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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Paul Petrino brings passion, discipline to Idaho football program

Paul Petrino brings passion and demands discipline in every aspect of his football program, including fundraising to continue improving facilities like the Kibbie Dome. (Tyler Tjomsland)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Both feet on the ground. Shoulders back against your chair. Eyes locked on the speaker at the front of room.

It sounds like an order a Marines drill instructor might give on the first day of boot camp. But for Idaho football coach Paul Petrino, this is a rule he demands that his players abide by in every meeting – whether they’re learning from their position coach or in a classroom listening to a history lecture.

Shortly after Petrino took the Vandals job in December, he started his first team meeting with players by issuing the same sit-up-and-pay-attention command he’s always stressed as a coach. Then he repeated it, this time using an even sterner voice.

Consider it Petrino’s first step in creating a culture that he sees as a vital component to reviving a program that was on life support as an FBS member just a few months ago.

“I think you’ve got to make sure you set the tone just so they know how you’re doing things,” he said. “One of the biggest things we’ve always believed in is you have both feet on the ground, shoulders back on the chair and you keep your eyes on the guy that’s in the front of room talking.

“If they can do that (in meetings), they can have a better chance of learning. If they do that in class, they have a lot better chance of getting a good grade.”

Petrino, 46, has run offenses at Arkansas, Illinois and Louisville. He’s coached briefly in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. But his goal since he was a young coach’s kid in Montana was to have a program of his own.

Now that he’s in charge at Idaho, Petrino has brought an unflinching, disciplined approach to a school that’s lost an average of nine games per season since 2000. Players have grown used to 2 1/2-hour practices and 120-play scrimmages in which a red-faced Petrino throws his hat to the ground and badgers players.

They go through hands-on position meetings (no flip-flops allowed) and long video sessions. And as quarterback Chad Chalich put it, they are expected to “study football away from football.”

“(The coaches) definitely brought a new culture around here,” receiver Najee Lovett said. “It’s going to be one way, and we have to come up to their level. So they’re definitely challenging us, and I think we’re facing the challenge pretty well.”

Since his first day on the job, Petrino has stressed what he calls “the Vandal core” to his players – grinding every day, emphasizing preparation and performance, representing the university well.

Athletic director Rob Spear said the changes Petrino has brought can be seen in how players carry themselves around campus and in the team’s academic performance. Idaho’s cumulative grade-point average has risen from barely over a 2.0 last fall to nearly a 3.0 in the summer session.

“The discipline he’s brought into the program has been tremendous,” Spear said.

Petrino has carried the same passion and rigor to fundraising, something that’s new to him as a first-time head coach. The health of the program and success in recruiting specifically, he said, can’t be sustained without facility upgrades and the money that it takes to do them.

On the construction front, the Vandals have made progress as they prepare to return to the Sun Belt Conference next year. Nearly $46 million in university, state and private funds has flooded in since 2004 to renovate the Kibbie Dome and other venues.

The money, $25 million of which has come from UI, has paid for a new weight room, locker rooms and team meeting rooms for football and other sports, as well as the football practice field, press box and premium seating, and – most costly of all – translucent end walls to brighten the aging Dome.

Last week UI showcased its new video board that stretches 30 feet across and 50 feet vertically – at least three times bigger than the old board. Idaho’s portion of the $1.15 million board was $787,000, all of which came through private funds.

“Any time you get to upgrade your facilities, it shows a commitment to the program,” running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Jason Shumaker said. “It shows that people are serious about the program. It shows that people are excited about the program. And (it) also gives you something new and exciting to show to recruits that they like to see.”

Petrino also wants recruits to see how players in the program have embraced the discipline he and his staff have brought. And he expects newcomers to respond well to it.

“I think you’ll look back on it two years from now,” he said, “and all the players will know how to a0ct because the other players won’t accept it and everyone just knows that’s how we do it.”

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