BILLINGS — Entering his first season as the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State — a position that proved fortuitous for its previous occupants both on the field and off — Montana native Jason Petrino has a clear understanding of his role.
The gist? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"I said this during the process when I met with the players: What's been here has worked for a long period of time," Petrino, 46, told MTN Sports during a phone conversation last week. "For me it's just coming in and embracing the culture, learning every day, and then from a structural defensive standpoint, how can we make this better?
"It's that constant maneuvering of pieces and bodies, but what I'm here to do is bring a fresh perspective, subtle changes and subtle thoughts. The core belief and factor is to win."
Petrino is focused on helping NDSU reclaim the championship mantle in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Bison have made a mockery of the FCS since 2011, winning nine national titles. But in January, the unthinkable happened: North Dakota State lost a championship game, falling 45-21 to Valley rival South Dakota State at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Prior to that, the Bison were 9-0 in FCS title contests.
The 45 points scored by SDSU — which until then was 0-4 against NDSU in FCS playoff matchups — were by far the most surrendered by the Bison in a championship game.
Part of Petrino's job, especially on the staff of a defensive-minded head coach like Matt Entz, is to help make sure that doesn't happen again. And that challenge persists.
"SDSU was really, really good, and they were really, really good on that day," Petrino said. "You sit there and you watch the film and you study it, and they executed at a high level. They had really good players and a lot of those players are coming back, so it's going to be a tremendous challenge for everyone in the FCS this fall."
And, of course, there's always a chance the Bison will cross paths with Montana or Montana State in the postseason. It's happened in four of the past five seasons.
Entz, for one, is a believer in Petrino's acumen.
"Jason brings a wealth of knowledge both defensively and in program development from his experience as a defensive coordinator and a head coach," Entz stated in a press release announcing Petrino's hiring in January. "I have always noticed how hard his players played and how well they executed. Jason has a proven track record of being a great teacher, mentor and leader."
Petrino came to NDSU in January following a four-year stint as defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, which like the Bison is a member of the powerful Missouri Valley Football Conference. But he made his bones in his home state of Montana, first as a player at Carroll College, then beginning his coaching career with the Saints under Mike Van Diest in the early 2000s.
Separate stops at Wyoming (first under Joe Glenn), the University of Mary, Winona State, Omaha and then South Dakota (again under Glenn) preceded a three-year head coaching stretch at Rocky Mountain College from 2016-18. That led him to the coordinator job at Southern Illinois.
A member of a prominent Montana coaching family — which has included brothers Jared and Mike, cousins Bobby and Paul, his father Mike Sr. and uncles Pat and Bob Sr. — Petrino describes his Treasure State roots as a big source of influence.
"I tell this to people, Montana is always a part of me," said Petrino, who was born in Billings and raised in Kalispell. "My first year working with Joe Glenn at Wyoming was 2003. I got to spend three years at Rocky, which was great, but I've been away for around 20 years for the most part. And I've never changed my number and I always say Montana stays with me.
"I'm never going to give that up just because of how special Montana is. Growing up in Kalispell, I call it God's country. I definitely appreciated growing up in Montana. I think about it a lot."
Defensive coordinators at North Dakota State typically advance to head coaching jobs. Notably, Chris Klieman ascended to the top job at NDSU in 2014 when Craig Bohl departed for Wyoming and won four championships. Klieman is now the head coach at Kansas State. Entz, previously the Bison's defensive coordinator, succeeded Klieman as head coach in 2019 and has since won two titles.
Petrino got a taste of head coaching during his three years at Rocky Mountain College, leading the team to a Frontier Conference title in 2018, but he doesn't necessarily envision the same progression for himself in Fargo or anywhere else. He's not thinking that far ahead. At least not yet.
He and his wife Heather are the parents of Jason, Mikaylah and Patrick, who are in 10th grade, eighth grade and sixth grade, respectively. They also have a niece in fifth grade. Right now, it's still about family — and living in the moment.
"I always go back to, 'Just stay employed in this profession.' Do the best job, make a positive impact where you're at," Petrino said. "Right now, honestly, I've got to be at my very, very best to help this program and this team not just get back to a championship but win a championship.
"Those are the expectations here. There's no doubt about it. It's not about having a good season, it's about winning championships. I'm excited about being a part of that."