Western Kentucky’s season opener against Kentucky at LP Field is 79 days away.
Already athletics director Todd Stewart can feel an unprecedented buzz around the football program.
“What we keep saying is six years ago we were playing in a one-sided stadium in the Gateway Conference in football,” Stewart said. “Now we’ve got Bobby Petrino as our head football coach. So that is a major step forward in a relatively short period of time.”
Six months ago Stewart made national headlines by hiring Petrino, who was ousted from Arkansas in 2012 after a motorcycle accident with his mistress in tow. Stewart said the decision to take a chance on controversial Petrino, 52, already has reaped rewards for the program.
In April, 6,500 fans attended the spring game. Season ticket sales are already ahead of last year’s pace. And numerous football players have told Stewart they’re already feeling they’ve improved as a team — a telling statement considering the Hilltoppers reached their first bowl game in school history last year.
Stewart and Petrino will continue to try to make inroads in the WKU community with a public appearance in Nashville on Thursday.
Stewart and Petrino will join men’s basketball coach Ray Harper and women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard for the Toppers on Tour caravan at 6 p.m. at Jonathan’s Grille in Green Hills.
“It has been overwhelming positive,” he said. “I think our fans realize who we have leading our program. We can have 10 more coaching searches and never hire somebody who has the résumé that coach Petrino has in terms of the success that he’s had. The places we want to go to are the places he’s lived as a coach. We want to go to a BCS bowl. He has coached in two of them. I think it validates we’re serious about what we’re doing.
“When you put someone like that in charge with a proven history of consistent success it really energizes your fan base. That’s what it has done for us.”
Stewart says he has witnessed remorse and contrition from Petrino. He called his coach terrific with fans, other coaches in the athletic department and has taken the initiative to be visible in the community.
Petrino was fired at Arkansas after lying to athletic director Jeff Long about the details of a motorcycle accident — namely that a 26-year-old was riding on the back.
“We looked into that extensively and we talked to coach Petrino extensively about it,” Stewart said. “With any hire there are risks regardless of what sport it is because there is the known and unknown. But I think with coach Petrino what made it such a good move for us was just his proven history of success in every area. Certainly as a coach he has been to seven bowl games and he is 75-26 as a head coach, strong academic credentials everywhere he has been and he has never had an NCAA issue.
"There were really were no red flags in term of his coaching and any place he had been.”
Petrino indeed has an impressive résumé in eight years as a college head coach. He also has had an unusual number of jobs.
He left Louisville in 2006 after a victory the Orange Bowl and just months after he signed a 10-year contract. His time in the NFL, however, was brief as he infamously left the Atlanta Falcons for the Arkansas job after a 3-10 start to the 2007 season. He informed his team with farewell notes to players in their lockers.
On the surface, Petrino’s decision to take the WKU coaching job appears as a way for him to build up a lower-level program in hopes of catching the eye of a BCS school. Stewart has prepared for that. If Petrino breaks his four-year contract, with a base salary of 850,000, he has to pay the school $1.2 million.
But Stewart also noted change is intertwined with college football, especially for smaller programs. South Florida swiped Willie Taggart from WKU after just three years and leading his alma mater to back-to-back winning seasons.
“I think there is a very good chance he is here longer than maybe a lot of people think he is,” Stewart said. “Change is a way of life in college football. That is just the reality of it. … I think all we can really do is give him all the resources we can and help him be successful. If he takes us to places we’ve never been and a year from now we can truly say we’re better off than we were a year ago then certainly he has done a great job.”
Stewart says just by hiring Petrino, WKU gained a national identity and received a coach in “the prime of his career.”
A year from now, Western Kentucky will leave the Sun Belt Conference for Conference USA. Stewart envisions the Hilltoppers in a BCS bowl as the ultimate goal. It would be an unprecedented step for a program just three years removed from the ending of a 26-game losing streak.
“Certainly been very impressed with him and he has been great to deal with,” Stewart said. “To his credit, he has come to place that’s different from where he’s been. I think we have really good resources and we offer a lot. But we’re not Arkansas and we’re not the National Football League. He’s done an excellent job at adjusting to what he has to work with and maximizing that.
“His experience is huge and I think it will pay dividends for us in many, many ways.”