Philadelphia, PA – For someone who has been a collegiate head coach for just eight seasons, Bobby Petrino's resume' is pretty spotless, logging a 75-26 record with seven bowl appearances.
"Quite simply, the name Bobby Petrino is synonymous with consistent success at the highest level," Western Kentucky Director of Athletics Todd Stewart said of his latest head coaching hire.
Yet despite his brilliant football mind, Petrino has been the center of controversy more times than he'd like to admit. After winning the 2006 Orange Bowl while at Louisville, he left to take the head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons, only to resign before the end of his first and only NFL season. Then, after building Arkansas into an 11-win program in 2011, he was fired following a scandal in April of 2012.
Petrino's legacy was left tarnished as he went without a job during the 2012 campaign, but WKU soon found itself in need of a new leader when Willie Taggart accepted the head coaching position at South Florida.
While the Petrino hire comes with its share of red flags, the marriage actually has very little risk and seems to be a win-win for both sides. WKU is a marginal program in the Sun Belt, the lowest-profile conference in the FBS, and a big splash like Petrino can only improve its brand and national recognition, especially with regard to recruiting.
As for Petrino himself, he gets to start fresh from the bottom, proving his worth as a coach while mending his relationship with the NCAA. The school has covered its tracks as well with the historically unreliable coach, as Petrino is obligated to pay back part of his salary if he leaves at any time during his four-year contract.
It's not often coaches in this profession get a second chance, let alone a third, and Petrino seems to be eager to show that he is serious in building WKU into a mid-major powerhouse.
"My vision for Western Kentucky University's football program is to take it to the next level," Petrino said. "We need to consistently, every year, go to a bowl game. 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," he continued. "That is where we feel we have the opportunity to go."
When it comes down to it, all of Petrino's past misgivings will be forgiven if he can deliver on his promises, and that starts with implementing his signature fast-paced, high-powered offensive attack. While the talent level at WKU is certainly a step below what he had to work with at both Louisville and Arkansas, there are definitely elements in place to allow Petrino's transition to be somewhat smoother.
Petrino knows how to utilize a talented running back, as he showed with likes of Michael Bush, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson in the past, and the Hilltoppers have one of the top rushers in the nation in Antonio Andrews. Andrews is a dynamic, multi-talented back capable of hurting opposing defenses in several ways. Not only did he rush for 1,684 yards and 11 touchdowns a season ago, but when combining his receiving and return totals, he tallied an astounding 3,161 all-purpose yards, which was the second-highest total in FBS single-season history behind only Barry Sanders' 1988 campaign. With Petrino's magic touch, the sky is the limit for Andrews in 2013.
Things are less certain under center, however. With Kawaun Jakes (2,488 yards, 22 TDs, 11 INTs) graduating, there are big shoes to fill at quarterback. There has been an open competition to determine the team's new signal caller, and while nothing is official yet, it appears as though junior Brandon Doughty has the inside track, with Petrino admitting that he has been quicker to pick up the offense than Damarcus Smith and James Mauro.
"Brandon has had the better spring when you combine everything together," Petrino said. "He has run the offense better. He understands it. He is very coachable. He knows where the progression is, and he has a good idea about what the coverages are."
Whomever gets the starting nod, he will have the luxury of dumping the ball off to Andrews, who caught 37 passes for 432 yards a year ago. Willie McNeal (43 rec, 556 yards, six TDs) also returns as a viable outside threat.
A major reason the Hilltoppers became bowl-eligible a year ago was because of their strong defense, which was one of the best in the Sun Belt in terms of both scoring (25.5 ppg) and yardage (346.6 ypg). The unit is expected to be even better this season with the return of two of the league's top defensive playmakers in linebacker Andrew Jackson (122 tackles, 17.5 TFL, four FFs) and cornerback Jonathan Dowling (68 tackles, six INTs).
Even though Petrino's ultimate goal of making a Boise State-like splash on the major college football landscape may be a bit of a stretch this year, WKU still has more than enough talent to make waves in the Sun Belt, especially if the quarterback can quickly get a grasp of Petrino's system and limit his mistakes. Given the weakened state of the conference and Petrino's past success rate, anything less than a Sun Belt title for the Hilltoppers will be a disappointment.
Now it's up to Petrino to show that WKU's decision to bring him on board was a smart one.