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By LARRY VAUGHT
LOUISVILLE — He had a smile on his face and a message to sell about Western Kentucky football.
“It’s great to be back in Louisville. I remember standing here a few years back and speaking. It’s awesome to see all the familiar faces, as well as new ones,” said Bobby Petrino.
The former Louisville coach was speaking to the Louisville Quarterback Club here Wednesday exactly one month from the day he’ll make his coaching debut for the Hilltoppers against Kentucky in Nashville on Aug. 31.
“I am extremely excited about what it is going on,” Petrino said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but we have a lot of good players coming back.”
There was no mention of his controversial departure from Louisville to coach the Atlanta Falcons or his personal woes that cost him his job as head coach at Arkansas. There was no mention of other coaching jobs he pursued or whether he viewed Western Kentucky as a way to revive his career or a spot to stay a long time. Petrino took questions from the club members, but turned down an interview request after his talk.
He said the Hilltoppers have a “tough schedule” that starts with Kentucky and takes Western to Knoxville the next week to play Tennessee.
“I do get nervous thinking about the schedule, but it is also exciting,” Petrino said. “To open in Nashville against Kentucky is great for our program. It motivates our players all summer and winter. It should be a great game. We do not know a lot about them and they do not know a lot about us.”
Petrino said Western coaches have been studying Florida State’s defense and Texas Tech’s offense to get an idea what UK coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown might do Aug. 31.
“But we have to figure out how they will change and what they will do different because they will make changes,” Petrino said.
He said there is also one other unknown about the game on ESPN.
“In the first game, you do not really know what to expect from your own players. I do not know how they will react when things go well or do not go well,” Petrino said. “We will have to learn and get better as the game goes on. We have to do a great job on the sideline teaching and making adjustments during the game. We are going to have to be tough enough mentally and physically to win the game in the fourth quarter. But it will be kind of fun to see what we are all about.”
Western beat Kentucky in overtime in Lexington last year and had UK on the ropes in Nashville two years ago before the Cats won. Several Western supporters were at Wednesday’s lunch and one already wore her “Beat Kentucky” button.
Petrino made it clear he doesn’t intend to back down from UK, Louisville or anyone else in recruiting.
“You need to compete. We are going to recruit the state of Kentucky and then go south into Georgia, Alabama and Florida,” Petrino said. “I like to recruit there (the south) because of how players grow up. Those kids grow up knowing football. Being a college football player is hard. You have to be very dedicated. But we are not going to be afraid to recruit the best players.”
Arkansas is known for its quality football facilities, but Petrino said Western’s facilities could appeal to recruits now.
“I am amazed at the facilities we do have. We have an unbelievable weight room, as good a locker room as you can have, tremendous training room,” he said. “We have all kind office space and everything you need to coach and teach players. I would like to get an indoor practice facility in the future.”
While Western opens with two Southeastern Conference teams, Petrino said there are quality players at other schools like Western.
“The difference in the SEC is the size and speed of the defensive linemen and length of the corners. The defensive linemen are unbelievable and the corners are all 6-1, 6-2 and can play press man coverage. That’s the biggest challenge the SEC presents for offenses they face,” he said.