There is an alternate universe in which Bobby Petrino changes the NFL.
It occurs some time around 2008, when Michael Vick and his Atlanta Falcons redefine NFL offenses with a formation previously unused at the professional level. It comes from Nevada, where its inventor, Chris Ault, once mentored Petrino, now the Falcons head coach. It's called the pistol.
"I didn’t think you’d ever see it [in the pros]," Petrino says. "Why? Because you’ve got an owner there that says, 'You’re gonna get this guy, this guy I’m paying this much money to, a chance to get hit and get hurt?' That’s why I never thought you’d see it."
Petrino knows the pistol. He ran it at Arkansas and called it "shot" ("One syllable is just easier," he explains). But in this universe he has Vick as his quarterback. A Vick in his prime, who would've avoided federal prison and played for the guru Petrino, who would then stay on as Falcons head coach for more than just 13 games in 2007.
"It's about how many times you want your quarterback hit. I always thought, well what if you went out and got three guys who did it in college and ran it? Would it be successful? But I tell you what, they did a great job with it in San Francisco."
Given the 2012 NFL season and his offensive expertise, and given that he almost coached the most mobile quarterback ever and that he's acknowledging you needed then-unseen level of speed at the QB position to get around the edge on reads, I can't not ask.
"So looking back now, you would've never installed it in Atlanta if you had stayed? Even if you'd had Vick to coach, with his mobility?"
"Never is a long time," he responds.
He pauses just a bit.
"We probably would have."
Petrino the football mind, the architect of the power spread, is as relevant and in demand as he's ever been. That's why he's already a head coach again, less than a calendar year from a scandal naively assumed by some to be career ending at the collegiate level. In order to understand what's likely to be Bobby Petrino's successful reemergence in 2013, you have to acknowledge the dissonance between Petrino, the person largely unknown, and Petrino, the football mind.
Seated quietly in the sleek WKU football offices in the quiet town of Bowling Green, about an hour's drive north from Nashville, the football mind ponders.
The most important thing to understand is that it's not a spread. To him it never has been, even if it might've been comparable to a spread at certain points in certain games. The power spread (a title somewhat created by the media, apparently) that proved so successful at Louisville and Arkansas was born when Petrino was offensive coordinator for Tom Coughlin's Jaguars in the late 1990s. Petrino had always appreciated the NFL power running game he learned from Bruce Snyder at Arizona State. Snyder had coached Eric Dickerson, and Petrino always loved its reliability to gain necessary yards.
"It was really the one-back system because you’ve got a tight end back there. To me, the tight end has always been a huge thing, and that’s why I don’t call it the spread. To me the spread is four wide receivers. We were a one-back. I guess I’m showing how old I am, calling it the one-back."
In Jacksonville, a strong offensive line allowed him to fold the power run - a two-back system - together with the one-back passing offense. The Erickson one-back ultimately birthed the spread, but don't mention it to Petrino.
"It’s kind of different because it’s all shotgun and no huddle, and now the thing that’s kind of new is that you call run plays and kind of throw the ball out there to the receivers if they’re not covered down and let them make plays. So some of that is what we’re going to see a lot, what we’re going to face a lot in the spread offense. That's not necessarily one of the things I like to do as much."
Why is that?
"I’d rather run the ball and get those yards than throw the ball out to receivers."
Any reason why?
"It’s just a different philosophy."
The fusion didn't come without purpose. Petrino was trying to find a way to answer the hot formation of that moment, the zone blitz. Luckily, one of its key creators, Dom Capers, was coaching for the Jags.
"It changed my perspective on how you run the ball against the zone blitz. At that time it was very popular. Dom Capers and I were next-door neighbors for two years in the office, and I was always going next door to ask him questions about zone blitz and what hurts it and how you run the ball. Coach Capers had as much influence on my beliefs on offense as anyone else."
The spread's popularity at mid-majors is often about compensation - small programs that can't compete for Alabama levels of size and strength want to stretch the field in both directions, use open space to create leverage and find match-ups that even out talent disparities. In the power spread, one-back passing is an option, not a necessity.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm explains: "When we spread you out, we're going to spread you out because it's to do what we want. We'll dictate ourselves how much we're in the spread."
Petrino acknowledged that he had to debunk stereotypes about his offense to WKU's best player, running back Antonio Andrews, who did almost everything himself on offense in 2012. The rising senior finished the year 89 yards short of breaking Barry Sanders' record for most all-purpose yards (3,250) in a season.
"When we first sat down right here and talked about it," Petrino says, "his perception was we were just going to be a passing team, and that’s the furthest from what we’ve been to be successful. When you look at all the great running backs we had at Louisville and the real good running backs we had at Arkansas, balance is one of the things we strive for and you have to run the ball to win games and you have to run the ball in the fourth quarter."
Petrino happily references Arkansas' 31-23 win over LSU in 2010, in which the Hogs ran the ball 14 straight plays in the fourth quarter. He might loathe the perception of his offense, but it works to his advantage on the field, lulling defenses with aggressive passing to run the ball when it matters most.
"I like to be able to make them defend our formations in the pass game, be good enough throwing the ball downfield where they have to defend your formations and that allows you to run the ball better."
Petrino and Brohm are unique in that they're captains of a much-touted system, but they lack the single-focus zeal of a single particular concept. If anything, the concept they point to as the key to their success is constant multiplicity and an ability to drastically adjust as needed.
"It's less about this offense responding to the level of talent here versus some other level and much more about how we adjust this to fit our quarterback."
Hence the pistol's incorporation at Arkansas when Petrino hired Wolf Pack assistant Chris Klenakis, now an assistant at Iowa State, in 2010.
"I think the number one thing that’s it's done is that it’s taken the defenses away from being able to call fronts and set blitzes according to where your back is set. A lot of the times that your back is offset either weak or strong, they’ll set their fronts a particular way or they might blitz the back or blitz two away from the back. Now when he’s directly behind the center, as long as you self-scout yourself, you have the ability to run in each direction, pass, play action."
"It causes defenses more fits," Petrino says. "It balances out what you’re going to see from them."
The formation emerged in Fayetteville without the level of shock and awe that greeted it in the NFL, partially because the slower-footed Tyler Wilson beat out Brandon Mitchell, who Petrino wanted to run more. But that's also Petrino's style - he wants to blend multiple large-scale concepts rather than adjust everything to a new idea. He looked at Nevada and wanted to freeze high-caliber SEC defensive ends by forcing them to read rather than attack, thus freeing up the run game, but has concerns about the system long-term because of the situation it places his favorite player, the quarterback, in.
"What I’ve found is that when you run the zone read stuff from the shot or pistol, you’re basically setting your feet in the opposite A gap and not everyone’s as fast as Kaepernick. Not everyone can get out to that edge. As far as that scheme for me, it’s been harder. If you’re stepping towards the back and right, basically you’re going from one A gap to the other. So how much speed you have, what your quickness is, it becomes harder to run that stuff from directly behind. But the benefit is, your power run and the other things you do are better."
WKU will start the 2013 schedule with two SEC opponents, but both are also rebuilding with new coaches. To counteract the all-around uncertainty Petrino will set about simulating gameday-level stress immediately. Drills, scrimmages, and other monotonous tasks will be a matter of life and death, even in sunny April. And this is not just a transition-year strategy.
"You don’t really know what to expect from Kentucky," he says, "You don’t really know what to expect from Tennessee, but you’re also not really sure what to expect from your own players. The first game, the first time you’re out there you ask yourself, how are they going to react to this? One of the things I think is real important is how much pressure, how much we show them, how much adversity we try and create in spring football and in our scrimmages in the fall so that we do have some idea how they’re going to react."
Willie Taggart, who coached WKU the last three seasons, was nothing if not a player's coach. Petrino's obsession is eliminating uncertainties without the means - real, live game action - to do so. He talks with descriptors - "challenge," "pressure," "intensity" - that do more than imply he's indifferent about morale. He's focused solely on rewiring the mentality of his team to respond to adversity.
"College doesn't get a preseason game. We don't get an exhibition. Facing teams with new staffs like ours, it's about who can get ready faster."
It's easy to see how this approach failed miserably in the NFL, but at WKU it could be a perfect fit. Besides, Petrino's record at the collegiate level (75-26) leaves little of what he does or doesn't do as a football coach up for debate. Observe the testimony of one Lamar Thomas, former Miami Hurricanes wide receiver and noted contributor to the lore of The U. He's now the receivers coach at Western. The halcyon days of the Hurricanes dynasty were celebration, excess character and looseness, yet Thomas has cottoned to the idea as a coach.
"For me as a player, it was always competition that motivated me," Thomas says. "It was working for the reason of not being replaced. I get asked about the documentary ["The U," part of ESPN's 30 For 30 series] all the time, especially in recruiting. And the one thing I wish Billy [Corben] would've put more of in there is something about how hard we worked. We worked our asses off. Every day. We worked our asses off and we loved it. You could be doing all kinds of things down there in Miami, but we wanted to go practice. We wanted to go to work and compete. That's what these kids will have to want to do. They'll have to want to work."
Petrino is considered a quarterback's coach, but the sense of immediacy in conversations across the entire WKU staff centers on the wide receivers. Almost the entire unit returns, but the staff also signed five wideouts in the class. When discussions with the offensive staff begin to focus on technique, it's all about the wide receivers.
"One of the things I can say about working for Coach Petrino is, he's all about fundamentals at this position," Thomas says. "We'll start with these guys at the beginning. It's your stance and start, it's one of the most forgotten things but one of the most important. You lose a tenth of a second if you're not getting off the ball the right way, if you're too low, if you're not breaking press-jams the right way. What I've learned about being on his staff is you cover the basics. You cover the basics every day."
If there's a secret to the Petrino passing attack, it's rooted in fundamental disciplines of route running, stances, cuts and timing. As Thomas explains, they're drilled so consistently to combat late game mental fatigue and exist not as another piece of information, but as unconscious behavior.
"That way you're not having to think about it when you're out there exhausted, and then Coach Petrino and Coach Brohm will put you in the right play to win."
Petrino's approach won't change because of inexperience. The entirety of the passing system will be installed three times. Twice during spring practice, then once again in the fall. And that includes all the crucial deep "chunk yardage" plays vital to the system yet unfamiliar to the players. Only after the final install, Petrino says, will any concessions be made. At that point they'll trim the overall playbook to find skill-specific calls to suit the starting quarterback and whomever emerges as the leading receivers. Brohm predicts the system terminology will be the first hurdle for the transitioning offense, but a close second will be the receivers' ability to get open, especially deep.
"We want them to understand," says Brohm, "that hey, we want you to be able to win the game for us, not just the running game."
"It’s going to be about how they learn that how every single thing you do in the passing game is important," Petrino adds. "Your stance, your get-off, your routes, to be exactly where you need to be, and we have a lot of teaching to do."
"I'm pretty jealous of these guys," Thomas says. "To get to be able to play in something like this, it prepares you for the next level. The verbiage and the amount you'll learn, but also the studying, too. This is what it's like for pros."
Petrino says the arriving five receivers will have as much a chance at playing time as the ones on the current roster. Aaron Jackson is one of the five, a 6'3, 185-pound prospect from Frankfort, KY. Western wasn't a consideration for Jackson early on, due to Taggart's system. Jackson admits an affinity for the previous staff but admitted he would've signed elsewhere purely because of the lack of looks for receivers. Petrino changed that immediately.
"Even him coming to my high school, I mean, it was really exciting. It's Bobby Petrino, this football whiz, and he's here to talk to me. I thought he was going to call and one day he just shows up at my high school. I was lit up that he was that into me," Jackson said.
The receiver-friendly nature of the system, Petrino's resume and the short distance to Bowling Green sold him immediately. Upon meeting, Petrino told Jackson he wants him to play right away, no redshirt, and that he'd work to become a physical deep threat.
"I couldn't have played in any other offense like this, honestly," he said.
His emphasis on the on-field opportunity tells the story many in the sport have been waiting for: Could Petrino really recruit again? Could he manage the mamas, survive the living rooms? The seedier parts of his transgressions 11 months ago aren't easy to ignore in many living rooms across the South, but the man also lied to his boss repeatedly. Is college football honestly to the point at which parents will ignore a man's total collapse of character because of his consistency as a coach?
"That's one of the first questions I asked him," WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said. "I told him, 'Mom and dad are going to ask you some tough questions. How are you going to handle that?' He explained it very well how he had learned from everything and because of what happened and what he'd learned, he'd be more tolerant of differences and more tolerant of mistakes from young kids, and therefore be a better coach. Because not only would he coach them as a player but he'd do a better job than he ever had at coaching them as a person."
So far it seems that players and mamas and everyone else want the football mind.
"My family didn’t have a problem with it," Jackson said. "They said what he did was at another school. They think he won’t do that again. They said they’ll go along with it and hope that it doesn’t happen again."
But just because Jessica Dorrell and Jeff Long weren't a concern to Jackson's family, that didn't mean Petrino himself wasn't - specifically his transient career path. Job-hopping, not infidelity or insubordination, dogged him on the recruiting trail.
"He told me that he'd had his ups and downs, but that his daughter was at Louisville [she's on the golf team] and that he didn't want to leave the state of Kentucky again. No other coach ever said anything negative about him, but other coaches would say he’s a NFL or SEC guy," Jackson said.
"I mean, his football mind is crazy. I didn't want to pass up Petrino, but I was a little concerned about him leaving. Actually, I can't lie, I'm still a little concerned about how long he'll be down there."
He has yet to even blow his first whistle at a WKU practice, yet his career in total demands a conversation about his longevity at Western. Stewart is the athletic director bold enough to invest in the potential of Petrino benefitting a football program in the long term, even if the coach is only on the job for the shortest of terms. He's already succeeded in doing that financially, creating a smart deal that provides total coverage to Western. If Petrino leaves after just one season, WKU will actually make $300,000 off the contract.
While publicly disgraced, Petrino was still very much in demand. He acknowledges that there was mutual interest between himself and multiple NFL teams for an assistant position, but opted to sign with WKU because it was close to his daughter. It's also helps it's a state he's recruited well in. Stewart says that upon Taggart turning down a contract extension in October, Stewart compiled a list of roughly 75 names.
Stewart produces a phone book-thick binder from a bookshelf, with each candidate's exhaustive bio. I flip through the pages, agreeing not to mention specific names. It's a comprehensive collection, but virtually none of the names come close to Petrino's, and the more ambitious candidates would be million-to-one shots for WKU to actually land.
"Petrino was such a unique situation for a program like us, who six years ago was playing in a one-sided stadium in the Gateway Conference, to now have someone with his resume in the prime of his career. It's not like he's 20 years removed the Sugar Bowl. He's two years removed. I could have 10 more coaching searches and probably never be able to hire somebody with that kind of a resume."
Stewart points to consistent team GPAs at Arkansas and Louisville, and adds that Petrino plans to install an etiquette program for the entire team that will cover everything from finding your salad fork to the importance of eye contact in business meetings.
"The reaction's been 90 percent positive. There aren't a lot of decisions at this level that are 90 percent positive, and the 10 percent negative have come from people in Atlanta and Arkansas. There have been very few people in Bowling Green thoroughly opposed to it."
When Stewart first reached out, Sun Belt rival Arkansas State was rumored to have been heavily courting Petrino to replace the departing Gus Malzahn. Malzahn's jump to Auburn after only one season mirrored former Red Wolves head coach Hugh Freeze, who also left after a single season, to take over at Ole Miss. Stewart has no interest in acquiescing to the idea that a program like Western is a suitable one-and-done destination for upstart coaches, be they first-timers or rehab cases like Petrino.
"We want him here for a long time, obviously, but I'm not naive to the turnover. This was Willie Taggart's alma mater and he only stayed here three years. Certainly change is a possibility but I don't want to have to replace a head coach every year. I think continuity is important and that's what we're striving for."
One benefit of the staff is the potential to promote from within. Unlike most mid-majors, WKU's assistant roster currently boasts two former FBS head coaches (defensive coordinator Nick Holt, formerly at Idaho, and offensive line coach Neil Callaway, formerly at UAB) in addition to current assistant head coach Brohm, the former offensive coordinator at UAB and quarterbacks coach at Illinois before that. If Petrino goes back to the BCS ranks after 2013, any of the three would provide an instant, experienced replacement and a bridge of continuity.
Hypothetically, of course.
Spring practice has yet to start. He hasn't been able to coach the roster, and the offensive scheme under former head coach Willie Taggart was nearly allergic to passing the ball to wide receivers. Not to mention WKU is set to open against two SEC opponents. Still, his analysis of the team in front of him leads you to believe WKU could win big.
They're loaded with returning starters.
Petrino's staff will have to overhaul the passing system, but they'll do so with the luxury of a having an intact power running game led by the versatile Antonio Andrews. Every other back returns, so WKU didn't even recruit one in the 2013 class.
"To me, there's so many on the roster that I'm curious if some can play another position," Petrino says. "But we'll go through the spring and learn more first."
So save for some defensive line turnover shored up with junior college signees, the only real question is how fast Petrino and his staff can install the battery of a new quarterback and a receiving corps.
There's no experience at quarterback, but there's depth.
The staff will monitor the trio of sophomore James Mauro (since he's 6'7 and 227 pounds, fans want to think he's the next Ryan Mallet), junior Brandon Doughty and redshirt freshman DaMarcus Smith, a former Louisville commit whose play favors some of the fleet-of-foot Cardinals quarterbacks that made Petrino's system so effective during his time there. He also recruited a prototypical system quarterback, Todd Porter of O'Fallon, Ill., whom he promises will have an equal shot to compete for the starting job.
"We'll name a starter when we need to, when we know who it is. I don’t feel like we have to come out of spring ball with it, but in a perfect world you’d like to know two weeks before your opening game," Petrino said.
Taggart's running game will translate nicely.
Taggart was a Jim Harbaugh disciple - think Stanford or the 49ers (less Colin Kaepernick, more Alex Smith) - who used the power run to set up play action to tight ends and the occasional deep ball on constraint plays. It contrasted nicely in a Sun Belt of spread passing teams, and Western won by grinding up defenses slowly. Even though the two offenses look drastically different, they start with many of the same fundamentals, and Petrino's always favored big body offensive linemen built for run blocking.
"We've got three returning starters on the line, and these guys have been taught to come off the ball and drive and move their feet. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen from the offensive line. I think it definitely helps the transition."
The offense doesn't have to pass to win.
At Arkansas, Petrino inherited a team that ran the ball 66 percent of the time the season prior, but who'd lost star runners Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. The balance shifted to a pass-heavy attack at first "because that offensive front was best suited to pass protect," he explains, and two seasons later the Hogs would win 10 games with an almost even balance of pass/run calls and average 36.5 points a game.
But Western's current situation better resembles Petrino's overhaul of Louisville in 2003, when he broke an even pass/run balance under John L. Smith to accomodate a loaded pool of running backs. The move worked, and a shift (61 percent of play calls were runs) allowed Michael Bush and company to average 5.8 yards a carry while Stefon LeFours developed slowly throughout the year.
"As much as we like to throw the ball, we like to think it's based off of the run," Brohm explains. "And so there are some things we're excited about [from last season] that can be carried over slightly. I think our offense really is multiple. We'll mold that offense around the personnel we have. We like to be able to set the tone and run downhill so the fact they ran a two back system last year fits what we want to do in the run. I think it's going to fit extremely well."
Petrino has a history of quick turnarounds.
At Louisville he immediately reworked the offense, jumping from 7-6 to 9-4, and racked up 41 wins in four years. With little talent to build around, Petrino's maiden voyage in Fayetteville ended in a 5-7 campaign featuring three conference losses by three or fewer points. 2008 is his only losing season to date as a college head coach, and the difference between that transition and now is a larger amount of returning starters for WKU and a schedule that isn't in the SEC West.
There have been dramatic turns. An explosive run as a rookie head coach at Louisville, demanding and then abandoning a 10-year contract for the NFL in a moment that helped cement his heel persona, a superstar NFL player sent to federal prison, a midnight flight to take over a SEC program shortly after, an employee sex scandal that imploded a potential BCS title contender, and finally, a chance to keep his family together in one state and restart his career.
But ever since he was a triple option quarterback for his head coach father at a Montana high school, Petrino the football mind has been learning and perfecting, unfettered by the sting of the scandals that define Petrino the person.
During a public media appearance two days prior to this interview, I catch a moment of unguarded emotion from Bobby Petrino.
It's Saturday and the coach is at a public speaking engagement with fans, a terrible fit for the football mind. Petrino is bantering with former Tennessee Titans safety and current Nashville sports radio host Blaine Bishop, who was a key foil for Petrino in a once-heated AFC South rivalry when the coach was offensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bishop and his co-hosts are conducting a live interview session with Petrino at the Nashville SportsFest, one of Petrino's first major public outings since taking the WKU job. Nashville is a vital market for WKU, and it's also where they'll open the 2013 season against Kentucky at LP Field.
Watching him on stage, I can't tell if it's Petrino the mind that's visibly ill at ease with the large public forum, or maybe that's the regular nature of Petrino the person, whom we know so little about. Most of the Q&A is a rehash of questions from the same group's in-studio interview with Petrino a month prior. Unlike other sessions at the event, audience questions were not entertained. It's presumed that this was all structured to give Petrino some level of comfort.
But at one point in the interview, Bishop characterizes Petrino's Jaguar offenses as the product of more of a "finesse" team.
He bristles momentarily, and it's so, so real. During the limited media circuit since his hiring, I've watched him feign enthusiasm, feign interest and possibly feign an entire sense of humor, which gives the effect of an android programmed to have a comedic pace and comedic verbiage, but no recognizable emotion or soul. But this one momentary reaction is real. He's genuinely pissed off.
Then the requisite feigning jumps back in, like putting on a mask. He laughs nervously and repeats the word as a question.
Completely unmotivated, he mentions it in our conversation on Monday.
"When I went to work for Coach Coughlin I learned how important it was to run the football and be physical. And even though Bishop might say finesse, we were a power football team."
Throughout our conversation, the shortest responses and sharpest stares accompany the situation surrounding his inability to coach Arkansas in 2012.
"It was hard, especially since they weren’t executing as well as they had in the past. There’s a lot of factors at play obviously, but you know, it was hard to watch."
Petrino the mind was at once watching his own work and unable to affect it, a helplessness and fear of losing out that threw him into game-film study of the Packers, Saints and Giants, three teams able to alternate between effective running and deep passes. It's what made him obsses over the schemes surrounding Johnny Manziel.
And his desire to better his football mind is where Bobby Petrino is the most honest in conversation.
"I worried about being away from the game," he says. "What it is I’ll miss, what will it be, so as the year went on I got more and more A&M video and wanted to see, well, because everyone’s going to say, 'Well, Johnny Football and the success A&M’s had, what are they doing?'"
His summary of Manziel is framed proudly around his own beliefs, that mobile quarterbacks that can also operate as accurate pocket passers are ideal. One suspects what drew him to Manziel's tape wasn't necessarily the quarterback winning the Heisman or Texas A&M's success, but that some other coaching staff might have developed a scheme superior to his.
"And I really didn’t think it was a lot of scheme. I thought it was the guy making a lot of plays. He’s fast, he’s really, really fast. Fast when the scheme was there and he made plays and it was good scheme, and he was really fast when things broke down and there wasn’t a play there and he could go make it himself."
"So just that ability I think, what you’re seeing more than anything is the recruitment of and the development of the quarterback that can do both, run and throw it."
He is friendly when we part, and offers a joke to Kyle Allen, the sports information director shadowing our conversation.
"Alright then Kyle. I won't be seeing you for a month!"
Allen explains that my interview was Petrino's last for the time being, a completion he's genuinely happy about. He's upbeat over having survived this entire process. The door closes behind us, and for the first time since a Cotton Bowl win 14 months ago, the man is both happy and alone, free to be simply the football mind.
Editorial Team: Producer: Chris Mottram / Editor: Jason Kirk
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