Mark Story: Petrino can make life tougher on Barnhart with win in debut

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 15, 2012 

Western Kentucky Petrino Football

Bobby Petrino, given a second chance by Western Kentucky, faces UK in his first game with the Toppers. Mitch Barnhart was among the athletic directors who bypassed him.

GERALD HERBERT — ASSOCIATED PRESS

From the moment Western Kentucky University made the surprise announcement last week that Bobby Petrino is the new Hilltopper football coach, conventional wisdom held that the pressure is now really on new Kentucky head man Mark Stoops when UK and WKU kick off the college football season Aug. 31.

To borrow a phrase: Not so fast, my friends. The Kentucky official that Western's choice of Petrino puts pressure on is Mitch Barnhart.

In a sense, Western hiring Petrino is an opportunity for Stoops.

If UK beats WKU at Nashville's L.P. Field, it is a win of greater consequence because of Petrino. If the Cats lose, well it's a defeat in a new head coach's first game against a team that beat Kentucky last season and is now coached by one of the premier offensive minds of this generation.

For Barnhart, the calculus is more complex.

Of all the UK athletics director's major coaching hires since arriving in Lexington in 2002, Stoops has engendered the best initial reaction. There's been no controversy and very little dissent over the choice.

Before Western's big announcement, the combination of Stoops and new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown — the ex-UK wideout expected to return a version of the Air Raid offense to Kentucky football — had pretty much silenced the very loud agitation from some Cats fans who had been demanding Petrino in Lexington.

Yet now the polarizing former Louisville, Arkansas and Atlanta Falcons head man is not only back working in the commonwealth, he's the coach of the opponent in Kentucky's next game. If Petrino beats UK, you think Barnhart won't hear about it from the remnants of the "Bobby Petrino chorus" of Cats fans?

It's an interesting thing, the marriage of convenience between WKU and Petrino.

In 2006, Western President Gary A. Ransdell visited the Herald-Leader to explain why the school was moving its football program up to what is now called the FBS from its longtime perch in what is now known as the FCS.

Ransdell explained the move was much about perception and his desire that WKU be grouped within the commonwealth in the same conversations as Kentucky and Louisville, not with the other "regional schools" like Murray State and Eastern Kentucky.

In hiring Petrino, Western showed it is has embraced the same win-at-all costs mentality that, historically, has made UK one of the most penalized schools in NCAA history.

With Petrino, WKU joins Kentucky and Louisville in having as the most visible faces of their school nationally famous coaches known almost as much for the scandals of their past, either professional or personal, as their coaching excellence.

Welcome to the big time, WKU.

This is life with Bobby P.

While at U of L, Petrino accepted a recruiting commitment from a quality in-state prospect, Brad Durham, only to renege months later. Petrino allegedly told another prospect, Ryan Holifield, he had a scholarship at U of L if he would walk on for a semester — except, when the time came, there was no scholarship.

At Louisville, Petrino in 2004 signed a contract extension and five days later interviewed for the LSU job.

In Atlanta, he assured team owner Arthur Blank he was staying as Falcons head coach — only to turn up the very next night on ESPN calling the Hogs at his introductory news conference at Arkansas.

Actually, I think Petrino would not have gotten fired at Arkansas had he "only" had an extra-marital affair.

But he helped his alleged mistress gain a job inside the Arkansas football program over more qualified candidates. After the infamous motorcycle wreck that caused things to unravel, Petrino initially lied to his bosses about what happened and allowed the school to put out a false public statement about the accident.

That's what got him fired.

Still, once fan bases get a look at the potency of his offenses, Petrino starts looking like an Honest Abe.

As a tactician, the coach is a genius — the best I've ever seen — at using formations to create mismatches.

In 2013, Western's first two games are against SEC schools, UK and then Tennessee, that had coaching openings in 2012 and would not give Bobby P. even a sniff. You think there won't be an especially motivated Bobby Petrino on the sidelines for those games?

Which is why, once recruiting is wrapped up, Mark Stoops would be well served to invest time watching old Arkansas video.

If Bobby P. does tame the Cats in Nashville, the AD who gave Stoops his first head coaching job will never hear the end of it from the UK fans who wanted Petrino.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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