Only in his dreams did Bobby Petrino think he'd ever return to Arkansas to coach football. More than a decade after being fired as head coach for cause, however, he's returning as the Hogs' offensive coordinator.
"It's something I hoped would happen. Wasn't sure if it ever would, but it is a dream come true to be able to go back to the University of Arkansas and do anything I possibly can to make it right this time," Petrino told ESPN on Wednesday. "I'm grateful to coach [Sam] Pittman and [athletic director] Hunter Yurachek for making it happen."
Petrino, as Arkansas' head coach from 2008 to 2011, guided the Razorbacks to their most successful two-season stretch since the Frank Broyles days in the 1960s. The Hogs won 10 games in 2010 and 11 games in 2011 and capped that season with a Cotton Bowl victory and No. 5 ranking in the final polls.
It's the only time since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992 that it had put together back-to-back winning records (6-2) in SEC league play.
But that next April, a motorcycle crash involving Petrino revealed an extramarital affair he was having with a female staffer that he had hired in the football office. After an investigation, Petrino was fired for cause when then-athletic director Jeff Long said Petrino lied to school officials during the process.
Petrino understands that much will be made about his ugly exit now that he's back, but he told ESPN that he sees this as a chance to help make amends to all the people he let down.
"I'm more excited than anything, just to be able to go back and give back to all the great people of Arkansas," Petrino said. "I can't do anything about the past, but I know how hard Coach Pittman and his coaches have worked. It was great to see when he first got there and the way he changed the culture and then had that good season his second year (9-4 in 2021) and won the bowl game.
"I've always been a Razorback fan and rooted for them and know how hard this last season has been for all of them, so when Coach Pittman had the idea of me coming back, I was immediately interested. Like I said, it was almost a dream."
He will make $1.5 million for the 2024 season and $1.6 million for the 2025 season as part of the deal that runs through February 2026. There are also performance incentives for such things as SEC championships, College Football Playoff appearances and certain bowl appearances that could add to his annual salary.
Petrino said he's heard from several of the players he coached at Arkansas, which makes his return all the more real for him. He reiterated that, as he sets foot back on campus, his thoughts will be solely on helping Pittman return the Hogs to national relevance.
"When I think back on the great teams we had, I think about the players and the toughness and pride they displayed in being a Razorback, and I'm looking forward to helping influence our guys to play with that same kind of passion, energy and toughness," Petrino said.
"I know this will be a little different for a lot of people, but I'm grateful to Coach Pittman for giving me this chance and looking forward to getting my feet on the ground, walking into the facility and seeing everybody. It's time to get it cranked up."
Tyler Wilson played quarterback under Petrino and remains Arkansas' leader in passing yards. Wilson, who played three seasons in the NFL, said Petrino's return will energize not just the football program, but the whole state.
"There's been a lot of despair among the entire Arkansas fan base the last couple of years," Wilson said. "But as soon as it came out that Bobby Petrino was coming back, my phone immediately started blowing up. You're going to see season tickets go up, and it quickly changes the mentality of the Arkansas fan base."
Wilson said there'd be some people, inside and outside the Arkansas family, who will be critical of the hiring, but he hopes this reunion will ease some of the embarrassment, anguish and disappointment of Petrino's messy exit.
"There was so much pain after his dismissal, and it wasn't just our team, but the state in general," Wilson said. "I felt like we never fully healed after all that and it had almost been like a lingering ghost. Some may still wonder if this is the right fit structurally, and that's to be determined. But certainly there's going to be a lot of wouldas, couldas and shouldas that will be vetted out now."
Petrino, who will be the Hogs' third different full-time offensive coordinator in the past three years, will be in charge of an offense that scored 22 or fewer points in six of its last seven SEC games.
He spent this past season as the Texas A&M offensive coordinator but wasn't retained by new coach Mike Elko. Since his firing at Arkansas, he has been head coach at Western Kentucky, Louisville and at FCS Missouri State.