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December 10, 2012
Bobby Petrino's hands were folded in front of him as he sat next to WKU athletics director Todd Stewart. His wedding ring was still wrapped around his finger.
The former Arkansas coach lost his job on April 10, but managed to keep his family intact. Eight months after being fired in the wake of an ugly scandal, he'd found his way back into coaching.
"I'm extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to become Western Kentucky's head football coach," said Petrino, who coached at Louisville from 2004-06. "My wife Becky and I consider this coming home."
But Stewart still called him the Hilltoppers' "number one" candidate. He moved quickly after Willie Taggart was formally introduced as head coach at South Florida on Saturday, first contacting Petrino on Friday night. Petrino's past transgressions didn't deter him from hiring a coach who led two programs to BCS bowl games.
"He made a big mistake," Stewart said. "He acknowledges that and he's taken ownership of that and he's paid a heavy price for it. But this is the United States of America, and we're a country of second chances. I was confident after talking to him and talking to other people that he deserves a second chance."
Petrino's contract includes a base salary of $850,000 for four years, making him the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt. He'll earn a $10,000 bonus if season ticket sales exceed 12,000 in any given year, a $10,000 for a team GPA of 3.0 or better and a $25,000 bonus if he's named national coach of the year. He can also earn $300,000 with a trip to a BCS bowl game.
If fired by WKU, he'll be owed his salary for the remainder of the year in which he was fired, along with a full year's salary. If Petrino terminates the contract at any time, he's subject to a $1.2 million buyout.
He addressed the team on Monday before his press conference, telling them to focus on their academics and the Little Caesar's Bowl on Dec. 26. After that, he said he has his sights on taking the Hilltoppers to "the next level."
"I think what it really comes down to is, 'Are we getting better every year?'" Stewart said. "If we're getting better every year and going to places we haven't gone before, that's the primary goal."
WKU president Gary Ransdell was in China on Monday and not available for comment, but Stewart said Petrino and Ransdell had spoken. Ransdell supported the hire, Stewart said.
Petrino drew a crowd of several hundred WKU fans who packed his introductory press conference. They applauded when he stepped to the podium and crowded around him to shake his hand and get his autograph at its conclusion.
Petrino said he'd try to use the experience gained in the last year as a chance to grow as a coach.
"I'm going to be able to sit down with the moms and dads and the student-athletes and make them understand how this experience has made me a better coach, a better person," he said. "It will make me understand their son better."
He said he had spoken with other schools about their coaching vacancies, but WKU was the best fit. His hope is to elevate the Hilltoppers to a point where they can compete with Kentucky and Louisville as in-state rivals. His first goal -- finding his way back to coaching -- is already accomplished.
"I basically have spent the last eight months working with my family, trying to make things right with my wife and children," Petrino said. "I learned a lot, a lot about myself. I'm really excited about this opportunity. I didn't know if I would get it."