A Coach’s Best Friend

Kyle Samson and his grandfather, the late Bob Petrino, shared a bond beyond football, one that the Flathead High School coach carries with him to this day

Years before Kyle Samson could appreciate the man he would come to revere and call his best friend, he and his family would walk across Bill Roberts Golf Course to grandma and grandpa’s house in Helena.

In the backyard, Bob Petrino, the longtime Carroll College football coach who published a book on option offense and is the patriarch of one of the country’s most accomplished football families, lined his daughter, Kellie, and her two boys up in formation. If the defense crashed inside and attacked the quarterback, he explained, pitch back Kellie would be able to get to the edge, and if they stayed wide to track Kellie then dive back Marc, Kyle’s younger brother, was the choice to plow through the middle of the line.

Kyle, who remembers these impromptu clinics as a 5-year-old, soaked up his grandfather’s backyard lessons for years, and the many more lessons that would follow in the decades to come. He spent Thursday nights after practice over at grandpa’s house, Sunday afternoons reveling in grandpa’s wins — some of which came with Kyle’s dad, Mark, as his offensive coordinator — and treasured the times he was invited to join grandpa’s regular foursome on the golf course.

As a teenager, Kyle blossomed into one of the best football players in the state, leading Helena Capital High School to the Class AA state championship in 2002 (a playoff run that included a win over the Lex Hilliard-led Flathead Braves in the semifinals). After a year at the University of Montana, he quarterbacked Montana State-Northern for three years with Mark as his head coach, and stayed on as his dad’s offensive coordinator after graduating.

All the while, grandpa was never far away.

“We would all travel together,” Kellie (Petrino) Samson remembered. “We had a mini-van and my dad was the co-pilot and we had Marc and my husband’s dad … We went everywhere.”

Kyle, too, remembers his grandpa’s presence almost every time he took the field, home or away, in high school and even into his college career. And after Kyle was hired as the Flathead coach in 2014, Bob Petrino was in the stands to watch him get his first win at Legends Stadium.

“He’d call me every week to wish me good luck and when he couldn’t be there he was one of the first guys that I would call after a game,” Kyle said. “He loved watching his grandkids and his sons and his daughters compete … He would always make time and make sure he was watching his kids.”

Petrino, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, died in July at 81 years old. Never mistaken for the touchy feely type, Petrino nonetheless connected deeply with those who came in contact with him. He was a tremendous motivator who often wrote poems he would share with his teams before games, and his straightforward, no-sugar-coating personality helped him command respect from the moment he entered a room.

“None of the grandkids ever wanted to get in trouble by grandpa,” Kyle said with a laugh. “He was tough and hard-nosed but at the same time really, truly, cared about everybody he coached. And for me, personally, he was like a best friend to me.”

Kyle Samson, then the quarterback at MSU-Northern, puts an arm around his grandpa, Bob Petrino, after a game. Courtesy photo

Before he was a football coach, Bob Petrino coached basketball, and before he arrived at Carroll College he spent his days coaching at a number of rural Montana outposts, including Grass Range, Moore and Harlowton. Petrino also coached at his alma mater, Butte Central Catholic High School, before arriving in Helena in 1971 and leading the Saints for the next 28 years, winning 160 games, 16 Frontier Conference championships and posting four undefeated seasons.

He is enshrined in the NAIA National Hall of Fame, Montana Coaches Hall of Fame, and the halls of fame at Carroll and Butte Central. But his legacy’s endures today in no small part because of Petrino’s devotion to his family, one of only two things — along with his faith — more important to him than football. And his family sure loves coaching football.

Petrino’s sons, Bobby (University of Louisville) and Paul (University of Idaho) became successful NCAA Division I head coaches after stellar careers as option quarterbacks at Carroll. His son-in-law, Mark, has coached at a number of stops and currently serves as head coach at Great Falls High School. His nephew, Jason, is the head coach at Rocky Mountain College, and Jason’s brother, Jared, is an assistant there. Another nephew, Mike, is an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Montana. Even his grandkids are in the family business — Kyle’s at Flathead and Paul’s son, Mason, is his quarterback at Idaho.

Bob retired in 1998, when Kyle was in seventh grade, and it was around that time that his relationship with his grandson really began to blossom. While Mark reviewed game film on Sundays during the football season, Kyle would head to grandpa’s house for a weekly education delivered during the day’s NFL action.

“We’d watch football all day long and just sit there on the couch and talk,” Kyle said. “That was something that I really cherished, and looking back it was pretty special, because he would still coach me as we were watching games and teach me.”

Football and golf — Bob played golf nearly every day in retirement — may have been where Kyle and his grandpa connected most strongly, but the relationship did not end there.

“He was always there for you, too, if you had a problem,” Kyle said. “He’d always be there to pick you up if you were having something not great going on.”

In sixth grade, Kyle was at a friend’s house for a fantasy football draft when his grandpa knocked on the door. Bob grabbed his grandson and told him Mark’s father, Kyle’s other grandfather, had died in an accident at the family’s cabin near Swan Lake.

“He helped me through that; he helped everybody,” Kyle said. “He was definitely a person to lean on during that time.”

Grandpa could also sometimes turn his hard-nosed tactics on Kyle, who recalled a particularly motivating speech delivered in grandpa’s basement after a disappointing performance in a travel basketball game. But despite his harsh exterior, Kyle never doubted the love his grandpa had for him, his parents, his cousins, his players or anyone else who mattered in his life.

“To me it was just being there,” Kyle said when asked how Bob showed his affection. “Showing up to all our games, coming to our school plays, whatever it may be he was always there, he always made it a point.”

Kyle and his grandpa talked regularly all the way to the end of Bob’s life, even as Parkinson’s took its physical toll. During a trip to Helena this summer with his own kids, Kyle was directed to retrieve a football-shaped pendant his grandfather had earned as a member of the state champion Butte Central football team in 1952. Bob, struggling to speak or walk, gifted the pendant to Kyle.

“That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever been given in my life,” Kyle said. “I told him ‘I’ll wear this every day.’”

Kyle has stayed true to his word, wearing the pendant around his neck, and he’s added the word ‘Grandpa’ to the hat he wears on the sidelines of every Flathead football game. Bob, who tried to take in every moment of his family’s football careers while he was alive, has been with Kyle at every game for the 4-2 Braves this season, from his necklace to his hat to the poem Bob wrote that hangs in Kyle’s office and that he has read to his team before every game this year. He even talks to Bob’s son, Paul, on the phone every week, calls that may start with football but eventually end with the cousins reminiscing about Bob.

“I definitely take a moment every game to pause and think about him,” Kyle said. “I think about him every day and I miss the heck out of him because he was my friend and it’s a hard thing when it’s final. But we know he’s watching over us.”

There’s one more way, serendipitously, that Kyle has been able to honor his grandpa this year. For the first time in his five-year tenure as head coach, Kyle — an ex-quarterback with a bent toward running the football — has a QB in his mold, a lightning-quick, undersized dynamo named Jaden MacNeil. And while the days of traditional option football have long since gone out of vogue, there are echoes of grandpa’s backyard lessons in what the Braves have been doing this year as they’ve built one of the state’s most potent rushing attacks.

“It’s been cool to be able to come back and run some (option) stuff that we used to run when I was in high school,” Kyle said. “And then going back and looking at film from the ‘70s and ‘80s; from my grandpa’s teams.”

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