As Paul Petrino sat next to a proud university president and an emotionally defeated athletic director, gathered in front of most of the Inland Northwest’s sports reporters it was painfully obvious in an almost awkward way which of the three men was giddy about the announcement and which two would rather have not attended.
President Chuck Staben ultimately superseded the sitting athletic director to make the final call to end the FBS experiment, while Petrino sat mostly quiet during the press conference and played the part of the good soldier. If Petrino was going to say what was really on his mind, we probably would have heard a few expletives about how the decision was made without the program’s input and how he didn’t build an assistant coach resume over two decades just to become a Big Sky head coach.
I had to keep myself from laughing abruptly in the room when Petrino talked about how excited he was to become a coach in the Big Sky. At that point I gave him a five percent chance of actually seeing his Idaho contract out through the transition.
Petrino had been an FBS coach since he jumped from Idaho to Utah State in 1995 and has since held three different offensive coordinator jobs with Power Five programs, along with a one-year cameo as the receivers coach of the Atlanta Falcons. It seemed a no-brainer to me that Petrino was not long for Moscow. I figured after what was priming to be a successful 2016 he’d dip for the next assistant coaching opportunity given the current stigma around hiring FCS coaches for FBS jobs.
Well, I’m fuckin’ wrong. It’s 2018 and Paul Petrino is still the Idaho Vandals head coach.
So here’s what that means.
Why is Paul Petrino still here?
Anchoring Petrino’s resume is the fact he took over a program which won only three games in the two seasons prior to his arrival and after a 1-11 campaign of his own, went on to win 17 games over the next three seasons including a blowout of Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2016.
In the process he and his staff vigorously scouted the southeast, the west coast and the Pacific Northwest for under-recruited prospects, many of whom were passed over by FBS schools and came to Idaho for their only opportunities at top-division football. Petrino and his staff showed an incredible ability to develop players and by their upperclassmen seasons, completely unheralded recruits became productive starters vying for Sun Belt Conference honors. This is all the more impressive given Idaho’s facilities and budget problems in comparison to the rest of the FBS level.
Given these accomplishments for Petrino, the resume is certainly there for another FBS school to at the very least want to offer him a lifeline as an assistant coach. So, here’s where I’m at with this.
- He tested the waters for a “better” opportunity and didn’t like what he found. There wasn’t an immediate opening for him on Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville, and he didn’t go very far with preliminary talks for the Western Kentucky job after the 2016 season.
- Petrino genuinely loves the Palouse (he lives in Pullman, not Moscow) and has decided that this is the job for him long term regardless of the situation. It’s worth keeping in mind he has a guaranteed contract that will pay him $446,000 per season through the next FIVE seasons and will earn one-year rollovers with each eight-win season. This sum is by far the highest total for a head coach in the Big Sky and it’s not close at all (nearly $180,000 more than Dan Hawkins at UC Davis).
- During his introductory press conference Paul promised his two eldest children they wouldn’t have to move again, and he kept that promise. Mason and Anne Mari graduated from Pullman High, with both now competing in Big Sky Conference athletics. However, his youngest daughter is still some years away from starting high school so he could be apprehensive about starting the assistant coach carousel again for her sake.
Petrino staying is a good thing, right?
It certainly means the University of Idaho has the fortuitous position of easing this unprecedented drop with unexpected stability. Petrino kept the core of his coaching staff including DC Mike Breske, OC Kris Cinkovich and QBs coach Charley Molnar. It means most of the recruiting relationships Petrino has built over the last two seasons to brace the program for the drop remain intact and hopefully means there will still be a steady influx of well scouted talent the coaching staff can develop into elite Big Sky players.
Recruiting coordinator Jason Shumaker has made a deserved leap to Utah State and DBs coach Aric Williams departed for San Jose State.
More importantly, he was able to keep the core of his program together that won 17 games as a Sun Belt school the last three seasons from transferring despite the drop.
Remaining at Idaho are stellar players such as: OG Noah Johnson, RB Isaiah Saunders, LB/TE Kaden Elliss, LB Ed Hall, DL DJ Henderson, K/P Cade Coffey and LB Ty Graham.
(It should be noted Tony Lashley decided to graduate transfer to Boise State, meaning he will become the first Boise State football player to have received a college education in the state of Idaho. Best of luck to him).
The tenuous point here is what Paul Petrino will decide at the quarterback position, which was frustrating and questionable last season after Matt Linehan suffered a season-ending injury. Based on what we saw from the games last season it’s tough to argue Mason Petrino is better positioned for the college game than Colton Richardson. This is also the conclusion I can come to after covering both extensively as high school athletes. Mason struggled to complete passes beyond the big-play screens he hit against Coastal Carolina. Richardson was able to get the ball down the field, though struggled as many freshmen would with accuracy.
Currently the plan is for both to be utilized in a dual-quarterback system, so how soon would Paul feel comfortable pulling the plug on Mason if Colton is the better player? Especially if Mason can be better used on offense running routes. Ultimately, we may see what we saw in 2012 when Chad Chalich (Colton) was the main starter and Josh McCain (Mason) came in for spells.
So what should we expect this season?
At the very least we should expect to be in the FCS Playoffs picture this season. This football team is full of players who have been with this coaching staff for two, three, four and in some cases even five seasons. Petrino has developed many of these players to be capable of being good Sun Belt players, so many should also excel at the Big Sky level.
The Big Sky and FCS deserve some credit for quality because the Top 25 teams in FCS and teams competing to win the Big Sky are all usually good enough to be bowl teams in a conference like the Sun Belt, and that’s with 22 less scholarships available to hand out.
Per Sagarin ratings, here is where Big Sky and Sun Belt schools would rank this season in a combined super-conference.
1. Appalachian State – Ranked No. 71 in the country, 2. Troy – 83, 3. Arkansas State – 86, 4. Eastern Washington – 100, 5. Georgia Southern – 116, 6. Weber State – 118, 7. Louisiana-Monroe – 122, 8. Georgia State – 124, 9. Northern Arizona – 131, 10. Idaho – 133, 11. Montana – 136, 12. Southern Utah – 137, 13. South Alabama – 140
Sagarin ratings are just one of a handful of metrics used to statistically rate teams, so it’s far from perfect, though it provides us with a general means of how to compare teams between FBS and FCS. From this list, App State, Troy, Arkansas State and Georgia State qualified for bowl games last season. Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and Weber State participated in the FCS Playoffs.
Last season Idaho finished at No. 133, which was just ahead of both Montana State (5-6) and Montana (7-4). It was only 11 spots behind Eastern Washington, which finished 7-4 and was ranked No. 21 in the country despite being left out of the playoffs.
It wouldn’t be that out of the question to imagine Idaho as a playoff team in 2018, albeit it will be challenging given some of the quality in the Big Sky and the difficult out of conference slate with Fresno State and Florida. It would be bitterly disappointing to see Idaho drop any more than two Big Sky games and not even be in the conversation come November.
And the long-term expectation?
If Petrino is going to remain past 2018 then the expectation is unequivocally that he turns this program into a Big Sky power rivalling that of the recent success of Eastern Washington and the traditional success of Montana, and nothing less really. This program needs to be a regular participant in the FCS Playoffs and regularly competing for Big Sky championships.
Idaho’s current athletic budget sits at No. 3 in the Big Sky behind Sac State and Montana, with expenditures needing to drop by $5 Million to become No. 5 behind Northern Arizona and Montana State. Facilities wise, budget wise, location wise, education wise we are playing a new game in the Big Sky (if you’re desperately looking for the positives of this move). Idaho doesn’t need to engage in an arms race to be one of the best destinations in this conference, we’re already there. Success should follow, especially with the highest paid coaching staff by a mile.
Idaho won six conference championships between 1982 and 1992 and qualified for the FCS playoffs each of the last four seasons before jumping to FBS in 1996, making a run to the semifinals in 1992. The history of excellence is there, and the FCS landscape is open to new “powerhouse” programs give how many of the traditional FCS powers with vast troves of resources have made their own jumps to FBS in the last two decades.
I’m not saying we have to start collecting national championship trophies any time soon, North Dakota State and James Madison-type programs are on a totally different level. We just need to be playing some football in December. That’s what was sold to us when this move was forced upon this fanbase, so that’s what we should rightfully expect.
Could Petrino be leaving any time soon?
The difficulty of jumping from even the most successful powerhouse FCS programs to a lucrative FBS job is immense. For example:
- Paul Wulff’s jump from Eastern Washington to Washington State and that of Mike London from Richmond to Virginia both ended in utter failure. The programs were worse off than when the coaches arrived, somewhat tainting the waters for FCS coaches in this new age of college football.
- Craig Bohl’s North Dakota State dynasty, which included multiple wins over Big 12 programs, only garnered him enough attention to land the Wyoming job, a solid but not great job in the Mountain West.
- Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin won a national championship, recruited and developed NFL players in Cheney and defeated multiple Pac-12 programs and couldn’t do better than runner-up at Nevada and a few interviews for the Oregon State opening. He eventually left to become the offensive coordinator at a rebuilding Cal program.
- Perhaps the most optimistic example is Willie Fritz going from Sam Houston State to Georgia Southern, easing their transition from the FCS level and eventually getting hired at Tulane.
- Recently South Alabama has hired Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell after back-to-back Southland Conference titles and playoff appearances.
It’s certainly possible that if Idaho can find immediate playoff success in the first two or three seasons that a solid FBS job could come calling given what he accomplished during Idaho’s four years in the Sun Belt. At this point if he hasn’t left for an assistant coaching job already I’m not sure that’s what he’s looking for anymore. Even another Sun Belt or lower Group of Five head coaching job would give Petrino a raise on his current salary and give him the opportunity to build toward a larger job. He’ll be 51 years old this season which is still somewhat young in the coaching world, so he still has time to climb the ladder.
For now Petrino is an Idaho Vandal. So let’s go get these wins, bro.