Bobby Petrino made a resounding statement in his return to coaching last Saturday, leading Western Kentucky to a 35-26 defeat of the Kentucky Wildcats: his one-year layoff from the sidelines did not hinder his abilities. Petrino’s offensive acumen shined through first-time starting quarterback Brandon Doughty, who picked apart the Kentucky defense with an ease that invoked memories of this in-commonwealth series:
Doughty found eight different receivers, seven of whom caught multiple passes. Petrino also used a multifaceted running game of three backs, all finding the end zone. His warm welcome back was Mark Stoops’ harsh introduction. Saturday, Petrino’s Hilltoppers face another first-year SEC head coach in Butch Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers.
Bobby Petrino can start 2-0 vs SEC teams, both of whom passed over him for openings in 2012.. #WKU
— Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello) September 5, 2013
“Passed over” is an interesting turn of phrase, but it’s been commonly used describing Petrino’s place in the coaching searches SEC athletic departments conducted last winter. From Tony Barnhart’s CBS Sports blog:
Four SEC schools hired head coaches in the offseason and all took a pass on Petrino, who built Arkansas into a top-10 team and was then let go for some off-field indiscretions.
A generous description to be sure. Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky were more than justified in “passing” — don’t count the fourth opening at Arkansas, which needed to be filled because of Petrino’s “off-field indiscretions,” specifically hiring his mistress to a university position.
Bobby Petrino was always a great college coach. That was never in doubt. Were his credentials not strong, he wouldn’t have landed his current gig at WKU and he certainly wouldn’t have been considered a feasible candidate for any numbers of SEC vacancies — including the two filled by WKU’s first two opponents of the Petrino era. Not under the circumstances he left his previous stops.
Without waxing too poetic, each day is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and grow. Bobby Petrino may very well already have done that, and if so that’s wonderful both for him and his family. Moreover, every person’s story has two sides. Western Kentucky’s Week 1 game program tells another version of Petrino’s through former players who call him “a great guy” and “mentor.”
If this is a different Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky is an opportunity to demonstrate it, but only if he’s invested in a term longer than one season.
Make no mistake: Petrino is not long for Western Kentucky. That’s not a statement on Bobby Petrino and his past tendency to leave jobs early into his tenure, but rather a truth of college football. Programs like Western Kentucky are fortunate to have outstanding an coach for a few years before more prominent athletic departments come along with more money and better facilities, as Tommy Tomlinson notes in his Sports on Earth column.
Circumstances may have him in Bowling Green for awhile, though.
The aforementioned multitude of SEC openings marked a rare window. Talking with associate editor Luke Brietzke, we tried to deduce the most likely SEC openings. Dan Mullen has his detractors, but is among the most successful coaches Mississippi State has had in its history and should be in Starkville another few years at least. Gary Pinkel faces a critical year at Missouri, but Petrino’s not a candidate MU is likely to consider in the immediate future. The same is true of Vanderbilt if James Franklin leaves.
Kevin Sumlin was a rumored NFL candidate in the offseason. Should he leave College Station, A&M seems like a possibility. That’s an awful iffy conditional, though. Further, how interested is Texas A&M in attracting a media circus following the Summer of Manziel? After the dust has settled and media attention shifts elsewhere, and Petrino has logged a few good years at WKU, perhaps — and again, contingent on the already minuscule likelihood of Sumlin leaving.
Maybe it’s a conference other than the SEC that reaches out to Petrino. However, the ACC is rife with new coaches and unlikely to have openings in the coming year. The Big 12? Doubtful. The Pac-12 and Big Ten? Perhaps the least likely destinations.
Gauging the climate, Petrino may be in for a longer haul at WKU than is typical of a coach his caliber at a program outside of the power conferences. That’s a great thing for Western Kentucky, and ultimately a great thing for Petrino.
He will get another opportunity with a top flight program. Beating Tennessee could even expedite the process. But the longer he remains at Western Kentucky, the more meaningful it will be when that opportunity comes.