With all the uncertainty of conference realignment still in full swing, and with the Vandals preparing an FBS independent schedule for the 2013 season, it seemed (for many football fans) the last thing the University of Idaho needed was to be engaging in a coaching search at the same time. But that is what Idaho Athletics Director Rob Spear did last November, while also putting the finishing touches on a solid schedule that has the Vandals on the Palouse for six weekends this fall.
On the good side of the ledger, Idaho is just three years removed from its last bowl game appearance. On the negative side, Idaho has won precious few games in the last three seasons, capped by a one-win effort in 2012.
Despite the challenges, the Vandals were able to bring in Paul Petrino to take the reins - a coaching veteran who has been an Offensive Coordinator in the Big Ten (Illinois), SEC (Arkansas), and Big East (Louisville). And he is no newcomer to Moscow, either, having coached at UI in the early '90s. He also has a penchant for knowing how to move the ball. As the OC at Illinois (2010-2011), the Fighting Illini broke school records for total points, points per game and Mikel Leshoure broke school records for single-season and single-game rushing yards in 2010. Wideout A.J. Jenkins led the Big Ten in receptions per game (7.0) and ranked second in receiving yards per game (99.67), while posting the second-most receiving yards in Illinois history with 1,196 yards in 2011.
In his first stint as OC at Arkansas (2008 - 2009), the Razorbacks ranked eighth in the NCAA in scoring (37 ppg) in 2009, 10th in passing, and 14th in total offense.
And at Louisville (2003-2006), where he was OC and wide receivers coach, the Cardinals averaged 41.1 points per game over four seasons, including leading the nation in total offense (539.0 ypg) and scoring offense (49.8 ppg) in 2004. During that same span he coached three wide receivers who set single-season yardage records.
At Idaho coach Petrino will get his first shot as a head coach, and he will be flanked by a new coaching staff that includes a mix of experience and youth (as well as two holdovers from the previous staff in Al Pupunu as tightends coach, and Patrick Libey who moves to defensive line coach).
Recently we talked with Idaho Athletics Director Rob Spear about his newest coaching hire and the expectations he has with coach Petrino.
PAT HAUGE: Can you talk a little bit about Coach Paul Petrino, the characteristics that were the most appealing to you, and how they fit into the program you're trying to build at Idaho?
ROB SPEAR: “That's a good question. The number one thing that came across is his toughness as an individual, and his business-like approach to running a football program the way a football program should be run. His ability to teach and coach his coaches was very impressive.”
PH: His ability to coach his coaches?
PH: Can you describe that a little bit? What were you looking for there?
RS: “I think it's important that, for example, when you have your defensive line coach, that he needs to be teaching his kids through drills – and all other parts of the football training program – things that are consistent, and things that everybody knows. So, I wanted a coach that, one, could teach his coaches what he expected to be taught, and then hold them accountable by then having each position coach teach all of their materials to all the other coaches, so everybody is on the same page [players and coaches] and building continuity. They become a team.
“His ability to do that, and his examples, were tremendous.
“And I mentioned the discipline piece. Communicating clear expectations, accountability, the importance of identifying and addressing issues early, and emphasizing how this all starts with recruiting. Finally, his proven ability to recruit, and sell a program, and really build a program that we are going to be proud of.
“So all of those things together really made him our No. 1 candidate.”
PH: How long have you known Coach Petrino? Is he someone you've kept in contact with over the years? Can you describe your relationship with him.
RS: “He's a lot younger than I am, but I've known the family for a long time. As a matter of fact I went to grade school with his older sister. Have I kept in contact with Paul? No. But I have known his family, and I’ve known his brother Bob for quite a while. Actually, when Bob and I had a conversation about prospective candidates for this job, he was one advocating for Paul.”
PH: How do you know Bob?
RS: “Well, again, that family is from Butte [Montana] and I went to grade school with their older sister. The father was a long-time coach at the high school I went to, but he had moved on to coach at Carroll College and was a long-time coach there. I've just followed those kids throughout their athletic careers.”
PH: What ultimately drove your decision to hire Paul over the other candidates you interviewed? You described the characteristics that you liked, but was there one thing in particular that caused him to outshine the other candidates?
RS: “It's all the things that I mentioned earlier. But I guess when you have the ability at Idaho to get somebody who has been an offensive coordinator at Arkansas, and Illinois, and Louisville, and Southern Miss, where he’s been competing at the highest levels in college football, that's pretty impressive. His connections from those experiences are invaluable when it comes to recruiting. You will see the benefits [next week] when we announce our signing class.
“The other thing is, although he’s been at those places and had that success – and he'll even tell you this – he's not an ego guy. I like to use the term ‘business-like.’ He’s all about business and doing the job the right way.
“When you have an opportunity to hear him speak on how he will run his program, teach his players, and represent the UI, you will understand why he was our clear choice.”
PH: Idaho is going into uncharted waters with independence and the need to expand your program and promote the Idaho Vandal brand. Are you expecting Coach Petrino to do some things differently as a representative of your program compared to previous UI coaches on your watch?
RS: “He’s doing several things, like ensuring his coaches are always dressed professionally, and always promoting the Vandal brand, and teaching everyone that they need to be “proud to be a Vandal!” So he's going to be willing to go and represent the program whenever asked. I do know that.
“My expectation is that he is going to build a disciplined program that is going to be competitive. That's the number one thing. If he does that, the rest of the things take care of themselves.
“You can go out and talk all you want, but if you can't perform, and coach your coaches, and recruit right, and put a competitive football program on the field, those other things don't matter.”
PH: Are you expecting him to interact with your fans, with the media, with the public differently than coaches in the past, or are you mostly basing your decision on the kind of program you expect him to run?
RS: “It's mostly based on the kind of program that I expect him to run. Like I said before, if we perform well on the football field, all those other things will take care of themselves. He will not make excuses and will walk the talk.”
PH: Have you seen any bump in football season ticket sales for 2013 with the hiring of Coach Petrino?
RS: “We have been aggressive and gotten our season ticket renewals out, and I know that our ticket office has talked about some people who had dropped season tickets that have now renewed again.
“There is a lot of optimism, but we need everyone to commit to coming to watch our home games and purchase season tickets.”