ATLANTA — It was a battle of the bottom-dwellers, a yawner of a game between two bad teams in front of a crowd numbering in the dozens. So empty was the Georgia Dome for the Sun Belt Conference matchup between Western Kentucky (5-4) and Georgia State (0-9) that spontaneous laughter erupted when the PA announcers warned fans not to rush the field after the game. Local high school gymnasiums could seat more people.
But one man in the Dome drew more attention than others.
This game marked the return former Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino to the building he unceremoniously vacated in the dead of night on Dec. 10, 2007, after a 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football.
That night, just 13 games into his NFL head coaching career and just days after promising Falcons owner Arthur Blank that would stick around for a second season, Petrino slipped away, announcing his resignation through identical four-line notes he put in each player’s locker. Many fans learned of the move on Tuesday when they saw Petrino in Fayetteville, Ark., giving the "Woo pig, sooie," call.
As anyone with a passing knowledge of college football knows, that move didn’t turn out very well, which is why a man three years removed from coaching the No. 3 team in the nation now paces the sidelines in a Hilltoppers shirt. A motorcycle crash, one which revealed an extramarital affair with a former co-ed who also happened to be under his employ, led to Petrino’s immediate firing from Arkansas. The Razorbacks haven’t been the same since.
But Petrino, despite his insistence to the contrary, is still his same self: distant, dismissive, robotic and cold, with a mean stare that says a lot more than his words, which say, basically, nothing.
"I’m just focused on Western Kentucky and what we’re doing there and how hard we’re working and the opportunity we have there," he said when asked how it felt to return to the Georgia Dome after his ignominious exit. "We’re going into a new conference next year and all my focus is on Western Kentucky University."
Immediately after that answer, the WKU sports information officer cut off questioning, although Petrino did say he was happy with how the Falcons had progressed without him.
"It was a long, long time ago," he said. "And I’m just thinking about what we can do to get better at WKU."
On this Saturday there didn’t appear to be much the Hilltoppers could do better. For all his flaws, Petrino is still a great offensive football coach. WKU beat Georgia State 44-28 with play-action passes and the same sophisticated spread formations that made quarterbacks Ryan Mallet and Tyler Wilson famous at Arkansas. The score would have been more lopsided but Georgia State scored a touchdown on a big play with less than two minutes to go in the game. Other than that, it was all Hilltoppers.
"They really played well at every position," Petrino said. "I think they had fun out there and really improved."
Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 206 yards and had 11 yards rushing in just over one half of play. After being shaken up on a 10-yard run at the 10-minute mark of the third quarter, Dougherty turned things over to backup Nelson Fishback, who did a serviceable job, leading the HIlltoppers to two more touchdowns in the second half, even though he only completed three passes for 35 yards.
"I’m sure there will be some things we’ll see when we go in tomorrow and look at the film," Petrino said. "But right now, I’m really proud of how everybody played and happy to get this win."
He was also happy to get out of the Georgia Dome.
With almost no one in the stands, he almost certainly saw one Georgia State fan who came dressed in an Arkansas pullover and a neck brace wearing Halloween makeup to mimic road rash. It was a perfect parody of the famous Petrino photo following his scandal.
That, of course, had nothing to do with WKU, so the coach wouldn’t comment on it or even acknowledged that it had happened, just as he wouldn’t talk about his days with the Falcons even as he marched away from the media and into the same locker room where he left form letters telling his former players goodbye.
It’s all behind him, all in the past, "a long, long time ago," as he said … until the next shoe drops and Bobby Petrino, who has never stayed at a job for more than four years in his entire career, bids the Hilltoppers farewell.