ARLINGTON, Texas — Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson was on a roll Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
Johnson was going off on a number of topics. The possibility of leaving early for the NFL Draft. Where Kansas State's defense might be vulnerable in the Cotton Bowl. The injury to Knile Davis that thrust him back into the spotlight.
Then, somebody asked him about his coach.
Johnson, loose to that point, stiffened up.
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His voice dropped a few tones. A serious look spread across his face.
"You play for Bobby Petrino and you play in a Bobby Petrino offense, you should consider yourself lucky," said Johnson, who leads the Razorbacks with 1,351 all-purpose yards. "It's a special thing to be a part of."
Not far from where Johnson stood, Arkansas center Travis Swanson spoke in the same manner when it came to his coach.
"We play for Bobby Petrino," Swanson said. "There's a lot of pride that comes with that."
A few days later, linebacker Jerico Nelson talked about being a part of Petrino's first recruiting class at Arkansas.
"That's a big deal for me and the rest of the guys that are part of that group," Nelson said. "(Petrino) makes you feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself."
For their coach, there is only reverence.
Career on the move
Petrino grew up in Helena, Mont., and played quarterback at Carroll College, also in Helena, until graduating and going to work for Carroll as a graduate assistant in 1983.
He spent the next decade doing what upwardly mobile coaches do early in their careers, bouncing from one job to the next, and wherever Petrino went, big-time offense was sure to follow.
Weber State for two years, Idaho for three, Arizona State for two, Nevada for one, Utah State for three. Then a jump, to Louisville, for one season as the offensive coordinator before spending three seasons in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars and then one season as the offensive coordinator at Auburn.
Then, finally, a chance to lead.
Hired in 2003 at Louisville, the Cardinals were Petrino's first opportunity as a head coach after two decades in the profession, and he made the most of it. In five seasons, Petrino turned Louisville into a nationally prominent program, rising as high as No. 3 in the national rankings and guiding the team to an Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest after the 2006 season, the first BCS appearance in school history.
"We felt like we turned around the culture (at Louisville)," Petrino said. "That was an important time for me."
But it wouldn't last. Petrino shocked the Louisville faithful when he bolted for the NFL to be the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, signing a five-year, $24 million contract just days after winning the Orange Bowl and six months after signing a 10-year, $26.5 million contract extension with Louisville.
"I intended on being in Atlanta for a long time," Petrino said. "Things just don't always work out the way you want them to."
Petrino's stay in Atlanta lasted less than a season — he resigned with a 3-10 record and three games left in the season. He informed the team he was leaving with letters left in their lockers and became the coach at Arkansas within 24 hours.
Petrino's departure came at the same time star Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick was being indicted on federal dogfighting charges, the very player Petrino had been brought in to help tutor.
"Our objective was simply to find the best head football coach for the University of Arkansas," Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. "We wanted to find a proven coach that had established a track record of success.... We wanted to find a coach that had won conference championships and, ideally, had competed and succeeded in the BCS."
People in Fayetteville call the $35 million football complex being built for Petrino's team "Bobby's Bunker," and rightfully so. Once completed, it will be a gleaming testament to the school's commitment to its state's crown jewel — the Arkansas football team — and to Petrino's influence.
His contract is another thing altogether.
After last year's Sugar Bowl, the school signed Petrino to a contract extension through 2017 that raised his salary and included a unique "mirror clause" that bonds the school and coach to each other for some time.
The school raised Petrino's salary almost $1 million to $3.56 million per year, but Petrino owes the school $18 million if leaves this year (the buyout goes down just $25,000 in 2013), $14.5 million in 2014, $10.8 million in 2015, $7.4 million in 2016 and $3.9 million in 2017, the final year of the deal.
Conversely, the school owes Petrino the same amounts if they were to fire him in any of those years.
Petrino, however, remained focused on the task at hand this week — beating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Talk of his future will have to wait, for now.
"It is a big game for us in that we can send our seniors out with a win," Petrino said. "We can win 11 games for the first time in a long, long time. And we have a chance to finish in the top five, so it is a big game for us."