It used to be that the guy in the white hat was always your winner. Good always triumphed over evil. But these days the lines are so blurred that Superman couldn't read the eyechart at 5 paces. In all honesty, this could be the last time that these two teams or coaches ever meet. So why are all the marbles riding on this one? Simple. Both these guys need to walk away from this game with their index finger held high, as well as their heads. One, because his tarnished reputation is in dire need of a facelift, and the other because he represents everything that is fresh and new in a program that needs it now more than ever. Who will walk away grinning from ear to ear? Let's spell out the particulars.
Bobby Petrino is what most people would refer to as an anti-hero, even to the teams he has successfully coached. Louisville fans either hate him or love him for what he accomplished in the river city, Atlanta Falcons fans don't know what to think of him, and Arkansas fans want him placed on their spit and roasted. Why? Petrino is easily one of the most polarizing head coaches in college football. His bizarre coaching moves, scandalous lifestyle, and seemingly indifferent attitude just set people off. But the real question on most people's minds is, "Is he truly a great football coach?"
That question is extremely hard to answer because like a heavily pollenated bee, he keeps jumping from one place to another trying to build his career, all the while taking a little here, a little there, in almost any place he can get it. He had what some considered the brass ring in his hands not long ago, only to throw it back and walk away. Then, after recovering in a way that can only be described as "Saban-esque", he lands right on his feet and gets himself another excellent spot, only to throw that away in a motorcycle crash on an Arkansas roadside. Who is the true Bobby Petrino?
Most college assistant coaches move around, and Petrino was no different. He started out at Carroll, then moved to Weber State, then moved back to Carroll, and then again to Weber State. All in five years. He then became the quarterbacks Coach at Idaho before moving on to Arizona State where he coached Jake "The Snake" Plummer. Considered a major step up, it was thought at the time that Petrino was close to breaking through the head coaching ranks. Then he mysteriously went backward and joined the staff at Nevada before moving on to Utah State, then following John L. Smith to his first stop in Louisville, where he took a nothing offense and turned it into an FBS powerhouse in one year. That got him his shot at the NFL where he spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars before going back to college ball at Auburn. In 2003 he finally landed his first Head Coach spot at Louisville.
Petrino then solidified his coaching reputation by taking Louisville to heights they had never seen before. Then, just as he is rewarded handsomely for his efforts, Petrino bolts for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and promptly falls flat on his face. He then compounds the problem by deserting the Atlanta team before he even completes one season and leaves his infamous "letter of resignation" in the player's lockers.
Petrino then lands softly in Arkansas where he immediately begins resurrecting the Razorbacks. As he gets into the full swing of things, he decides to embarrass himself once again, this time by parading around town on a motorcycle with a 25 year-old former Razorback volleyball player he had recently hired, then promptly wrecked said motorcycle, injuring himself and his young paramour. This rightly got him the boot from Fayetteville and into a kind of exile until Western Kentucky decided to roll the dice with him.
There is no doubt that Petrino possesses a keen football mind when it comes to X's and O's. The jury is out on why he seems to have this need to self-destruct and run from success. That question may linger forever unless Petrino manages to get off on the right foot and spend some time doing some serious damage control to his much maligned image where people are concerned. He represents everything that is bad about his profession at the present time. Will he recover yet again and move on to bigger and better things? That seems to be the pattern with Petrino, but the climb this time is going to be steeper than ever. Petrino is known for being offensive as much as he is known for being an offensive coach.
Mark Stoops is well, in the vernacular, college football royalty. The Stoops lineage is well documented. From his father and his career coaching High School football in Youngstown, Ohio; a place well known for it's tough love reputation as well as it's high school and college football. Stoops' father coached at Cardinal Mooney High School, where eight Ohio High School Athletic Association Championships reside going back to 1973. Ron and his wife DeeDee have produced three college coaches in Bob (Oklahoma), Mike (Arizona), and now their youngest, Mark.
Stoops did everything the right way in his rise to becoming the leader of the Kentucky Wildcats Football program. From his playing days at Cardinal Mooney to joining the Iowa Hawkeyes as a college player, Stoops became a graduate assistant coach as soon as he graduated college. At the ripe old age of 25, Stoops became the Athletics Director for Nordonia High School back in Ohio, where he stayed for three years before joining the staff at South Florida for a year. He then became the defensive backs coach for Wyoming for three years, then followed his head coach to Houston.
Down in Houston, Stoops had his first defensive coordinator's position. His work was quickly noticed, and he was hired after only one year to join the staff of the Miami Hurricanes. He was promptly hired away from South Beach to join brother Mike's staff at Arizona, where he remained until Florida State came calling. The Seminoles wanted Stoops to be their defensive coordinator, and that was where Mitch Barnhart found and hired him over other candidates with prior head coaching experience. Barnhart said that Stoops was the guy he wanted because he came in with a plan to change the culture and mindset at UK, and make Kentucky a formidable college opponent and worthy contender in the SEC and beyond.
So can youth and exuberance combined with a pedigree, a rabid fanbase, and some of the brightest minds in college football overcome Petrino's seemingly unending stream of comebacks and successes which he seems to ring up despite his poor personal choices?
The truth is that in this season, both coaches started out with a blank slate when it came to their respective teams. When Willie Taggart left Western at the end of last season for the Gulf coast at South Florida, much of his talent-laden senior class left also, their eligibility expired. Western will start a redshirt junior quarterback with almost no experience, an offensive line that has had zero time on the field as a unit, and although it is returning some starters, has never experienced the fast paced spread/power offense that Petrino wants to run. Combine that with a defensive line that has more question marks than the government's ability to balance their budget, and you could very well have a recipe for disaster.
Kentucky is going to be facing demons of their own when the coin flies into the air come Saturday evening. Stoops inherited a team that screamed untapped potential last season and abruptly sent a few people packing. Attitudes and selfishness will not be a part of any Stoops-run football program. Neither will not going to class. Stoops' work ethic is simple; show up early, work hard, overachieve, and you will be handsomely rewarded with the honor of wearing one of his jerseys and seeing the field come Saturday. Don't follow his program and you better know the bus schedules out of Lexington.
What Stoops did immediately on his arrival in the Bluegrass is generate excitement. And he did it with his skills, not a marketing director. He went out and got talent in abundance as players with their own pedigrees and top ranked skills started looking at Lexington as a possible football destination, not just the place where you go to see great basketball. The talent ratings of this season's recruits are unheard of in Kentucky's recent history, as UK joined the elite in the opinion of some recruiting services.
This is something that Joker Phillips on his best day wasn't able to approach at the Kentucky helm. Instead of hearing excuses about why the huge talent pools of Ohio and Florida were not coming to be Wildcats, we were treated to one Yahtzee! after another, as Stoops brought in one of the best recruiting class in the history of the program to the Bluegrass in his first year. Will that, after years of being an afterthought to most everyone in college football, be enough to turn the tide for Kentucky? USA Today sports does not think so, rating Kentucky #101 out of 125, and giving Western the 75th ranking.
It is clearly going to be an uphill climb for Kentucky, and a task that no one without the constitution of a thoroughbred should take on. Stoops seems to be the perfect fit for the job though. He works, sleeps, eats, and lives college football. He makes no excuses for himself, his team, or his staff as he prepares for what could be the first step on either the Stairway to Heaven or the Highway to Hell. On top of other pressures, the game site is a neutral one, as LP Field in Nashville is basically a home vs. home game for the two teams. Both schools will have an equal opportunity to pack the stadium and neither will have a decided advantage, although Western is less than an hour away from their home field in Bowling Green.
In the end, Petrino and Stoops will not hesitate to pull out all the stops to get their first win at their new homes in their first game. However, in football as in other contests of steel, there can be only one winner. Welcome to Kentucky, Coach Stoops. Now get out there and crush Petrino like we hired you to do. The best way to solidify your place here is to not lose non-conference games. Rich Brooks rode that formula to glory when he was here, then the SEC came along and made winning out of conference games not just mandatory, they made it life or death for the non-elite of the SEC.
No pressure — it's just that if we lose to WKU, we lose the season, thanks to the power mad and money crazed world of college football. I know, however, that's not why you're here — and so do you.
More from A Sea Of Blue:
- Kentucky Wildcats at Western Kentucky: A Sea of Blue Round Table
- ASOB Week 1 Podcast: Kentucky Wildcats vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
- Kentucky Wildcats Morning Quickies: Football Is Finally Here Edition
- Kentucky FootballTales from the Dark Side: The Charlie Bradshaw Years - Part Four
- Kentucky Basketball: Welcome To The New Age, Wildcats Fans