Beyond The Boxscore

Why I love college football wives & the Texas Bowl does too: It's not a Rex thing

Why I love college football wives & the Texas Bowl does too: It's not a Rex thing

Ron Zook & family
Illinois coach Ron Zook celebrates the 38-14 Texas Bowl win with his family, the real influencers in the college football world. Photo by Tony Bullard
Paul Petrino
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino didn't get out much Texas Bowl week, but he's happy his wife and kids did.
News_Fayza_giraffe_calf_baby
The special Houston Zoo visit provided to be a hit for the college football wives and their kids at the Texas Bowl. Courtesy of Houston Zoo
Terry Saban
Terry Saban taught me that a college football wife isn't necessarily anything like her husband.
Ron Zook suit
It's the coaches, like Illinois head man Ron Zook who are on center stage at a bowl, but the wives are the ones who spread the word behind the scenes.
Ron Zook & family
Paul Petrino
News_Fayza_giraffe_calf_baby
Terry Saban
Ron Zook suit

It's a tradition in Maya Petrino's house that supersedes any holiday ritual, takes precedent over any family get together. "My 13-year-old twins are to the point where when bowl season rolls around, there like, 'All right, where are we going this year?' " Maya laughs. "It's like the family vacation."

Only, it's not. Because Maya Petrino is a college football wife, the one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in all of sports. And make no mistake, it's a job.

If you're a college football coach — from the head guys pulling in seven figures to the lowliest video assistant making less than some Starbucks baristas — and you want a family, you'd better find a partner whose tolerant streak leans heavily on the Gandhi side. The college football wife does most of the parenting, almost all the planning that doesn't involve X's and O's and plenty of counseling after any loss. Forget what you see on the sidelines, they're also often the decision makers and influencers in the family — on so many things.

You want to know how a bowl experience really went for a team? Ask a college football wife. The coach? He'll just tell you whether his team won or loss. The wives are the ones who can give the details on how nice the hosts were, how first-class (or not) everything really was, whether the bowl game deserves good word of mouth. And a game like the Texas Bowl needs positive wife buzz. If the Texas Bowl wants to grow bigger — and anything the Houston Texans are involved with from a business standpoint has designs on larger things, you can be sure of that — wife buzz matters.

And before the Texas Bowl got rolling Wednesday evening — with Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin going Michael Vick on the game's first possession, right until his wayward pitch ended in a fumble that sent Illinois rolling to a 38-14 steamrolling of the Bears — the bowl was doing very well in some important rooms.

The game room. The family room. The ice cream room.

These are just a few of the areas Texas Bowl officials set up at the team hotels of both Baylor (the Westin Galleria) and Illinois (the Hyatt Regency downtown). That's just the start of the perks and experiences the Texas Bowl provided for the teams' families too. Anyone could buy a ticket to the game at Reliant. But you haven't really seen the bowl until you've been surrounded by more Xboxes connected to mammoth TVs than the largest Best Buy has, until you've been to the private shopping lunch at Nordstrom, until you've received special run of the Houston Zoo.

"How's this for a few 13-year-olds?" Maya Petrino says, gesturing around the video game heaven room set up for Illinois. "The Texas Bowl people have been great. They've really looked out for the families. It's one of the better bowls we've ever been to with the activities they provided."

Maya Petrino would know. This college football wife has been to 13 bowls in the last 14 years, including BCS bowls like the Orange. When she says it's a family tradition, she's not kidding. Maya's husband Paul Petrino (Illinois' offensive coordinator) is the brother of Bobby Petrino, the current Arkansas, ex-Louisville and short-time Atlanta Falcons head coach. Before making the conscious decision to stake out his own identity at Illinois under Ron Zook this season, Paul Petrino and his family have seen every type of bowl setup imaginable.

Maya Petrino was even in Houston for a bowl "under a another name" almost a decade ago. "There's a huge difference between this and the last bowl we went to in Houston," she says. "Night and day. Not just with the city and how it's changed, but in how this bowl is run. It's been all first class."

That includes a luncheon at Nordstorm Galleria that brought the wives from Baylor and Illinois together, providing a bridge between teams standing in each other's way.

"We're all football wives," Maya says. "We can relate to what the wives at Baylor are going through. It's a pretty unique deal and you don't really know what you're in for until you're part of it."

Part of it is teaching your kids how to adapt. Early. Maya Petrino boarded a plane for the Orange Bowl with her now four-year-old daughter Ava just five days after giving birth in 2006. If you're a football wife, you don't miss the big bowl week and either does anyone else in the family.

"A lot of people are like, 'Oh, you had to travel on Christmas,' " Maya says, noting Illinois' departure date for Houston. " 'It must be hard.' Are you kidding? That's nothing. We're used to it. As long as we're in a bowl, as long as we have somewhere to go, it's been a good year."

Which doesn't mean that even the most persuasive and pretty football wife is going to be able to convince her hard-charging husband to step back and smell the roses (or in this case, the Texas barbecue) bowl week.

"My husband is all business," Maya says. "All business. I force him to go out to a few bowl events, but that's about it. His bowl experience is the final score. So hopefully, we'll have a good one."

A Businessman's Delight

When you're the first-year coordinator of an offense that's averaged more than 32 points per game, one that methodically built a 24-0 lead against Baylor that had Maya Petrino smiling, you don't mess with a successful formula. A college football coach is happy bowl week when his family has more than enough to do to leave him alone with his gameplan.

Which the Texas Bowl more than provided.

"We're Zoo people, so I'd have to say the Zoo was the best thing," Maya says. "My four-year-old and the 13-year-olds all loved the Zoo."

Spend any time around the Texas Bowl staff — from executive director Heather Houston to communications manager Zac Emmons to the volunteers at the hotels — and you cannot help but be convinced that they truly want the team families to have a good time because it's the welcoming thing to do.

It's hard not to love college football wives. And not in some weird Rex Ryan way.

Take it from an often cynical sports writer who's almost seen it all in covering Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and college football programs in BCS conferences. There are few people around sports as consistently stand up and warm as the college football wife. This from someone who often finds their husbands arrogant, self-centered and largely clueless to the real world.

I'll always remember how Terry Saban — wife of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who you may have heard is a little controlling — treated me when I was a young reporter covering Saban's Michigan State teams. Saban and I had our clashes, and a few heated one-on-ones, but when I reached out to his wife to a story on things that people didn't know about the cold-stare master — a story that many of Saban's friends wouldn't even comment on for fear of Nick — she welcomed me into her home, gave me hilarious stories and even handed over family pictures.

And any time she saw me from then on, she'd ask me if I was eating enough (I was a lot skinnier back then). No matter if her husband was irate over a story that day or not.

That's a college football wife. I've talked to more than a dozen for stories and only one or two have ever been anything but warm and open. Maya Petrino all but offered me some of her unfinished Chick-fil-A on the table in the Illinois family room at the Hyatt.

The Texas Bowl is smart. They're reached the right influencers.

Zook might be the one who gets the TV soundbite — and perhaps a future Texas Bowl promotional video appearance — when he gushes unprompted in his postgame press conference, "That might have been one of the reasons the Big Ten thought this was such a good bowl matchup. This is an unbelievable bowl. I can’t say enough about the bowl, about the events, and about the way they treat you. It’s just a great, great thing." But it's the women who concede the spotlight to their husbands' careers whose voices will be heard loudest in all the corners of college football that count. 

Maya Petrino will be spreading the Houston word. Right to the BCS Sugar Bowl where Arkansas and Bobby Petrino are playing and she and her family are headed next. Sans husband of course.

"Paul would love to go, but he has to be out recruiting," Maya says. "I think he has three home visits that day."

Maya Petrino laughs. She's a college football wife. It's part of the deal.