the game to pass me by," he said.
Petrino will open next season against Kentucky in Nashville. His Hilltoppers will then play Tennessee in Knoxville. His habit is to work late into the night all summer with his staff, scheming ahead for every opponent he'll face the next season. And that's even when he's not playing two schools who passed him over for jobs.
He said he expects that his trademark work ethic and drive to win is unchanged. But he said he expects that he'll be a different kind of coach in some ways.
"I'm still going to be very focused, very driven and very demanding," he said. "That's how you have success, but I'm going to coach the person now more, not just the player. I can be even more of an influence outside of football."
When asked what his reception will be on the recruiting trail, Petrino said, "I'm going to be able to sit down with mom and dad and the student-athlete and make them understand how this experience has made me a better coach, a better person and will make me understand their son better."
Stewart said he talked to people at Louisville, Arkansas and with the Atlanta Falcons. He said Petrino was more forthcoming with information than he was asked to be. He said he knew Petrino was the coach he wanted, but wasn't sure he would make the move until flying to Arkansas to meet with him and wife Becky face to face.
"I think what it comes down to is, he made a big mistake and he acknowledges that and he's taken ownership for that and paid a heavy price for it," Stewart said. "But this is the United States of America, and this is a country of second chances and I was confident after talking with him and talking to other people that he deserved a second chance and we're more than happy to give it to him."
Strike up "America the Beautiful."
This is the crux of it for Petrino. He's always been a brilliant football coach with a blind spot for dealing with people. If this experience has changed him in any fundamental way, it's possible that it has made him a better coach. If it hasn't, he'll still be a very good coach, but likely won't sustain anything long enough to make a deeper impact on the game.
"I have basically spent the last eight months working with my family, trying to make things right with my wife Becky and with my children," he said. "I've been in counseling. I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot about myself. I'm excited about this opportunity because I didn't know if I would get it."
DaMarcus Smith, a 4-star quarterback out of Louisville, stood in the room with many WKU players and smiled. He grew up a fan of the Cardinals and loved Petrino's offense. Watching Petrino on the podium, he, too, felt the urge to pinch himself, just to check.
"It's a dream come true for me," Smith said. "He's one of the great offensive coaches in the game. I think he can take the talent that's here and do great things."
Smith has no idea what he's in for. Most people at WKU don't. But they have an idea of what Petrino is capable of accomplishing on the football field.
And that, in the end, is why he's in Bowling Green. I can't argue with those who say it's too soon, or that it sends the wrong message or is unseemly. It's also sports in America. Winning is the ultimate penance.
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