January 08, 2007

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There are 2,143 miles between Helena, Mont., and Flowery Branch, Ga. One potential driving route has 11 states between Montana's capital city and this distant suburb of Atlanta. Google Maps times it as a 30-hour trip doing a modest 65 miles per hour. Notoriously speedy Atlantans could probably make it in 20.

Bobby Petrino took a more circuitous path to get here, but he finally arrived Monday. Twenty-four years after taking his first coaching job as a graduate assistant under his father at Carroll College in Helena, the man known throughout small Montana communities as Bobby Jr. was introduced as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

The challenges awaiting Petrino, 45, will be far different than the ones he undertook in his first seasons at Carroll. Then, his biggest obstacles were winning some of the heated debates in the meeting room with his boss/father -- the real Coach Petrino -- and Bobby Jr.'s younger brother, Paul, who was the Fighting Saints quarterback in 1986, Petrino's final season there.

"There were some strong personalities involved. Coach Petrino didn't raise his kids to be yes men," recalled Steve Jones, who served on the same staff as the Petrinos and is currently the Director of Athletics Facilities at Carroll. "As all sons do with their fathers, there were arguments. Coach Petrino raised his kids to think for themselves."

Atlanta general manager Rich McKay saw some of those qualities in Petrino during McKay's days in Tampa Bay. In 2001, when the Buccaneers had an opening at offensive coordinator, McKay had his eyes set on Petrino, who had just completed his first season as the Jaguars offensive coordinator. But because of the way Petrino's Jacksonville contract was structured, McKay couldn't get a deal done. Petrino moved on to Auburn as offensive coordinator for a season and then to the head coaching job at Louisville, but he continued to follow McKay and vice versa.

"The number one thing that drew my interest here was Rich being here," Petrino said Monday.

The No. 1 thing that drew the Falcons' interest in Petrino was his impeccable track record as an offensive mastermind, most recently at Louisville. The Cardinals ranked in the NCAA top 10 in total offense for four straight seasons (2003-2006), one of only two teams to do so (Texas Tech being the other). His philosophy of having a balanced offense should give Falcons fans hope -- the team ranked first in the league in rushing, but dead last in passing in 2006.

Petrino has also had success molding different styles of quarterbacks, from tutoring mobile guys like Jake Plummer at Arizona State and Stefan LeFors at Louisville to traditional drop-back QBs like Jacksonville's Mark Brunell and current NFL prospect Brian Brohm. Particularly, Petrino's time with LeFors, a left-handed QB with a penchant to run, would seem to prepare him well for the challenge of utilizing Michael Vick's vast, yet unbridled talents.

Petrino and Vick's paths never crossed on the field. During Vick's days at Virginia Tech, Petrino was in the NFL with the Jags. When the Falcons drafted Vick in 2001, Atlanta and Jacksonville did not meet. And as of 2:30 p.m. Monday, Petrino was still anxiously awaiting his first conversation with his enigmatic quarterback.

"I'm looking forward to working with Michael. I'd like to stand up here and say this is how we're going to use Michael," Petrino said. "But the truth of the matter is we won't know that until we get on the field and see exactly what he does well and what he needs to improve on."

One thing Petrino wasn't as anxious about are the questions on whether he, as a college coach, can succeed in the NFL where others before him -- like Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban -- have not. Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Petrino both insisted Monday they weren't worried about his transition, saying he was different from the other coaches before him.

So what makes Petrino different from Saban, Spurrier and Davis?

One thing Petrino has on Spurrier is NFL experience. The closest Spurrier came to pro football prior to taking over the Redskins was a three-year stint as head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. Petrino, on the other hand, did three years in Jacksonville under then-coach Tom Coughlin. Petrino spent 1999-2000 as the quarterbacks coach and was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2001. It's worth noting the Jags reached the AFC championship in Petrino's first season, but did not return to playoffs in his final two.

But prior NFL experience doesn't guarantee head-coaching success, as Saban and Davis can attest. Saban was a defensive backs coach in Houston in 1988-89, and spent 1991-94 as Cleveland's defensive coordinator under then-coach Bill Belichick. Many believed Saban's lineage, especially his ties to three-time Super Bowl winner Belichick, would guarantee Saban success. Dolphins fans would beg to differ. Likewise, Davis spent 1989-94 in the Cowboys organization, first as defensive line coach before a promotion to defensive coordinator. He proved to be a winner in Dallas, helping the Cowboys to two of three Super Bowl championships. When Cleveland hired Davis away from the University of Miami in 2001, it was with the hope he would return the Browns to glory. He went 24-35 over four seasons.

For his part, Petrino is confident he won't stumble on any of the philosophical differences between the college game and the NFL. Drawing from his experiences going from offensive coordinator at Louisville in 1998 to quarterbacks coach at Jacksonville in 1999, Petrino plans to win over the Falcons by putting the onus on them.

"I think the number one thing you have to do with the players is get them to take over ownership of the standards set, the expectations of how you work in the meeting room," Petrino said. "I am confident I can do that."

Part of his plan for accomplishing that is to bring in a mix of coaches who can relate both to him and his style, while at the same time hiring coaches who will command respect from the veteran players. "I want to have a good blend of good veteran NFL coaches and good young college coaches that know me and know how I operate. I think you need both," he said.

At least a few of the coaches Petrino will appoint to his Falcons staff will come from Louisville. Monday was too early for Petrino to commit to which ones would come along, but common sense tells you one will be his brother Paul, currently the Cards offensive coordinator, if he isn't selected as his older brother's successor at Louisville. Special teams coordinator/linebackers coach Tom McMahon and strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp, both former Carroll College stars under Petrino Sr., are two more candidates who may help bring the Petrino-style to Atlanta.

And, Petrino will have the backing of the Helena, Mont., community, cheering every step of the NFL coach they helped mold.

"I'm as excited for Bobby as I am the players he gets to coach," Jones said. "With a football coach father, he brings a history to the game those pro players will learn to appreciate."

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