Bowling Green, Kentucky
At 11:38 on Friday night Bobby Petrino’s phone buzzed.
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart, on the job for just seven months, wanted to know if Petrino would be interested in talking about the Hilltopper job that Willie Taggart had just vacated.
With that text WKU’s Stewart set in motion the best hire of the college football offseason. Bobby Petrino, fired eight months to the day by Arkansas, flew to the WKU campus on Sunday and on Monday he met the throng of Hilltopper faithful. After other athletic directors had fretted over the public perception that would greet a Petrino hire, Stewart took the plunge. The moment Petrino walked out from behind black curtains at the club level of WKU’s football stadium, cheers erupted.
Petrino nodded slightly, bashfully even and pulled out a chair as the crowd rose to give him a standing ovation.
On the front row to his right was Becky, the wife who’d stood by her man.
Then came three rows of media and after that hundreds of Western Kentucky fans who continued to cheer long after Petrino and Stewart had been seated.
“Go Hilltoppers,” yelled a lone voice when the clapping finally ended.
Petrino sighed ever so slightly. After eight months of trepidation, it had come to this — a newly hired athletic director in the Sun Belt conference who believed that Petrino was the best name on the coaching board. “Coach Petrino was number one on my list,” Stewart said, unafraid to acknowledge what so many of his athletic department brethren had also believed.
“He’s the highest paid coach in the Sun Belt,” Stewart said, “and he should be.”
For his part Petrino said all the right things. Asked whether he’d be able to recruit, Petrino said he’d have to acknowledge that he’d made mistakes in his own life. But he also said that could make him a better coach. “I’m going to coach the person more, not just the player,” he said. Discussing the eight months since Arkansas fired him, Petrino said he’d spent it in counseling trying to make sure he repaired the relationships with his family. Petrino looked and sounded like a changed man.
Over and over again Petrino referred to accepting the WKU job as a “family decision,” inclining his head ever so slightly in the direction of his wife, sitting on the front row in the seat that had been reserved especially for her before the press conference began.
Midway throught the press conference, Petrino even laughed, a true rarity.
This is what eight months in the college football wilderness did to him, it humbled him, made him calmer, more thankful.
At least for the moment.
Lots of programs bigger than Western Kentucky made new head coaching hires this offseason.
None of them made a better hire than WKU’s Stewart. In fact, his deal is positively brilliant, the athletic department equivalent of playing “Money Ball.” Stewart gambled that Petrino had been oversold in the wake of his moral failings. Yes, Petrino cheated on his wife, lied to his boss, and left Arkansas in shame.
But you know what he also does?
Win games and sell out stadiums.
Western Kentucky isn’t selecting a pope, they’re trying to win football games in a competitive college market. So if you can sign on the most skilled coach out there at a fraction of his market value, why wouldn’t you do it? Especially if you can negotiate a hell of a deal for your school in the process.
Petrino will make just $850,000 this year, a four million dollar coach for a fraction of the cost. What’s more, if Petrino leaves the university will be owed a $1.2 million buyout. This means if Petrino has huge success his first year and bolts for a bigger job, the Hilltoppers will actually be paid $350,000 by Petrino for the opportunity to coach at Western. Think about this for a minute, have you ever seen a coach have a bigger buyout than his yearly contract? Have you ever seen a coach actually pay for the pleasure of coaching?
That’s what Petrino would be doing if he leaves after a year, he’d pay Western $350,000 for the pleasure of winning them football games.
Are you kidding me? What a deal!
If Petrino stays two years and then leaves, Western will have paid just $250,000 a year for its coach, one of the best in the business. If he stays three years, Petrino will be take Western to the BCS, book your tickets now. As the highest ranked team in the so-called lesser five conferences, it actually gets even easier for the smaller schools to qualify for the BCS in a playoff era. For this achievement, Western would pay Petrino $300k more.
Put simply, Stewart negotiated one hell of a deal, maybe the best coaching deal of the modern era.
What’s the risk to Western?
There is none.
If Petrino leaves, he pays the school. If Petrino acts up, Western fires him with no penalty owed. It’s enough to make you wonder why other athletic directors didn’t have the onions of Western’s Stewart. You can bet some of these same athletic directors will be watching that press conference online, seeing what it looks like for hundreds of thrilled fans to descend on campus and bathe the new coaching hire in unlimited adoration. And the negative public relations? Are you kidding me? This was always overplayed. We’re a society with short attention spans. So long as your talent exceeds your problems, you’re fine. And, trust me, Petrino’s talent far exceeds his problems.
Plus, I don’t believe Petrino will mess up again, not if you saw the way he posed for photographs and signed autographs for the adoring Western faithful, not if you saw the way he occasionally glanced down at his wife as he talked about his new job. This was a coach who was savoring every moment. Petrino posing for photos and signing autographs even when he didn’t have to do so?
The talented Hilltoppers play Kentucky and Tennessee out of the gate.
How nervous do you think Kentucky and Tennessee are now? The best coach out there that either school could have signed for less than a million dollars with the ability to start off each of their new coaches tenures with a lingering and lasting defeat?
Oh, the delicious irony.
For his part, Western Kentucky’s Todd Stewart looked out over the crowd and grinned. “There’s more people in the room right now than I think I saw at any game this year,” he said.
It was a joke, the laugh of a man who had just beat the casino after drawing a six-card 21.
As the crowd filed away, two Western undergrads exchanged excited looks. “I can’t believe,” one red-clad fan exhorted to another, “that we got Bobby Petrino!”
Thank your athletic director, kids, he just made the deal of the newest college football century.