Whether Bobby Petrino’s one and only season at Western Kentucky can be deemed a success or a failure is debatable.
One thing appears to be certain: His 2013 team enjoyed the experience.
“Aw man, it was great,” said linebacker Chuck Franks, who graduated in December, about his season with Petrino. “Any time you get to play for a coach with a big name like that, it’s always great. I think most of the team enjoyed it. Of course he brought some energy – we already had energy here, but he was able to bring some more winning ways to the program, which is always good.”
The Hilltoppers had high – maybe too high – expectations coming into the season, with a host of talent on offense and a good majority returning to a dominant defense.
The team’s eight wins in 2013 were more than the seven from 2012 and the four losses obviously fewer then the six suffered in 2012. WKU’s third-place finish in its final season in the Sun Belt Conference was also two spots up from fifth in 2012.
Failing to win the league or finish as high as second, however, cost them a coveted bowl bid for the second consecutive season.
“I don’t think we took a step back at all. When you look at that season, I think 8-4 is kind of what a lot of people thought we were,” said former WKU quarterback Leo Peckenpaugh, part of the program’s in-game radio crew. “I heard 9-3 or 10-2, but when you have that change, it just takes time for everyone to get on the same page and they did that as the season went on. We got to be a pretty good team before it was over.”
On and off the field, Petrino certainly broke the mold of what those close to the program were used to. His predecessors – Jack Harbaugh, David Elson, Willie Taggart – all had strong ties to the Western Kentucky program.
Petrino did not.
“I know it’ll please a lot of the old-time Toppers because we kind of got used to Jack Harbaugh and Willie (Taggart), because when you talked to them, they would bleed red strong,” said WKU athletic Hall of Fame member Butch Gilbert, who played at WKU from 1948-51 and was a longtime Hilltopper assistant coach. “I don’t know whether Petrino ever got that fire in him or not – didn’t seem to have.
“I kind of got used to Willie and Jack. We’d talk ball a whole lot and bring up scenarios. Never did get to share any of that good stuff with Petrino. He had his own way. That’s fine, too. He is strictly business all the time. You can’t complain. He did a good job. At times we played as good as any bunch that we’ve played.”
The Hilltoppers had to adjust to life under Petrino on the field as well, switching from Taggart’s West Coast style of offense to Petrino’s multiple system. Petrino also brought in an entirely new staff, from coordinators Jeff Brohm and Nick Holt to a new strength and conditioning team.
The adjustment perhaps took longer than expected – the Tops started 1-2 and then fell to 4-4 after consecutive home losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy, defeats that effectively took them out of the Sun Belt Conference title race.
WKU rebounded with four straight wins and had plenty of momentum going into the offseason and this spring, but that’s on hold with Petrino’s departure.
The current coach, and whomever is charged with the task of leading them, must find a way to regain that momentum and regain it quickly.
“I’ll say this, the foundation has been set,” Franks said. “The foundation was set before coach Petrino got here. A lot of fans may have been nervous when coach Taggart left about what we’re going to do and who we’re going to hire. The thing about it is, the foundation has been set. Those guys, all they have to do is keep working hard and playing ball the Hilltopper way.”