Stephens: WKU couldn’t have made a better hire

Athletics director Todd Stewart (right) announces Bobby Petrino as the new football coach at Smith Stadium on Dec. 10.

Brad Stephens

Todd Stewart is an NFL guy, and an NFL mindset allowed him to pull off the biggest coaching coup of the year.

When he was working in the Indianapolis Colts front office in the late 1990s, Colts general manager Bill Polian had a philosophy when dealing with the NFL Draft — stick to the board.

Each NFL team keeps a so-called “big board” of draft prospects carefully updated throughout the prior months. When the stress and pressure of draft day rolled around, Polian reminded his people to stick to the board rather than make an impulsive decision.

It’s an attitude that helped Polian build a Super Bowl champion with the Colts. It’s an attitude that also caused Stewart, WKU’s athletics director, to have the best day of any AD in the country Monday.

This season, as it became likely football coach Willie Taggart would be lured away by a bigger program at the end of the year, Stewart put together a couple of “battle plans.”

One was a plan to keep Taggart with the Toppers by raising the private funds to keep his pay competitive with what bigger schools could offer.

The other was a plan of what to do if Taggart left.

To prepare for that, Stewart put together a draft board of sorts, ranking head coaching candidates that could pick up where Taggart left off.

The name at the top of that list? One Robert P. “Bobby” Petrino.

Months later, Taggart was gone, jetted off to Tampa to take the job at South Florida.

So this weekend, while Taggart was being introduced at USF, Stewart stuck to the board he’d made months before.

“I remember (Polian) saying clearly to our scouts and our coaches, ‘on draft day, men, the board talks to you,'” Stewart said. “That’s how we approached this.

“We had a lot of good candidates and there were a lot of good ones that were out there and are still out there. But Coach Petrino was No. 1. And when you can get No. 1, you do everything you can to do it.”

Stewart reached out to Petrino, and after a weekend of negotiations one of the best college football coaches in the country was being introduced as the 18th head coach in the history of WKU football.

Think about that. Bobby Petrino, who led two different schools to BCS bowls in the last decade, is about to coach the Toppers.

This isn’t some re-tread trying to settle at a mid-major after days of national relevance have past.

This isn’t a 30-something kid being given the keys to an FBS program for the first time.

This is one of the top 10 college football coaches in America coming to Bowling Green to coach a team that played in a one-sided stadium less than a decade ago.

Petrino coached Louisville, long a football wasteland, to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory. He did so well there the school literally added more seats to the stadium.

Then, after a 13-game tenure with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, he took over what was probably the SEC’s seventh-best program, Arkansas.

All he did in Fayetteville was lead the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in 2010 and a No. 5 national ranking in 2011.

And now this guy gets to turn his attack loose on the Sun Belt Conference? Are you kidding?

In 2011 Petrino’s Razorbacks beat four ranked teams and only lost just two games — one to national champion Alabama, the other to national runner-up LSU.

Next year Petrino will face all the lightweights the Sun Belt has to offer — teams like South Alabama, Texas State and Georgia State. He’ll also have non-conference games against rebuilding Kentucky and Tennessee squads and two military academies, Army and Navy.

He also inherits a Topper squad that brings back a lot of talented players — most notably running back Antonio Andrews.

Is it that unrealistic to think he’ll win eight games next year? Nine? Ten? Why not?

Say what you will about Bobby Petrino as a person. He’s lied to employers. He’s interviewed for jobs behind people’s backs. Most recently, he was the center of one of the most bizarre scandals in Southern college football history — and considering Southern college football scandals throughout the years, that’s saying something.

Question his integrity, question his honesty, question his morals.

You know what else he’s done? He’s won games, put butts in the seats and developed some really talented football players.

There were a lot of folks feeling mighty sanctimonious Monday afternoon when Petrino was introduced.

They cried of morals and integrity, threatened to cancel their season tickets and accused WKU of selling itself out all for the sake of winning football games.

That’s fine, folks. Cancel your season tickets if you want to. I’d imagine that after Monday there will be plenty more people in line willing to take them off your hands.

WKU showed something on Monday that its fans have to love. This basketball school showed a commitment to football like it never had before.

The easy way out for WKU administration would’ve been going with an internal promotion or a young, cheap assistant coach with Topper ties.

Instead, Stewart stuck to the board and made the biggest hire possible, and he did it in the most financially lucrative way possible.

Petrino, who was making more than $3 million a year at Arkansas, will be paid $850,000 a year by WKU. If he leaves, he or the school that hires him must pay $1.2 million. Now, add in the fact that USF is paying WKU $500,000 for hiring Taggart.

Common thought is that Petrino, who doesn’t tend to stay in one spot long, will bounce after a couple of years.

In that case, he’d owe the university $1.2 million. Add the $500,000 from USF and subtract two years of an $850,000 salary, and WKU will literally break even after hiring one of college football’s best coaches for two seasons.

By that time one of these other, younger candidates whose names were thrown around this time (i.e., Jason Michael or Mike Sanford) will have accumulated another couple of years’ experience that could make them a stronger head coach when their time comes.

It’s a brilliant strategy.

Best case scenario, Petrino comes to WKU, sticks around for several years and wins big.

Worst case scenario, he leaves after a year or two, and WKU has $1.2 million extra to go spend on another coaching staff.

There’s really not a downside to the Toppers taking a shot on this.

WKU and Stewart could’ve made an easier choice and gone with a lower-risk candidate. Instead they swung big and landed Bobby Petrino.

They couldn’t have hired a better coach.