COMMENTARY: Petrino leaves his last game a winner, but what will his legacy be?

Idaho coach Paul Petrino walks the sideline during a game against Oregon State.

Coaching in college football is a wild world where winners rise up to lead prestigious programs and earn multi-million dollar contracts and losers often disappear into obscurity.

Some coaches might reach the height of their careers in their 30s and 40s if wins turn to losses, and sometimes a once-heralded bench boss will end as an assistant or lead a much smaller school in his later years.

What lies ahead for former Idaho coach Paul Petrino, 54, we’ll have to wait to see, but given the pedigree associated with his last name — he once coached with his brother, Bobby, on the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons — he’ll likely get a second chance somewhere.

The nine-year Vandal coach’s time in Moscow came to an unsurprising end last week when Idaho athletic director Terry Gawlik pulled the plug on his career at UI.

If it weren’t for an unsuspecting fan blog named after a beloved local bar breaking the news of his departure Thursday — we see you, Tubs at the Club — Petrino’s stay may have officially extended another week.

But Gawlik confirmed the talks had been in the works for a while, and the conversations about moving on from “coach P” go back to “even before (she) arrived” in 2019.

With Petrino’s win in his grand finale Saturday against Idaho State in Pocatello — 14-0 shutout to ride off into the sunset — the coach moved to No. 3 all-time in wins at UI with 34, one more than Chris Tormey (’95-99).

He sits behind only Vandall Hall of Famer Dennis Erickson (36-23 in ’82-85, ’06) and Idaho Athletics Hall of Famer and legend John L. Smith (53-21 in ’89-94) in total wins.

The problem?

Petrino’s 66 losses are far and away the most by a Vandal coach and his .340 win percentage ranks in the bottom third all-time at UI.

The coach faced his fair share of adversity in his nine years at the helm, such as taking over a one-win program, a move down to the Football Championship Subdivision in 2018, at times rampant injuries, COVID-19 and more.

But nine years is more than most coaches receive to right the ship. A whopping eight of those were losing seasons.

The lone bright spot was Petrino’s 2016 season in which his Vandals went 9-4 and won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in a thriller against Colorado State in Boise.

Outside of that bowl victory and Robb Akey’s Humanitarian Bowl win in 2009, it’s been a rough two decades for Vandal fans.

Those are Idaho’s only two winning seasons since — 1999.

Let’s face it, Idaho is a tough place to coach college football and has been for a while. That’s probably why Petrino was given extra time to attempt to transform the Vandals into consistent winners.

But just like the clock ran out on so many of his potential football wins, so did it on his time to turn things around.

It wasn’t always rosy off the field, either.

An incident in 2015 when Petrino publicly berated a journalist for what he deemed to be negative reporting about his team’s versatile passing attack comes to mind. Not the best look when the words “physically restrained” show up in reports.

However, that incident was a small blip in hundreds of otherwise cordial encounters with reporters.

And there is no doubt Petrino left a positive impact on countless players he coached.

After Saturday’s win in an emotional finale, a grateful Petrino said in a phone interview he had received between 80 to 100 texts from former players in the two days following his firing.

He ended his final sign off with a “God bless you and have a great year.”

If anything, the losses made those big wins a little more special.

Hoisting a big trophy full of Idaho potatoes on that December day in 2016 and being lifted onto the shoulders of his players after beating the Bengals on Saturday are some of the memories Petrino will surely remember most fondly, and his players will too.

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