BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Now that Bobby Petrino is back in the coaching ranks, he wants to make the most of his second chance.
Petrino was introduced Monday as Western Kentucky’s new head football coach. The 51-year-old was fired by Arkansas in April for a “pattern of misleading” behavior after an accident in which the coach was injured while riding a motorcycle with his mistress as a passenger.
“At this point in my career, it’s about getting back and coaching players,” Petrino said. “It just happened to open up at a place we love.
“I hope it can be as long as possible.”
Petrino had a 34-17 record at Arkansas before he was dismissed in the wake of the scandal. Petrino had an affair with former Razorback volleyball player Jessica Dorrell, who he later hired as a football assistant and gave her $20,000 in gifts. Petrino said initially he was the only person on the motorcycle but later admitted to Dorrell’s presence.
“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,” Petrino said during a packed news conference at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity I’ll be able to give student athletes when they make a mistake.”
Petrino is replacing Willie Taggart, who left WKU last week to become South Florida’s coach.
Western Kentucky gave Petrino a four-year deal with a base annual salary of $850,000. If he terminates the deal at any time, he must re-pay the university $1.2 million in six monthly payments starting the month after he leaves.
Athletic director Todd Stewart knows he might get criticized for hiring Petrino.
He and Petrino had a long discussion over the weekend about the coach’s past. Stewart said Petrino was candid and honest about his conduct and took responsibility for his actions. He said Petrino’s contrition convinced him to give the coach a shot.
“What it comes down is that he made a big mistake and he acknowledges that and he’s taken ownership of that,” Stewart said. “And he’s paid a heavy price for it.
“But this is the United States of America, and we’re a country of second chances. I was confident after talking with him and with other people that he deserved a second chance and we are more than happy to give it to him.”
Petrino, 75-26 overall as a college head coach, said he is looking forward to “building on the foundation and standards” that Taggart established.
Petrino had been looking to get back into coaching since he was let go by Arkansas. His name had been recently mentioned in connection with several openings, including Kentucky and Auburn.
He returns to the state where he successfully began his head coaching career. Petrino coached at Louisville from 2003-06, going 41-9 and leading the Cardinals to a 12-1 mark and their first-ever BCS berth in the Orange Bowl in 2006.
Now that he’s back in the state, the coach said he and wife Becky “consider this coming home.”
While at Louisville, Petrino was offered an NFL job and he left the Cardinals to become coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
He had a brief 13-game stint in 2007 with Atlanta. The Falcons stumbled to a 3-10 start before Petrino left for Arkansas, announcing his departure to players in a four-sentence laminated letter left at their lockers.
Arkansas had a losing record — 5-7 — in his first season. But Petrino and the Razorbacks improved each after that. They were to 8-5 in 2009, 10-3 with a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2010 and went 11-2 with a Cotton Bowl bid in 2011.
He takes over a 7-5 Western Kentucky team that’s headed to its first bowl appearance as an FBS school. The Hilltoppers will play in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26 against Central Michigan.
WKU defensive coordinator Lance Guidry was named interim coach on Saturday and will coach the team in the bowl game.
Petrino will be hands-off until after the bowl game.
The new coach did meet with Hilltoppers players on Monday afternoon. Petrino expects the program to consistently win conference championships, bowl games and to compete for a BCS bowl berth.
Stewart believes Petrino can take WKU to the next level.
“I’m confident that he’ll be here for a while and hope that he’s here for a long time,” Stewart said. “No one person is bigger than the program, it’s about the program. The important thing is that the program continues to develop and get better and go to places that its never been.
“You need a field general to give you the best chance to have that happen, and coach Petrino is the best one out there for us.”
AP Freelancer Writer Brad Stephens in Bowling Green contributed to this report.