Five years ago, Paul Petrino arrived in Moscow with designs on turning the Idaho Vandals into a consistently competitive football program at the FBS level.
It took a couple of years, but he accomplished that — guiding Idaho to a bowl game in 2016, and coming within a couple games of bowl eligibility the season before and the season after.
His overall record at Idaho is 19-41 — but it’s 17-20 over the final three seasons.
Five years later, Petrino is still in Moscow, coaching a program that was kicked out of the Sun Belt Conference following last season, and is now preparing for its first season at the lower FCS level, back in the Big Sky Conference for the first time since 1995.
He has years of experience at bigger FBS schools, like Louisville, Arkansas and Illinois. He’s even coached briefly in the NFL.
So at least over the last two-plus decades, the former I-AA level of football is new to him.
“It’s my job,” Petrino said the other day. “I’m a football coach. I don’t worry about all that other stuff. I control what I can control, and do the very best job I can at that. Our guys are working their tails off right now, there’s a really good feeling around the building, and we’re excited. We’re going to do everything we can to win the Big Sky and get into the I-AA playoffs.”
Perhaps the Vandal community and the Palouse has grown on him?
“I wanted to establish it like it was when I was an assistant here (from 1992-94, when Idaho thrived in the Big Sky, before moving up to Division I-A in 1996),” Petrino said. “The day that I leave, I hope that we’ve had three or four great years in a row, that’s how I’d like to have our career end (here). Right now, I’m just going to try to make Idaho the best they can be. Go about it one game at a time, and do the best I can.”
PETRINO TOUCHED on a few other topics, such as a past Vandal quarterback (Matt Linehan) and a current Idaho QB (Colton Richardson), last week prior to a Vandal Boosters function at The Coeur d’Alene Resort.
On the new recruiting “season”, which featured a three-day early signing period in December, which took a lot of the luster off last Wednesday’s traditional National Signing Day. Idaho signed 12 players in December, and 10 more last week:
“I was really kind of unsure what it would be like, but I kinda liked it,” Petrino said. “One nice thing was, a lot of guys commit to you early, and this way when it got to that early signing period, you knew if they were committed or not. Anyone that (verbally) committed to us early, we wanted them to sign in the early signing period; if they didn’t sign, we moved on, and considered they weren’t committed.”
The players Idaho signed last week were being recruited by the Vandals, but hadn’t verbally committed by the December early signing date.
He said the early signing period “makes those first couple weekends in December really big for us. We brought ’em in (for recruiting visits) the first two weekends right after the season. It’s not as good for us for them to come visit during the season, because we don’t have all those extra assistants like the bigger schools do. We had two big weekends right after the season ended. Everyone that we signed at mid-year came on those first two weekends.”
Petrino said eventually, he thinks more and more schools will sign most of their players early.
On recruiting a different type of athlete, now that the Vandals are in the Big Sky:
“ ... tried not to. Tried to go for just as good a guys,” Petrino said. “There’s a couple homes you didn’t get into because those kids — or, a lot of times moreso, their parents — are just set on they’re going to have a Division I player.
But for the most part, we tried to recruit every bit as good a player, and I think we had a good year.
“I think academics was a little bit bigger this year, because we have to package scholarships with academics and athletics. It was definitely the best G.P.A. class that we signed ... I think we had eight guys over a 3.5 in this class.”
In FBS, teams can have 85 players on full scholarships. In FCS, they can still have as many as 85 players, but have to divvy up 63 full scholarships between them. So the more academic scholarship money his players could receive, the better.
On still being able to recruit players out of the South. FCS schools tend to recruit more regionally, and Idaho no longer has the FBS carrot to dangle in hopes of attracting athletes from far away:
“ ... and I didn’t know if we would get anybody because of that,” Petrino said. “But we’ve still got some good connections down there. I’m never going to quit using those ties that we have in Florida and Mississippi, using those ties that I had when I was an assistant in that part of the country. And the guys they’ve given us have been darn good players.”
On his cousin, Jason Petrino, head football coach at NAIA Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., who has signed a few kids from this area:
“Last year when we were in the bowl game in Boise, Jason came down, spent about 3-4 days, watched us practice, and then signed a bunch of kids from the Boise area,” Paul said. “While he was watching us, he was recruiting the area. He always comes and spends a week with us in the offseason, comes down and watches some spring ball.”
The cousins share ideas.
“You can always learn from anybody,” Paul Petrino said.
On Ross Chadderdon, the Coeur d’Alene High linebacker who signed with the Vandals last week. Petrino was in the Kibbie Dome watching when Chadderdon returned an interception for a touchdown in the Vikings’ victory over Mountain View of Meridian in a state 5A semifinal game:
“You just love the way he plays the game,” Petrino said. “You love how excited he is, the passion he plays with. He’s got really good instincts. He can really shoot his hips and strike. Good hitter, and he’s got good hands and he plays the ball well.”
On quarterback Matt Linehan, whose record-setting career at Idaho came to a quiet and abrupt end because of a thumb injury in the ninth game of the season. He missed the Vandals’ final three games:
“It was sad,” Petrino said. “Football’s a contact sport, and that’s why I tell the guys, ‘Cherish every play you get, cherish every game you get,’ because you never know, it could be (over) like that, and you’re done playing for us. He had a great career for us, did all kinds of things for us. He’ll always go down as one of the better quarterbacks (at Idaho). Did a great job in that bowl season. It was too bad last year, because the two games before he got hurt were probably his best two games (the Monroe game and the Troy game).”
Petrino told the media (and, by extension, the opposing team) before each of the last three games that he hoped Linehan would be able to play that week — even when he knew that wasn’t the case.
“I thought he might have had a chance for the last game (at Georgia State),” Petrino said. “And I think if we would have made a bowl game he would have had a chance.”
He said doctors initially told him that, but as the season finale neared, they said the thumb was not healing as fast as they thought.
On playing Colton Richardson, the former Lewiston High star who had been redshirting, at quarterback in the last two games of the season:
“We didn’t want to do it, but we just had to,” said Petrino, whose son, Mason, replaced Linehan at quarterback until he, to, was injured. “We didn’t have a choice; we had to put him in. He knew if something happened he was going to play. We’d already talked about it; it wasn’t like it just happened all of a sudden.”
Petrino said coaches are trying to push through a new rule “that says if guys play in the last four games of their redshirt year, they can still save their redshirt. And that’d be a really good rule, especially for the smaller colleges, because they’re the ones that don’t have the depth.”
If the rule passes while Richardson is still in school, the Vandals could try to get the rule applied retroactively to him.
Petrino said Richardson hurt his foot near the end of the Georgia State game, and was in a boot for eight weeks afterward. Had the Vandals played the following week, Dylan Lemle, who was also redshirting, would have played at quarterback.
“And Dylan agreed to that, too,” Petrino said.
Petrino signed a quarterback last week, and he’ll join Richardson and Lemle on the roster next year. Mason Petrino moved to receiver, but could also return to QB if needed.
“That shows you we’d better get all three guys ready for next year, that’s for sure,” Petrino said.
On how much Petrino has studied the Big Sky since Idaho’s season ended:
“ ... a lot,” he said. “As soon as the season got over, in between recruiting, I made the offensive and defensive staff make me books of all the teams we’re playing next year, a little writeup on each team. And I had the video guy put every Big Sky game on my iPad, and I’ve been watching it a bunch. I’ve been studying the Big Sky a lot. I studied it all over Christmas, and really, any break I’ve had, through recruiting, I’ve been studying a lot.”
On the difference between Big Sky teams and Sun Belt teams: “Yeah, I really don’t want to say that in the press,” Petrino said. “There are definitely differences, but I’ll just keep those in-house.”
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.