Stephens: Petrino proacive in getting fan support

Brad Stephens

Bobby Petrino sat at a table at the 50-yard line of Houchens-Smith Stadium Saturday, nearly a full hour after WKU’s spring game had ended.

He and the rest of his players were taking part in a post-game autograph session that was supposed to last 30 minutes. But as the 30 minutes had elapsed, several dozen red-clad fans were still in line to get an autograph from their new hero.

Petrino, exactly one year after the low point of his coaching career, sat smiling in his white WKU hat and windbreaker, greeting students, children, alumni and everyone else that came his way.

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They were excited to meet him. He was glad to see the crowd.

Saturday for Petrino was a benchmark moment in one of the more fascinating personal stories our town and campus have seen in some time.

This time last year his coaching career was in jeopardy.

Petrino, then a superstar coach at Arkansas, wrecked his motorcycle. The subsequent investigation eventually led to the revelation he’d engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with an employee.

The school fired Petrino. Suddenly a man who’d led Arkansas and Louisville to BCS wins was out of a job for the 2012 season.

Several power conference jobs opened up after last season. But SEC schools like Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee passed up Petrino, choosing lesser-known coaches with less baggage.

Finally in December athletics director Todd Stewart and WKU came along and gave Petrino a chance.

Stewart needed a dynamic coach to build on the foundation laid by former coach Willie Taggart. Petrino needed a chance to prove he’d made the necessary changes in his personal life while remaining one of the top 10 college coaches in America.

Negative response came from people who’ve likely never been to Bowling Green, as well as a few Bible-thumpers here on The Hill.

But a proactive approach by Petrino and the school to reach out to the community led to a spring game record crowd of 6,500.

This spring WKU opened up each practice to the media and, more importantly, to the fans.

Supporters and critics alike had 15 chances over the last month to see for themselves what Petrino was doing each day.

Open practices made the statement that the school wasn’t hiding anything when it came to its new, controversial coach. Open practices also showed an effort by Petrino to reach out to his new fan base and cultivate support that could pay dividends when the real games start this fall.

“It’s a great start,” Petrino said Saturday of the fan support. “The enthusiasm is exciting… We want to put a great, exciting football team on the field and let the fans relate to the players.”

There are still a lot of factors at work that’ll determine fan support this fall.

Some of those (quality wins, style of play) are in Petrino and the Toppers’ control. Other factors (weather, a mediocre home schedule) aren’t.

But none of that mattered an hour after Saturday’s game, when a line of fans waited patiently to greet the man they hope will put this program over the top.

With each handshake delivered and each hat signed, Bobby Petrino showed his commitment to WKU’s supporters.

The dozens of people in line showed they’re ready to repay the favor this fall.