MOSCOW, Idaho – Paul Petrino can’t seem to escape Montana.
Born in Butte and raised in Helena, Petrino was a star quarterback for Jim Tuss’ Helena Capital program in the 1980s before enjoying all-American status for his father, Bob Sr., at Carroll College. Following two years in an assistant coaching role by his father’s side, Petrino went on a coaching journey from Idaho to Utah State, Louisville to Southern Mississippi and even Arkansas and the NFL.
But the northwest came calling again in 2012, landing Petrino within a half-day’s drive of home when he was named head coach of the University of Idaho Vandals. The quarterback-turned-coach wasted little time changing the culture of the program, transforming a team that won only two games in his first two seasons to its first bowl-eligible campaign in seven years. Petrino’s Vandals scored 61 points in the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the most points scored in the NCAA’s postseason.
Petrino was rewarded with the Sun Belt Conference’s coach of the year award and gave the University of Idaho an identity the school was lacking for some time.
“We came in here and the program wasn’t doing really great when we got here, but we believed in what we believed in, we set a foundation. We had to have a lot of private victories before we got the public victories,” said Petrino. “Going into last season, we expected to make a bowl game. I don’t think anyone outside this building did, but our players and coaching staff really believed it. … It took probably one year longer than we hoped, but it sure made it worth it knowing where we started and where we got to. Now we have to keep it going.”
A smile creeps across Petrino’s face as he reminisces about that bowl victory, the culmination of four years of exhausting preparation and strategy. But the expression vanishes as quickly as it appeared as Petrino’s attention turns back to business, a routine he admittedly inherited from his father.
“I think they would see a lot (of similarities). Probably my biggest mentors started with Coach Tuss in high school and then definitely my dad and my brother, because I coached for him, too,” Petrino said, referring to his assistant duties to older brother Bobby. “They would see a little bit of everybody, but mostly my brother and my dad. The way I fly around and my motivation, that’s a lot more like my dad. The way I try to game plan and attack people defensively is more like my brother. I hope they see something of any of them, because they’re all great coaches.”
Paul Petrino has certainly landed himself in that list of great mentors in the family tree. The Petrino name can be found on numerous coaching staffs at all levels: Bobby, the head football coach at Louisville, is one of the highest-paid coaches in the NCAA. Jason enters his second year as head football coach of Rocky Mountain College with younger brother Jared on his staff. Michael is a second-year assistant with the University of Montana women’s basketball program.
What began with Bob Petrino Sr. some 50 years ago has spread to nearly every branch of the family tree.
“We have a dentist in Missoula, Joey is a dentist,” laughed Paul Petrino, struggling to think of relatives not in the coaching profession. “Predominately we’re pretty much coaches. That’s kind of what everyone grew up being around and understanding. I have three sisters who are all good teachers, but they’re still educating. We’re all teachers, that’s what you’re doing as a coach, is teaching and that’s kind of what we were all raised to do.
“The schedules are crazy, but we still talk a ton,” Petrino continued, discussing his relationship with older brother Bobby. “We’ll text each other, ‘What are you running good? What’s giving you trouble?’ Usually during the season, Mondays usually, we’ll talk about what we’re seeing and what we’ve done in the past against certain things and he asks me about different things. I reach out to him a lot. Sometimes he forgets the time change and he’ll call me at 4 in the morning. Usually when it rings at 4 a.m., I know it’s him. But that’s a good thing because it’s great to have that sounding board to bounce things off of. I still send my dad all of our practice film, too, and he watches it at home, tells me where I’m screwing up and what I have to get fixed.”
The Petrino coaching tree now branches to his sister Kellie’s family. Her husband, Mark Samson, has served as head coach at Helena Capital, MSU-Northern, Havre High and now Great Falls High. Their son Kyle, Paul’s nephew, recently began his second season at Kalispell Flathead, sharing the knowledge he has captured from dad, uncles and Grandpa Bob.
When Petrino accepted the job in Moscow it was an immediate benefit to family and friends in the football coaching world back in Montana.
“We had a lot of Montana teams in our camp this summer. We had Great Falls High with Mark, Kalispell Flathead with Kyle and then Helena High and Tony Arntson came out,” Petrino said. “Libby came out. It’s always great. Montana people are great people and they’re tough. That’s probably why a lot of Montana people are such good football players and coaches, because it’s a tough state and people grow up being tough.”
It was nearly 40 years ago Bob Petrino Sr. recruited an offensive lineman by the name of Kris Cinkovich from Spokane Falls Community College. Initially just a piece to the roster puzzle for the eldest Petrino, Cinkovich would eventually become one of the closest and most important acquaintances to Bob, Bobby and Paul.
“Coach Cinkovich came with me right from the get-go and he’s my right-hand guy. He does everything from offensive line coach, offensive coordinator, assistant head coach. He’s the only guy that has coached for my dad, coached for my brother and coached for myself,” Petrino beamed. “He’s an unbelievable coach and really someone who helps me bounce ideas off of and getting different things, so he was great to get.”
Coaches are a tight-knit group and their world is all about trust. It was no surprise to see Paul Petrino welcome Cinkovich to his staff with open arms, but that hire was nowhere near the end of his reach back to his Montana days.
Petrino grew up alongside another football junkie in Troy Purcell. A former Helena Capital and Carroll College running back, Purcell also went the coaching route, spreading many of the same disciplines he learned from Tuss and Bob Petrino Sr. It wasn’t until the conclusion of his fourth Montana high school state championship that Purcell’s path once again crossed with his old teammate.
“I tried to hire Troy Purcell when I first got this job, but he wanted to finish out and win a couple more state championships at Bozeman High because he knew he had some good teams coming up,” Petrino said. “I kept trying to get him for a couple years and then we had an opening before last season so I could get him here. We grew up together from grade school to junior high, played together in high school and college, and I’ve seen the unbelievable job he’s done as a head coach in high school. … It was great to get him, he coached on defense his first year here and now he’s going to coach on offense, because he’s such a great coach, great motivator. When I listen to him out there before practice I think of my dad because he sounds a lot like him. That’s great to have him there.”
Throughout his coaching stops across the country, Petrino has always kept an eye on his former schools, both Helena Capital and Carroll College. It was no surprise, then, when he reached out to another former Bruin standout in Bobby Daly, a 2007 FCS all-American linebacker at Montana State. Daly has quickly elevated from graduate assistant to director of football operations and now a full-time assistant coaching the linebackers.
The Vandals’ defensive staff also boasts a pair of former University of Montana assistants in Mike Breske and Aric Williams. Breske had two stints with the Grizzlies, reporting to the legendary Joe Glenn and then Robin Pflugrad years later. Williams was one of the defensive back coaches for Breske in the latter years.
Each assistant brings familiarity to Petrino’s staff at Idaho and each offers the same intensity and focus as their head coach.
“When you talk about recruiting, you recruit from friends and family, so when you’re putting together a staff you probably trust friends and family the most first,” said Petrino. “I’m really fortunate to have all those guys on our staff. They’re all passionate for the game of football and that’s probably the biggest thing we all have in common, everybody loves football, has a passion, they’re good teachers and motivators and we had a good time last year. It’s fun to have that many people around from the state of Montana.”
The Carroll College football program celebrated its 100th year in 2014, honoring coaches and athletes as far back as the Mount St. Charles College days. The Petrino name is a staple in Fighting Saints history, sitting front and center with the likes of Gagliardi, Hunthausen and now Van Diest.
Paul Petrino was arguably one of the greatest in the school’s history, leading the Saints to four conference titles and a 36-6 record. An all-conference and all-American quarterback, Petrino held 16 program records following his four years with the Fighting Saints but his fondest memories include the friends who enjoyed similar successes.
“I was very fortunate to play with a bunch of really great players. We went four years and only lost two games in the regular season and we had a lot of great wins. We beat Central Washington when they were really supposed to whoop up on us in the first round our senior year, that was a lot of fun. I think I carried the ball like 36 times and I could barely get out of bed the next day. That was a great day,” he recalled. “Homecoming you always kind of played that game for your dad, so my senior year homecoming was kind of cool knowing it was the last game playing for my dad. We killed Montana Tech and I got national player of the week so that was cool for my dad.
“And then the great players that I was fortunate enough to play with – Jon Saunders, Mark Biegler, you could go on and on, Larry Iverson,” he continued. “We had a patched-up (offensive) line, that’s something I’ll always remember. My sophomore year we had a couple of junior college offensive linemen that decided not to come back after the summer. My dad was coaching the O-line, and he moved Jon Saunders from defense to offensive line and he became a great offensive lineman. Kenny Volk was a tight end and we moved him to guard. We had Dave Campbell playing inside, we had Doug Schell, who was a middle linebacker and came over to play guard, and then we ended up leading the country in rushing that year, really with a makeshift, what my dad called ‘the patched-up O-line.’ What they were was a bunch of tough, get-after-it, second-effort kind of guys. There were so many good players that I played with, there was just a lot of good players I was fortunate enough to play with.”
Thirty years have passed since Petrino shed the playing shoes for a whistle and clipboard, but it’s easy to see why success has followed his coaching career. The former quarterback can relate to what his players see on the field, but do they have any idea how decorated their head coach was in his day?
“They probably don’t care,” laughed Petrino. “I think the biggest thing that players want is for you to help them become better. I think when you’re a young coach you worry about that, that’s probably when you’re still trying to race them and stuff. I think the biggest thing is you need to help them get better and when you can teach them how to get better and show them how to make them better, then they’re going to respond. Once you gain their trust and let them know that you’re going to help them become better players and give them a chance to be successful, they’ll do whatever you want them to do.”
There’s that wisdom passed down from father to son. For 27 years, the past four as a head coach, Paul Petrino has done everything in his power to help his players succeed. It’s a promise he continues to make to each recruiting class, but don’t expect the former record-setting quarterback to line up next to the freshmen on 40-yard-dash day.
“Not now, I’m too old now. When I was young I used to do it,” he laughed.
At least he’ll always have those days at Helena Capital, Carroll College and back home in Montana.