(Stats Perform) - Missouri State coach Bobby Petrino must have liked when his new quarterback, transfer Jalen Johnson, told reporters earlier this week how the Bears are a new team with a new mind-set.
Johnson's goal of Missouri State proving it can be the best in FCS college football appears unrealistic, but Petrino has a history of raising programs, so there's reason for optimism in Springfield.
"I feel like it's a challenge and something I'm looking forward to," the 59-year-old Petrino said.
Missouri State's hiring of Petrino in January was one of the splash moves of the college football offseason -- a successful coach back to his smaller-school roots, although bringing with him a controversial past.
He last coached at Louisville in 2018 -- his second stint with the Cardinals in a nearly four-decade career that also includes stops at Arkansas and Western Kentucky and with the Atlanta Falcons. He was wildly criticized for a quick exit from the Falcons in December 2007 to take over at Arkansas, where he spent four seasons before being fired after he was in a motorcycle accident which involved his young mistress and then was deceptive about it.
Missouri State offers a fresh start for Petrino, and the Bears need one as well. They went 1-10 last season to end a 32-80 decade. They haven't qualified for the FCS playoffs since 1990, when they fell to an Idaho squad whose offensive coordinator was Petrino.
The Bears open a three-game fall schedule on Saturday at No. 5 Oklahoma and will play a home-and-home series against Southland Conference power Central Arkansas. The plan is for Missouri Valley Football Conference games to be contested in the spring semester.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity here," Petrino said. "I think we have a really good base to recruit to, we've got a really good area where we can go out and not only find high school players, but junior college players. I think the conference that we're in is a tremendous challenge. There's great teams in the conference, been able to watch almost all of them and try to see where we stack up as far as talent goes at each position and what we want to set our standards to recruit to. But I think we've got some work to do, we've got some building to do.
"When we build a program, I think it's important that you celebrate your small successes and your private successes. Private victories always proceed public victories. We've got to get where we feel good about ourselves. I think our players are that way right now - they like the way they've been in practice, they like the passion and energy that's out on the practice field. You have to learn how to win."
Petrino has done a lot of winning collegiately, posting a 119-56 (.680) career record.
He had a previous background with Missouri State athletic director Kyle Moats, who was an assistant athletic director during Petrino's first head coaching job at Louisville, where from 2003-06 he went 42-9, won the Orange Bowl and had two teams ranked in the final Top 10. Years later, his youngest daughter had an official visit at Missouri State with the golf program.
But despite settling in at Missouri State, COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard for any new coach. The Bears did not have spring practices and Petrino spent nearly three months coaching his team remotely.
But he's done well in the transfer market, especially with Johnson, a former four-star high school recruit whom Petrino recruited while at Louisville. Former Virginia Tech cornerback Jeremy Webb and junior college defensive end Isaiah Sayles also are key additions.
Johnson said Petrino is "going to coach hard, he expects everything done perfect and done a certain way.
"With the schedule being split (between semesters)," he added, "we see it as just being able to see this fall where we are as a team, being able to get our chemistry together, being able to learn how to play with each other as a team, just build team camaraderie really so we can come out in the spring on fire and on all cylinders."
The first-ever game against Oklahoma is a $600,000 payday for Missouri State, but the Bears' highest-ranked opponent ever is an impossible opening assignment. Petrino wants his team to play fast and fearless and look back feeling it played as hard as possible.
He says he's been impressed by the Bears' dedication and toughness during this difficult year.
"It's not easy, every day is a challenge, every day is something new - somebody back, somebody gone - and they've done a great job of being able to focus on learning and focus on going out on the field and working really hard," said Petrino, whose son Nick is his offensive coordinator.
"We've got to still learn how to play faster. You can still see some hesitation, you can still see some doubt in our players. Some of it is because of schemes and not knowing exactly what to do, and some of it trusting themselves and trusting their teammates. We've got a lot of work to do."