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Big Red's risk: Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky and the scandal discount

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Western Kentucky's getting a $3.5 million coach for $850,000, as it hopes Bobby Petrino's worst mistakes are all behind him. For at least the next year.

Bobby Petrino
Bobby Petrino
Steven Godfrey

Clad in black warm-up suits bearing the words Western Kentucky Football, Damarcus Smith and Michael Fluellen stood emotionless in the wings of the crowd, among all the giddy fans in red sweatshirts and caps. They watched the entire event and then eased out, confident with what they'd seen and now seemingly anxious to slink out the door before the reporters could catch up with them.

Neither has yet to play a snap for their team, as both are awaiting eligibility clearance for the 2013 season. They're both from Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up hearing the name of their new head coach.

Smith: "Yeah. I'm excited, surprised."

Fluellen: "I'm not worried about anything. It's a business first, and it's about winning football games. He'll get that job done."

Smith: "I agree with the move. I'm glad he's here."

Spencer Hall on Petrino to WKU || Godfrey embedded with Taggart's WKU

It's not a matter of how you feel about the man in question. Most people will frame Bobby Petrino's hiring at Western Kentucky as morally ambiguous. If they're objective about Petrino's coaching worth relative to his dismissal from Arkansas for lying to superiors about an extramarital affair with a staffer he baselessly promoted, they might simply label Monday's affair in Bowling Green a moral puzzle.

None are really applicable terms. Morality simply has no role in this. The seller's market for successful college football coaches has never been better. Bobby Petrino took two programs - Louisville and Arkansas - to their first-ever BCS bowls. After losing Willie Taggart, the WKU alumnus and former Stanford assistant who built the Hilltoppers into a winning FBS program, to South Florida on Friday, athletic director Todd Stewart said that Bobby Petrino, now eight months removed from a scandal once considered to be career breaker, was at the very top of his list.

There can be no pearl-clutching over the well-being of student athletes set to be in Petrino's care. The team he's set to inherit knows exactly what Petrino did, who he lied to, and yet ...

Smith: "I feel like [Petrino's system] will fit our personnel a lot more than the pro-style did, no disrespect to Coach Taggart. But our personnel is more open to, like, speed and athleticism."

Fluellen: "I feel like he's going to get a lot more players involved that went under the radar this past year."

Smith: "Me and him [indicating Fluellen], we played on the same team in high school and we ran a spread and that was one of the things that worried us when we got here was seeing the pro-style. We knew it was going to be a big culture change for us on the field. Getting back to the spread, it's natural for us."

The players want to win. Petrino is a winner. The coach gave a hearts-and-flowers statement about how he can't wait to meet with his team, talk about what he's been through and teach them about right from wrong, and how he was wrong then. The players' assessment of motorcycles and volleyball players: "Whatever."

One former WKU assistant football coach: "Hey, it's an awesome football hire. But they're about to find out Bobby's a great coach, but he's hell on administrators."

The severity of that hell is up to Stewart to hedge his investment against. Petrino's press conference attracted national media - including a live feed on ESPNews - and a crowd of hundreds. When Taggart was preparing the Hilltoppers to face No. 1 Alabama in September, just three reporters and one TV crew attended his weekly press conference.

Petrino's contract carries an annual incentive of $10,000 for every season the Hilltoppers average better than 12,000 season tickets sold. Even in the midst of their second winning season - 7-5 and a first-ever bowl trip as a FBS program - Stewart admitted that Western sagged in attendance despite setting a school record, "because of wins and losses." His rationale is hard to argue in football terms: the homegrown prodigal son with the retired jersey didn't get enough butts in the seats, so what did you expect?

There's also a $300,000 bonus for reaching a BCS bowl. Along with the requisite Boise State comparison on Monday, that would be a laughable sidenote if not for Northern Illinois' surprise entrance to the Orange Bowl this season, not to mention the pending Group of Five bid in the coming playoff system.

"Northern Illinois is going to the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history. Well, we've got a coach who has been to the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl," Stewart said during the press conference.

Conveniently for Stewart, Petrino's crimes weren't committed in recruiting. Whereas other veteran coaches like Butch Davis who were ousted in scandals for impermissible benefits to athletes are still fighting to get back into the head coaching ranks, Petrino's scandal shirked anything to do with football. Within the structure of the Arkansas football program, all Petrino did was lie to his boss. In turn, if you're a new boss willing to vouch for your own potential cuckolding, there's no hard sell to a university president about NCAA violations - Petrino doesn't have any of those.

There is no outrage at Western Kentucky, only excitement, because to Stewart and the Hilltoppers, this only a football hire, and the best possible one that could've been made. For WKU, nothing about the reliable character of Bobby Petrino - the man who cheated on his wife and promoted his girlfriend and snuck from one job to another - factored into this move.

Smith: "Just off his history alone we feel like we're going in the right direction ... I'm very excited. Coach Petrino and his history, I just know he's going to do good things here."

Morality has no bearing, simply an inapplicable metric. Football, however, agrees with Smith. Good football things will happen at Western Kentucky.

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