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Idaho athletic director says next football coach will have big shoes to fill following Paul Petrino

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 20, 2021

Idaho head coach Paul Petrino claps as players run off the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon State won 42-0.  (Associated Press)
Idaho head coach Paul Petrino claps as players run off the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon State won 42-0. (Associated Press)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho — One winning season in nine years and waning attendance give the University of Idaho’s new football coach plenty of room for improvement.

But whoever replaces Paul Petrino – whose time with the Vandals concluded with a final game Saturday against Idaho State in Pocatello – will have big shoes to fill to match the influence Petrino has had on Idaho’s academic success and culture of good citizenship among football student-athletes, and Petrino’s unwavering support for all UI athletics, according to Terry Gawlik, Idaho’s athletic director.

Gawlik, who announced Thursday the UI would not bring back Petrino for the final year of his contract that runs through June 2022, spoke about the coaching change at a press conference Friday. She reiterated remarks made in a statement announcing Petrino’s firing.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Paul. He is a man of integrity and strong character. He has helped hundreds of football student-athletes become better men. I am personally grateful for his loyalty to Vandal Athletics, his willingness to be a team player and the care and attention that he gave to his student-athletes,” she said then.

“Our kids don’t get in trouble,” she added Friday. “I don’t get a lot of calls from the Moscow Police.”

Petrino was heading into the final year of a contract that paid him approximately $450,000 annually. Gawlik declined to be specific about what the financial impact would be to the university to buy out Petrino and hire his replacement and new football staff. The buyout could be prorated, depending upon Petrino’s future plans, and Gawlik would not say what Idaho’s upward dollar limit would be in bringing in a new coach.

“I don’t have a number to share with you,” she said.

However, in broad strokes, she was more forthcoming about what she is looking for in a new coach. After playing in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision from 1996-2017, in 2018 Idaho returned to the Football Championship Subdivision and the Big Sky Conference when the FBS Sun Belt Conference refused to continue its football affiliation with the Vandals. Idaho had been in the Big Sky from the mid-1960s until leaving for the FBS.

“That was tough,” Gawlik acknowledged of the return to FCS.

But she says Idaho’s goals now are to regularly finish in the top one-third of the Big Sky and to play for championships. The new football coach must also be a good fit in the community, she said, have integrity, continue the academic success student-athletes achieved under Petrino and be able to connect with athletics department leadership and staff.

Gawlik said there is no hard and fast timeline for naming a new coach, and she has already received inquiries from potential candidates. The UI has also retained a hiring firm, College Sports Solutions, to assist with the search.

Gawlik has been at Idaho since August 2019, and she said the problems facing Vandals football “go back to even before I arrived.”

Idaho had not had a winning record since 2009, and it fired former coach Robb Akey midway through the 2012 season with the program in disarray on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. So Petrino walked into a challenging rebuilding job. He managed one winning season in 2016, when Idaho went 9-4 and defeated Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and on his watch the Vandals’ annual Academic Progress Report has improved every semester, and in 2017 Idaho wide receiver Jacob Sannon was named an Academic All-America.

But Petrino’s overall record is 33-65 heading into his final game, and Idaho’s highest finish during Gawlik’s time as AD was 5-7 in 2019. She said, however, she wanted to evaluate the football program before rushing to change it.

“I am not a big believer in cleaning house right away.”

The 2020 COVID year that disrupted all college athletics paradoxically allowed Gawlik to sharpen her focus on the football program and Petrino’s ability to lead it going into the future. “We became a really tight staff,” she said. “We got to know each other.”

She did not identify specific events that led her to believe football needed to go in a new direction, but she said she mutually agreed with Petrino when to announce the change, so an uncertain future would not be looming over him going into the final game.

“Paul and I talked about that a lot,” she said. “I wanted to make sure Paul was able to coach his team until the end.”

She said a new coach has the option to retain current assistant coaches, and in talking with the team Thursday she formed an impression that players are generally committed to seeing through a regime change. “I hope any of our student-athletes thinking of going into the transfer portal reach out to me,” she said.

Gawlik also said Petrino steadfastly believed the Vandals were on the point of grasping sustained success.

“Paul is a workhorse,” Gawlik said. “He is always optimistic.”

He never suggested to her that maybe he couldn’t get it done at Idaho.

She said firmly “we never discussed that.”

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