Bobby Petrino can't wait for the first day of his second chance Western Kentucky has given him.
Petrino will begin a new chapter of his coaching career when he opens practice Monday with the Hilltoppers. Fired by Arkansas last year for an off-field incident, he found another opportunity with WKU last December and is eager to pick up on the field where he left off after a year away from football.
For Petrino, 75-26 overall in eight seasons, that means winning.
His prospects look good at WKU, coming off a 7-6 season and its first bowl game as a Football Bowl Subdivision member. Though the Hilltoppers are picked to finish fourth in their final Sun Belt Conference season, Petrino believes they have what it takes to be champions.
"We want to win and want to win right away," Petrino said during one of WKU's summer tour stops around the state. "We're not real patient, but what I see as the vision for our program is to go to a bowl game and win the bowl game every year, and you need to win the conference championship. That's very important to us."
Petrino's feeling that the Hilltoppers could challenge for the league crown stems largely in his sterling track record of reaching a bowl game in all but one season, taking Louisville to the Orange in 2006 and Arkansas to the Sugar and Cotton in his last two seasons there. His resume' includes a 13-game stint with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons in 2007.
Having strong talent on both sides of the ball also helps.
Junior linebacker Andrew Jackson returns as the Sun Belt's preseason defensive player of the year choice after posting 122 tackles and four forced fumbles in 2012. Jackson and senior defensive back Jonathan Dowling, a preseason all-conference selection, are on several watch lists for national awards.
The offense-minded Petrino is expected to have an immediate impact on that side of the ball, even as he uses practice to find a quarterback successor to Kawaun Jakes (2,488 yards, 22 touchdowns). Junior Brandon Doughty appears to be the favorite after having a good spring game.
Fortunately for WKU, senior running back Antonio Andrews can fill the gap in many areas after leading the NCAA with a school-record 3,161 all-purpose yards last season including 1,728 rushing. But Petrino stresses the need for contributions from all the skill positions for the Hilltoppers to succeed.
"We're going to need help from the young wide receivers and we have to have a few freshmen come in and help us out," Petrino said. "We have some good running backs, a good offensive front and our tight ends are very experienced.
"One of the things we've always done is run the ball and make people defend our formations in the passing game. If we can throw it well enough, I don't think there'll be any problem running the ball."
Petrino, 52, also doesn't foresee any problems getting back in the swing of things after a year away from the sidelines. He kept busy after his departure from Arkansas by studying video from NFL and college games, assembling a game plan in hopes of getting another chance.
A door opened when Willie Taggart left a 7-5 WKU squad for South Florida soon after earning the program's first bowl berth in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, where the Hilltoppers lost 24-21 to Central Michigan. Petrino was hired two days later in a move certain to keep the coach in the spotlight on many levels.
WKU hired Petrino less than eight months after his dismissal by Arkansas for a "pattern of misleading" behavior after he was hurt in a motorcycle accident with his mistress as a passenger. The Montana native hasn't talked specifically about the embarrassing episode but has said he is a "changed man" focused on his family, who factored heavily into his decision to return to Kentucky.
Athletic director Todd Stewart meanwhile has handled many questions about giving Petrino a second chance. He quickly notes that reaction has been mostly positive, mainly because the coach hasn't avoided the scrutiny in public appearances.
Landing a coach of Petrino's caliber didn't hurt.
"Certainly, there's been a couple of people that haven't been happy with it," Stewart said, "but to be honest with you, most of the negative feedback I've received has been in either Atlanta or Arkansas. There have been very few people from Bowling Green that have voiced their disapproval."
Petrino said he has been heartened by the favorable public response, reminding him of what he missed away from the game. It's one of the reasons he's eager to get back to work and meet the expectations.
The road certainly won't be easy for Petrino or the Hilltoppers, whose first two games are against Kentucky and Tennessee. But then, the coach wouldn't have it any other way.
"One of the things I enjoy as a football coach is putting pressure on myself," Petrino said during Sun Belt media day in New Orleans.
"We've got a great challenge ahead of us. There are some really good football teams in our conference and some really good coaches. It'll be exciting to see how it all plays out."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.