NEW ORLEANS -- Bobby Petrino expects his only year in the Sun Belt Conference with Western Kentucky to be a memorable one, and not just because it's his first season back in coaching after a humbling one-year hiatus.
He expects to win.
The program he's taken over went to its first bowl game last year and now aims for a league title in what will be the Hilltoppers last Sun Belt campaign before moving to Conference USA in 2014.
"This is our one and only year in the Sun Belt and that's our goal, is to win the conference," Petrino said matter-of-factly Monday to a table crowded with reporters at the Sun Belt's annual media day. "As we build this program, we want to go to a bowl game every year and win the bowl game and then be conference champions."
Many coaches say that.
Petrino has the resume to back it up. He might be the most accomplished coach ever hired by a member of the 13-year-old football conference.
WKU was picked fourth in a preseason poll of eight Sun Belt coaches, behind co-favorites Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana Monroe, and two-time defending champion Arkansas State. But most of the coaches agreed that any of the top four teams in the poll have a good chance to win the league, and that the main reason Petrino's squad was voted fourth was because he is developing a new quarterback.
Petrino has yet to name a starter, though junior Brandon Doughty appears to be the front-runner.
Petrino is 75-26 in eight seasons as a Division I college head coach, missing out on a bowl only once. He led both Louisville and Arkansas to their first BCS games and if not for off-the-field problems, he might still be coaching the Razorbacks.
Arkansas fired Petrino in April 2012 for a "pattern of misleading" behavior following an accident in which the coach was injured while riding a motorcycle with his mistress as a passenger.
The 52-year-old coach's chance to return to college football in an area where he was popular from his days as Louisville's coach arrived last December, when Willie Taggart left WKU for South Florida after leading the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 regular season record and the bid to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
"It was a good fit," Petrino said. "It was something that was best for everyone involved in my family. I was able to get back in state of Kentucky with the people who have been so good to me and my family. ... And I think it's a great situation for the team that we have coming back."
WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said he anticipated getting some heat for hiring Petrino, but has been delighted by the reception the coach has received from fans and the way his presence has raised the profile of what he sees as an emerging mid-major football program.
"The places we want to go as a program, he's lived that," Stewart said of Petrino. "A lot of times, if you hire somebody who's had a lot of success ... maybe they're at the very end of their career and might be 15 years removed from their glory years. He's two years removed from it."
Stewart said Petrino has been accessible to fans, whether it be chatting with them in restaurants or fielding questions after speaking engagements.
"He's not been a recluse at all," Stewart said. "He's been very open and very approachable and the community has really embraced him."
Six years ago, Stewart noted, WKU was a Football Championship Subdivision team playing on a home field with stands along only one sideline. Now they've got a coach whose teams have been to the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls in the past half-dozen years.
"I'm not sure how much of an identity we had in south-central Kentucky in terms of football," Stewart said. "By hiring him, it's given us a much greater identity."
The rest of the league expects a boost, at least in terms of publicity, from Petrino's presence on the sidelines as well, even if only for one season.
"It's just showing that the conference is developing into one of the better mid-major conferences to get a big name like that to come and coach," Louisiana-Lafayette center Andre Huval said.
Petrino's younger brother, Paul, is the new coach at Idaho, which will join the Sun Belt as a football-only member in 2014. Paul Petrino said it was too bad he and his more accomplished older brother could not coach in the Sun Belt together, but predicted Bobby Petrino would make the already high-scoring Sun Belt even more interesting to watch in 2013.
"Everyone will just enjoy the way he dissects the game of football, the way he attacks people," said Paul Petrino, who was on his brother's staffs at Louisville and Arkansas. "Just the way his teams play would be great for any league."
The Sun Belt will have two bowl tie-ins this season, one with the New Orleans Bowl and the other with the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile. However, commissioner Karl Benson said he expects in the near future to have a third tie-in announced for 2014, possibly with a newly created bowl. Last year, the Sun Belt also had only two tie-ins, but had two teams (Louisiana-Monroe and Western Kentucky) receive at-large bids.