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Grip on Sports: Face of Vandals not flattering

Idaho coach Paul Petrino says he did yell at a reporter, but didn’t have to be held back. (Associated Press)
Idaho coach Paul Petrino says he did yell at a reporter, but didn’t have to be held back. (Associated Press)

Friday: What do you want out of a college football coach? Most fans would say wins. Or an entertaining team. Others at a university might cite academics and a commitment to same. But I’m sure all would agree the one thing they don’t want is bad publicity.

Robb Akey didn’t win every game as Idaho’s football coach. He was just 20-50 in his five-plus years in Moscow.

But he did take the Vandals to a bowl in his third season, the only one with a winning record. But since athletic director Rob Spear decided to fire Akey in 2012, the Vandals haven’t won at all. OK, that’s an exaggeration. They won once in 2013 and once again last season. Current coach Paul Petrino is 2-21 in two full seasons.

In his defense, that’s only a half-game worse than Akey’s record (3-21) in his first two years. Of course, that Humanitarian Bowl bid and an 8-5 record came in Akey’s third, so the comparison may end now. Or maybe it already has.

See, Akey was relentlessly positive. A big man who greeted everyone with a grin and called them “bubba,” even if he knew their name. Petrino’s personality is different. So is the way he deals with people. His tenure at Idaho has been notable for a couple of confrontations.

The first came in his first season following the WSU game. Just Google “Paul Petrino and Mike Leach” and make sure there are no lip-reading 8-year-olds near the screen. Watch the two coaches exchange pleasantries after WSU’s 42-0 win.

The latest confrontation took place earlier this week. It happened after practice and it pitted an irate Petrino with two reporters. It was a confrontation Petrino said yesterday he wished he had handled better.

Yelling obscenities at the sports editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and a Lewiston Tribune reporter is an action most everyone would regret later. The incident came to light because the MPDN’s Michael-Shawn Dugar felt physically threatened by Petrino’s action and wrote about it in Thursday’s paper.

Petrino and Spear responded in the afternoon, making statements that admitted Petrino’s language and decision-making process concerning the reporters was not appropriate, but denying Petrino had to be restrained.

Yesterday, a source told me the Idaho staffer who stepped between Dugar and Petrino described himself Wednesday evening as “the guy who held Paul back.” Sounds like someone who felt they restrained another person.

Petrino described himself as a passionate person who allowed his passion to spill over into the conversation. Spear said in his statement “I want to make it very clear at no point was Coach Petrino restrained.” Truer words were never spoken, if you use restrained as an adjective and not a verb.

Dugar stood by his story and the world turns. Except one must ask what Petrino’s future is in Moscow. 

Wednesday’s incident was not only a regional affair. Not in this day and age. It became national news. Sure, it’s just a blip and will be forgotten soon. But the last two times the University of Idaho has been in the national spotlight have been for basketball coach Don Verlin berating an assistant on the bench at Northern Arizona and now this.

But that’s somewhat immaterial, other than how it could affect the Vandals recruiting down the road.

The more important aspect of this is the example Petrino is setting, no matter whether or not he had to be held back from Dugar. Head football coaches are not just X and O guys, they are the face of the program and, often, the face of the university. And Petrino is a role model for his players as well as a representative for UI.

Imagine a Vandal football player at a party next week. A student begins to disparage the team’s ability to run a vertical passing game. The criticism hangs in the air. What should the player do? Walk away, defusing the situation, or follow his coach’s example and start yelling obscenities?

Tell the student he or she doesn’t know anything about football. End the rant, but then turn around and move toward the student. Think that would end well? And can you imagine the player’s defense if the scene turns ugly? “I’m a passionate person.” That would go over well.

Of course, if the Vandals win a few games this season, then all will be forgiven. It sounds as if it already has. Unless something else happens. Yesterday, a UI staffer sent me a text message calling Petrino “a ticking time bomb. I’m surprised it has taken him so long to explode.”

It’s possible it hasn’t. This was just the first time he’s done it in such a public manner. If Petrino is willing to act this way with a person peripheral to the program, in a somewhat public setting, just think how he must treat those inside it when the doors are closed.

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