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‘Get back to the playoffs’: MSU pins hopes for football comeback on Petrino

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With a big name comes big hopes.

Luring Bobby Petrino to lead Missouri State University’s football program is a win in itself to MSU Athletics Director Kyle Moats. But he hopes this initial victory leads to one thing: “Get back to the playoffs,” Moats said. “That’s a lofty goal – we haven’t been there in 30 years.”

Petrino is already in Springfield, taking his first steps to do just that. He said the journey begins by looking forward.

“The first thing we do is tear off that rearview mirror, so we don’t look back at 30 years or talk about it or do anything with it,” Petrino said with a laugh in his new office on campus. “One of my first messages to (the team) was, I don’t want to hear anybody around here say ‘30 years ago.’”

Petrino, who was hired in January to replace Dave Steckel, brings with him an overall record of 119-56 in 14 seasons with teams such as Western Kentucky University, the University of Louisville and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

The Bears closed out last season 1-10.

In fact, the team has typically clocked more losses than wins each season dating back to the 1989 and 1990 seasons, when coach Jesse Branch led the Bears to 10-3 and 9-3 seasons, respectively, according to statistics from MSU. The Bears made it to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs both of those years, and they haven’t returned since.

The incentives for Petrino to get the Bears back to the playoffs are in place.

His five-year contract has a $250,000 base salary and a variety of bonuses for achieving certain benchmarks. If Petrino leads the team to the FCS playoffs, he’ll net another $25,000 in base salary. He would then get a $10,000 bonus per FCS playoff win and other bonuses tied to wins in the regular season, as well as for home attendance exceeding 10,000.

What a winning season might mean for the financial bottom line of the football program is sheer speculation at this point, Moats said. But if Petrino is successful in turning the team around and packing the stands at Robert W. Plaster Stadium, it could drive further investment in the program.

“The more we make on the bottom line of football, it helps our overall bottom line,” he said.

Those wins could put more money in everything from recruiting to equipment and shine a brighter spotlight on all of the programs offered at MSU, not just athletics.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis for the 2017-18 school year, MSU football expenses were $681,359, which appears to be on par with other NCAA Division I Missouri Valley Conference schools. Youngstown State in Ohio, for example, spent roughly $670,000 that year, the most recent available, while Illinois State spent about $710,000.

Petrino said working with a smaller budget than he had elsewhere isn’t a major concern. At Louisville, for example, the 2017-18 football-program budget was about $5.4 million.

“It’s all relative,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago. My dad was an NAIA coach for a long time, and he always told me to make it big wherever you’re at.”

Moats’ plan for increased revenue is through ticket sales.

“I don’t know that there are going to be a lot of changes except on the field. We have a great tailgate – Bearfest Village rocks. It’s among the best in the league,” he said.

Ticket prices aren’t apt to change, either, he said.

“We’re not priced out of our marketplace by any means,” Moats said.

Per-game tickets currently are priced $12-$25 for adults and $5-$13 for children, while season tickets run $55-$110, depending on seating.

Moats hopes the potential Petrino brings for a winning season will help fill the two vacant skyboxes and possibly lead to additional sponsors for MSU athletics.

“It will certainly, I think, raise the visibility and importance of the sponsorship if football does better. For example, Bobby has a luncheon (Feb. 26) open to the public and we’ve had 250 RSVPs. We haven’t had that many in 11 years,” Moats said.

When asked about the impact a winning MSU football season might have on the broader Springfield economy, Tracy Kimberlin – president of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau – said it’s impossible to predict.

“It would be speculation at this point,” he said via email. “It would surely mean another activity locals and visitors could both enjoy, but how much travel would be generated as a result is anyone’s guess.”

Moats again strikes an optimistic note.

“I think from an economic standpoint, what I would like to see – which I think would be like a lot of other universities on a football Saturday – we get people to come in the night before so our hotels and restaurants benefit,” he said.

This is where ticket sales come back into play.

Plaster Stadium opened in 2014, cost $27.3 million to build and seats 17,500.

Average attendance in 2019 was 6,450, according to MSU statistics. Its attendance average for road games, by comparison, was 9,570. Overall attendance for 2019 was 32,248 at home and 57,417 away.

Moats said it’s important to the university as a whole to fill those stands and keep them filled. It also boosts MSU’s overall image.

“We want 17,000 there because we bring recruits for all the other sports in the fall to campus,” he said. “We want it to be a crazy, exciting atmosphere.”

If the community’s reaction to Petrino’s hiring is any indication, he’ll find support here. But it wouldn’t be surprising if some wonder whether hiring Petrino carries a degree of risk. As has been widely reported, Petrino in 2007 abruptly pulled out of a contract with Louisville to join the Atlanta Falcons, which he also abruptly left to join the Razorbacks in 2008. His career with the Razorbacks ended in 2012, when he failed to disclose the nature of his relationship with a woman he hired four days before they were involved in a motorcycle accident together. According to an Associated Press report, Petrino was having an affair with Jessica Dorrell, then 25, and had given her a cash gift of $20,000 before he hired her as an assistant. It wasn’t until after the crash that Razorbacks athletic director Jeff Long became aware of the relationship and subsequently fired Petrino.

Petrino has publicly apologized and made clear his desire to return to coaching.

Moats said all aspects of Petrino’s history were taken into account before his hire at MSU. He said university leaders and the board of governors supported the decision.

“We were comfortable moving forward and having him represent us as our football coach,” he said.

At MSU, Petrino said he’s up for the challenge. He agreed the goal of 17,000 fans is doable, though he doesn’t know how long it might take. And he has his own reasons for wanting to pack the stands.

“The energy, the excitement, make it hard on the other team’s offense to communicate. Being loud, it certainly gives you a home-field advantage,” he said. “With our stadium and the way it’s built, if we can get it full and get that type of energy back in there we’ll certainly have an advantage in how the other team can communicate. Hopefully, we can drive them into having to use silent cadence. That always makes it harder on the visiting team.”

Petrino said the future of the MSU football program begins with building a great team.

“Build a team you can get to the championships with and get some players that play really well that the fans can identify with – I think that’s how you fill the stadium,” Petrino said. “We just have to build it and get that going.”

Moats said the excitement level already is building.

“Those who understand and know football are excited,” he said. “Anybody who has an inkling of what’s going on in college football is saying, ‘You guys are really serious about getting this turned around.’”

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