As a coach at seven colleges and one NFL team, Paul Petrino honed a deep knowledge of football. It would have uniquely qualified him to appreciate his son Mason’s prowess as a high school quarterback. However, because of his work, the coach rarely got to see Mason play.
If his son’s career at Pullman High School consisted mostly of stories and game tape for the coach, though, Mason’s college career is exactly opposite. As Idaho’s second-team quarterback and a member of the Vandals’ receiver rotation, Mason and his father have daily interaction around football. As a freshman last year, the young Petrino played in seven Vandals games, completing five passes for 9 yards and rushing for 91 yards on 22 carries.
“One of the best positives is seeing him every day at practice, being around him,” the coach said. In a family where athletics is a shared experience and a way to look at the world – Mason’s twin sister, Anne Mari, plays softball at the University of Montana : “A huge part of our life is sports,” says Petrino – an opportunity to strengthen personal ties through football is no small thing.
Luther Elliss, an All-American at the University of Utah who had a distinguished 10-year career in the NFL, looks like he could still suit up and play another decade. As with the Petrinos, football is an axis around which family revolves. Elliss had an opportunity to coach two of his sons in high school, Kaden in Utah and Christian in Utah and Colorado. He accompanied Kaden on a recruiting visit to Idaho, and approved of what he saw as Petrino’s philosophy of making family the model for the way the Vandals program is organized.
“A lot of coaches talk about family, but there’s a difference when he talks about family,” Elliss said of Petrino. From a father’s perspective “I was watching the staff, the players and the administrative staff. It really felt like a family. We were meeting families on top of it. When I went through recruiting, players never met coaches’ wives.”
Kaden is now a junior and a starting linebacker. His brother is a freshman linebacker, and early this year their father joined the Vandals family and followed his sons to Idaho as the team’s defensive line coach.
Having fathers coaching sons at Idaho works for several reasons, say the participants. Familiarity is one.
“They’ve been coaching us all their lives,” not only in football but in all the youth sports athletic kids play, Mason points out. Another reason it works is a clear understanding of the relationship.
Mason says “I don’t think I’ve ever called him ‘Dad’ out there.”
“I try to call him ‘Coach,’ ” Christian said, but every now and then ‘Dad’ slips out there.”
Because his father knows him so well “He knows how to get the best out of me,” Kaden said.
Their father echoes that: “We know what they can do and what they can’t do. We push them harder, get on them more, and hopefully they know we love ’em and they give us their best.”
Coach Petrino played for his father at Carroll College. “I’m not anywhere near as hard on (Mason) as he was on me.”
Finally, possibly most important, “We’ve got a lot of good kids on our team,” he mused. “It might have been a lot harder for all three of these guys to play for us the first year I got here.”
Petrino took over an Idaho program in disarray. The Vandals dismissed sixth-year coach Robb Akey midway through the season and finished the year under interim coach Jason Gesser. Idaho won only one game and also won one game in each of Petrino’s first two seasons before he got things headed upward. Idaho finished with four wins two years ago and improved to nine wins, including a bowl victory, last year.
Elliss says his wife, Rebecca, gives him useful insight on managing his role as a coach of all Idaho’s players and a father to two of them. From his long playing experience, he saw football from many angles, including situations where players felt they were not being treated equally. It is the sort of thing that could happen when a coach has sons on his team.
“She reminds me when I was frustrated with this or that,” he said. “She says ‘Don’t let that happen to your players.’ I demand the most. At the same time I want to be respectful to them.”
Ultimately coaches and their sons must come to terms with relationships that have an additional layer than the relationships coaches have with every other player.
“It’s never 100 percent turned off as coach or dad,” Petrino said. “It’s always both.”