Paul Petrino was charged with rebuilding the University of Idaho football program when he was hired in December 2012. He’s making good on what he was asked to do and how he is accomplishing it.
Not only have the Vandals been making progress on the field, their academic performance has been on a steady incline. Broc Westlake, a linebacker throughout Petrino’s tenure, graduated in December 2015 with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and was one of two Vandals to earn the department’s prestigious Rich and Mary Fox Award, which is given annually to the graduating student-athlete(s) with the highest cumulative grade-point average. In graduating Summa Cum Laude, he also was recognized as a National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society.
The on-field strides resulted in four wins in 2015 and three losses by one touchdown or less – painful losses but learning experiences for a young team that boosts a host of talented returners. In 2015, the Vandals led the Sun Belt in seven statistical categories and were second in another five. Those conference rankings translated to their being in the top 25 percent nationally in 11 categories.
Similarly, he and his staff have developed players that made their marks in the conference and on the national rankings. Kicker/punter Austin Rehkow was among the national leaders at both positions during his junior season, while Matt Linehan, a sophomore in 2015, impressed with his accuracy and ability to lead the offense (second in the league and 27th nationally in passing offense). Linehan had exceptional targets in receivers Callen Hightower, Deon Watson (also a tight end) and Buck Cowan – all of whom return. And, he benefited from a maturing line that ranked second in the league and 19th nationally in tackles for loss allowed.
From the minute he arrived on the University of Idaho campus, Petrino infused the Vandals with an intensity that reverberated around the Kibbie Dome and throughout the Vandal Family. His practices mirror his personality – focused, intense and determined.
In his first season back at Idaho, he took the Vandals against a schedule that featured not only the eventual national champion, but a total of seven bowl teams, which included four teams that, at one time or another, were ranked among the nation’s top 25. While the Vandals didn’t finish with the win-loss mark he would have liked, his first class of recruits showed it can provide the base for a bright Vandal future.
Petrino also had his first Vandal All-American in Rehkow, whose record-setting season earned him a spot on the Walter Camp All-American team. A true freshman, Rehkow’s average of 47.8 yards per kick is an NCAA record for a freshman as well as the overall record for a player who punted at least 75 times in one season.
In year two of his tenure, he took the Vandals back to the Sun Belt Conference after one season as an FBS independent.
The record didn’t necessarily reflect the strides the Vandals made during Petrino’s second season. A passing game fueled by Linehan, a redshirt freshman at the time, and senior receiver Joshua McCain was one of the nation’s best and Rehkow again repeated as the national punting average leader and was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. The Vandals were significantly more competitive and off the field they made huge improvements in the classroom. The team posted one of its highest grade-point-averages in team history and made improved its APR by leaps and bounds.
Coaching football is in Petrino’s blood. Tagging along with his dad, Bob Petrino, Sr., as he coached the Carroll College (Montana) Saints into national prominence, Petrino knew from the time he was six years old he wanted to coach. He played for his dad at Carroll and was the Football Gazette NAIA Division II Player of the Year and a two-time Kodak All-American quarterback after setting 16 school records during a career that included four conference titles and a 36-6 record from 1985-88.
He’s paid his dues – and along the way has put together a résumé of success and envisions doing it at Idaho, where his Division I coaching career began.
He was clear in his mission when he was hired: “We want to win a whole bunch of games and go to bowls.”
That is what he is accustomed to doing. During his 23 years as an assistant, he coached in 12 bowl games and five I-AA playoff games. He spent one season (2007) with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. As a Division I coach, he was on staffs who combined for a 152-93 record – a 65 percent winning percentage.
He already made his mark at Idaho when he coached three players who have been inducted into the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame – running back Sherriden May, and receivers Kasey Dunn and Yo Murphy. They are just a small sampling of the successes of his players. In the 2012 NFL draft, five offensive players under his tutelage were drafted. The group, which included four receivers, represented the greatest number of players coached by one coach in that year’s draft.
For Petrino, the return to Moscow is a return to his Northwest roots. A native of Butte, Mont., he was raised in Helena where his football legacy began.
Petrino’s coaching career began at his alma mater before he was hired at Idaho in 1992. Among the players he coached at Idaho was All-American and Vandal Athletics Hall of Famer Sherriden May – one on what has become a lengthy list of standout players, record-holders and NFL draftees coached by Petrino.
After his stint at Idaho, he coached at Utah State, Louisville, Illinois, Southern Mississippi and, most recently, Arkansas. He also spent one season with the NFL Atlanta Falcons. Everywhere he has been, his offenses have produced record-setting numbers.
A look at Petrino’s career:
At Idaho, his offenses already have enabled Matt Linehan, who has two seasons to play, to tie for third in single-game completions with 36. He also is tied for 10th on that all-time list with two games of 33. With two full seasons ahead of him, Linehan is third in average yards per game for his career and fourth in completion percentage. Additionally, he already has thrown for more than 300 yards nine times in the 21 games he has played. He is one of just seven quarterbacks in Vandal history to accumulate nine or more games of 300 or more yards.
Displaying the discipline needed for success, the 2015 team led the Sun Belt Conference in fewest penalties, fewest penalty per game, fewest penalty yards and fewest penalty yards per game. All of those numbers were in top 20 percent of FBS teams.
In 2012, Petrino directly oversaw quarterback Tyler Wilson’s continued assault on the Arkansas record books. Wilson wrapped up his career holding 28 school records, including career passing yards, career completions and career completion percentage. Wilson led the SEC and ranked ninth in the NCAA in passing yards per game, while wide receiver Cobi Hamilton led the SEC and ranked fifth in the NCAA in receiving yards per game and led the conference and tied for 12th in the country in receptions per game. Wilson also ranked in the top 18 in the NCAA in total offense, total offense yards per play and passing yards per attempt. Hamilton also ranked in the top five in the SEC in all-purpose yards per play and all-purpose yards per game and broke UA records for single-season receptions, single-season receiving yards and 10-catch games along with the school’s career records for receptions and 10-catch games.
Petrino coached the Razorbacks in their 29-16 win vs. No. 11 Kansas State in the 2012 AT&T Cotton Bowl after completing his second season as offensive coordinator at Illinois. In the Cotton Bowl, Arkansas averaged 5.7 yards per play, including more than four yards per rush and 7.0 per pass attempt, while totaling 345 yards of offense. Wilson was named the bowl’s Offensive MVP after passing for 216 yards and two touchdowns while completing 20-of-31 passes.
In 2011, Petrino, while at Illinois, coached Jenkins to one of the best seasons by a receiver in Illinois history, as Jenkins led the Big Ten with 90 catches and was a first-team all-conference performer. His 1,276 yards ranked second in school history, just two yards shy of the Illini record, and he also ranked in the top five of the school’s list for season receptions, season 100-yard receiving games, career receptions, career receiving yardage, career receiving touchdowns and career 100-yard receiving games.
In 2010, Petrino guided an Illini offense that broke school records for total points (423) and points per game (32.54) and featured running back Mikel Leshoure, who broke the single-season school rushing record with 1,697 yards. Illinois averaged 42.1 points and 448.9 total yards over the last seven games of the season and notched a 38-14 win over Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl.
In 2009, Petrino was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas as the team averaged 37 points per game, which ranked eighth in the NCAA, while also posting top-15 rankings in passing offense at No. 10 (303.3 yards per game) and total offense at No. 14 (439.3 yards per game). Quarterback Ryan Mallett was the nation’s sixth-rated passer, averaging 285 yards per contest and throwing 29 touchdowns. The Razorbacks broke the school record for passing yards with 3,640, eclipsing the previous record that was set under Petrino in 2008.
In 2007, he was with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL. He was the receivers coach in Atlanta after working the four previous years as offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Louisville. Playing for Petrino, Roddy White posted then-career-highs with 83 catches and 1,202 yards
From 2003-06, Petrino coached at Louisville where his teams averaged 41.1 points per game from 2003-06; 34.6 in 2003; 49.8 in 2004; 43.3 in 2005 and 37.8 in 2006. Texas Tech was the only other school to rank in the top 10 nationally in total offense during those years. In 50 games over that four-year span at Louisville, Petrino’s teams went 41-9 and scored 40 or more points 28 times and 60 or more seven times.
In 2006, the Cardinals went 12-1, won the Big East title and finished the year ranked No. 6 in the nation. Louisville was second in the country in total offense (475.3 yards per game), seventh in passing (290.0 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (37.8 points per game). In 2005, Louisville was ninth in the nation in offense (482.1 yards per game) and third in scoring (43.4 points per game) with six offensive players earning first-team All-Big East Conference honors. Running back Michael Bush led the nation with 24 touchdowns, while receiver Mario Urrutia was second in the nation in yards per catch.
The 2004 team won the Conference USA title, beat No. 10 Boise State in the Liberty Bowl to end the season 11-1, finished ranked No. 7 in the nation, and led the country in total offense (539.0 yards per game) and scoring offense (49.8 points per game). The Cardinals set school records for total yards, rushing yards and points in a season (597), also scoring 50-plus points seven times. Russell earned All-Conference USA honors for the second straight season after catching 73 passes. He had 75 catches for a school-record 1,213 yards in 2003.
Petrino coached three wide receivers who set single-season yardage records at Louisville. Arnold Jackson totaled 1,209 yards in 1999, J.R. Russell broke the record in 2003 with 1,213 yards and Harry Douglas had 1,265 yards in 2006.
From 2000-02, he was the quarterbacks coach at Southern Mississippi. In his three seasons, the Golden Eagles went 8-4, 6-5 and 7-6 with two bowl bids.
In 1998, Petrino left Utah State for his first stint at Louisville. In 1998, UL set records for points, scoring average, touchdowns, passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass attempts, pass completions and total offense. In 1998, the Cardinals ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing offense and ranked second in 1999.
From 1995-97, Petrino was at Utah State as receivers coach and special teams coordinator. In 1995, Aggies’ receiver Kevin Alexander was second in the nation in receptions and third in yards.
When he was at Idaho the first time, the Vandals won one Big Sky Championship and were runners-up twice while compiling a 29-9 record and appearing in the Division I-AA playoffs all three seasons. He coached some of the most prominent players in Vandal football history during that span. As receivers and running backs coach, he guided Vandal Athletics Hall of Famers Sherriden May (running backs) and Yo Murphy (receiver).