Jim Harris: Morris’ Tenure Mirroring Another Failed Razorback Football Coach, Only Worse

Jim Harris

Question: What Arkansas Razorback football coach was previously an offensive coordinator at Clemson, didn’t play college football, planned to be a teacher, dressed as a head coach on game days like his coaching mentor, tried to shape the Hog program like his ideal of one (where he’d coached before), considered himself a recruiter first, was lauded by media as an offensive guru, had a losing overall record at his only other college head coaching stop, and coached the Hogs to their worst record in 28 years?

It’s amazing, really, that those facts listed will apply to not just one coach, but two. Yes, it’s a question with two correct answers: Razorback football coach Jack Crowe and Chad Morris.

Crowe, who called plays for Danny Ford at Clemson before coming to Arkansas as offensive coordinator in 1989, was asked to stay on when then UA coach Ken Hatfield abruptly left to replace Ford at Clemson in January 1990. Less than three weeks remained until national recruit signing day, Arkansas was going to be left in the lurch if Athletic Director Frank Broyles had to go through a full-fledged search for a head coach, and Crowe had just led Arkansas’s offense to record-setting numbers in a second-straight SWC championship season and Cotton Bowl appearance (the members of that 1989 team, incidentally, will be honored Saturday during the Arkansas-Auburn game in Fayetteville, which kicks off at 11 a.m.)

So, Frank handed the reins to Crowe, who would have quarterback Quinn Grovey and receiver Derek Russell back for their senior years. The defense had a lot of holes, however. If Broyles had given the defensive coordinator job to Dick Bumpas instead of letting him fly off with Hatfield to Clemson, maybe 1990 would have turned out better than the 3-8 disaster it became. Crowe hired Joe Pate from North Carolina State as defensive coordinator, and Pate could recruit the southeast well. But the 1990 defense could not stop anyone; even 44 points weren’t enough to beat Texas Tech at home. TCU put up an unheard-of 54 points on the Hogs, though some of those were thanks to blocked punts (a continuing problem that would eventually lead to Danny Ford, amazingly enough, the guy Hatfield had replaced at Clemson, arriving as consultant to interim head coach Joe Kines in 1992, but more on that later). 

Arkansas had not lost like this in 28 years, or since Otis Douglas’ third and last year, 2-8 in 1952. 

Until Chad Morris went 2-10 last year, or 28 years after Jack Crowe’s debut, Arkansas hadn’t seen a year quite like 1990.

At least Crowe in his second year showed a modicum of success. Until scrappy quarterback Jason Allen’s knee was torn up in a 9-5 loss to Baylor in an icy homecoming game, the Hogs were even in contention for the Southwest Conference title. They’d beaten Texas 14-13 in Little Rock. They’d shocked preseason SWC favorite and Top 5 Houston 29-17 the week before beating Texas. They pulled an amazing win out at Fort Worth over TCU after trailing 21-0. Nothing was overly pretty or dominating about the Hogs’ play, but they were winning. Fans having endured that 1990 debacle were pleasantly surprised. Broyles secretly would have liked for Crowe to make it easy to fire him, but by beating Texas and making a bowl game (the Independence vs. Georgia, which the Hogs and walk-on quarterback Wade Hill gamely battled the Bulldogs and their future NFL stars before losing 24-15), Broyles had to hang on to Crowe.

Of course, everyone seems to recount The Citadel as the worst day in Hog football history, and that 1992 opening game loss gave Broyles his out to fire Crowe (few people know this, though, but it was Wilson Matthews who talked Broyles into it; Frank indeed saw the PR implications that would arise from canning a head coach after one game but went ahead, fearing the mass exodus of ticket buyers if he didn’t make a move).

Jack Crowe went several years into the 1990s fighting Broyles and the UA for all of his somewhat-paltry-by-today’s-standards buyout, then resurfaced with decent success as head coach at Jacksonville State in Alabama. What was hidden from view when he got the Arkansas job was his 5-15 mark as a head coach at Livingston State years before.

There’s nothing paltry about Razorback football coach Chad Morris’ buyout, however; if Morris is let go on or after Jan. 1, 2020, his buyout is $9.9 million; but Arkansas would be foolish to wait that long if the powers have decided to move on. Before that date, he’d get 70 percent of his current, remaining salary. However, with Morris struggling to show much improvement in year two, with a couple of recruits decommitting and a couple of players entering the transfer portal just halfway through this season, the vocal fans on message boards, radio talk shows and Twitter wonder if the beleaguered head coach will survive to year three.

Morris was just 14-22 in three seasons at SMU, but with an upward trajectory from a 2-10 start, which every local spin doctor tried to manipulate into some magic feat in Dallas when the Hogs hired him two years ago. Sonny Dykes, who followed Morris and is in his second year, now has the Mustangs unbeaten at 6-0, and NOT with a bunch of Morris recruits, but rather with his own college of transfers and signees. Dykes went 5-7 last year with Morris holdovers, then realized he had to upgrade quickly through the transfer market. That included former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele. Last year’s SMU quarterback, Ben Hicks, matriculated to Fayetteville to rejoin Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock. 

When Nick Starkel finished runner-up to Kellon Mond in Texas A&M’s spring practice, he too headed to Fayetteville, giving Morris and Craddock a couple of quarterbacking options. It’s been a merry-go-around, though. With the exception of Starkel’s impressive performance against Colorado State, whoever was given the starting nod has struggled. It’s a pattern that dates back to last season’s opener. For whatever reason, either through tightness or being over-coached, Morris’ starting choice has stumbled out of the gate, with only rare exceptions.

Meanwhile, Charleston’s Ty Storey, who never won a game as a Hog starting quarterback last season, left for Western Kentucky as a graduate transfer. Though unable to win the starting job in preseason, Storey eventually took over when the starter was lost via injury and has gone 3-0 in leading the Hilltoppers over the likes of Army and Alabama-Birmingham.

Western Kentucky’s visit to Fayetteville on Nov. 9 should be hugely important to both programs. Were Storey to engineer an upset over Morris’ Razorbacks that day, would Razorback Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek greet the Hog head coach at the dressing room door with the coach’s walking papers? Would all the fat-cat boosters who decided to pay Morris big-time money with a ridiculous buyout be willing to pay for him to go away?

A lost locker room, bailing recruits and transferring players (many who were promised immediate playing time, only to be rebuffed this fall as not ready) might make that decision easier for the moneyed guys who don’t want to see Razorback football fall further into the abyss.

It’s way different from Jack Crowe’s situation. Crowe was asked to get Arkansas up to SEC standards when Hatfield bolted, with the talent level having waned. Razorback football coach Crowe first tried to take a fast track but UA administrators stepped in to slow that, dismissing eight signees for alleged academic irregularities. Crowe wouldn’t even be around to enjoy the fruits of his outstanding 1992 signing class –  some as freshmen helped upset No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville, and three years later were the core of a SEC West Division title for Danny Ford. You remember Ford, who came on to help interim coach Joe Kines in 1992, then was promoted to the head spot by Broyles following that 3-win season. Ford, too, wasn’t fully able to enjoy the fruits of his labor, the SEC-quality recruiting classes of 1995-96 that helped Houston Nutt start out with a bang as head coach in 1998, winning nine games, the most at Arkansas in 10 years.

Razorback football coach Chad Morris had a much ballyhooed signing class this past year. His year two has so far been unlike Crowe’s, which at least showed improvement and hope for the fans. With a shocking home loss to lowly San Jose State, a disorganized night in a 31-17 loss at struggling Ole Miss, and last Saturday’s indecision about his own quarterback, coupled with yet another disastrous night for the defense going up against a wide receiver playing quarterback for Kentucky, leading to frustrating 24-20 defeat, it doesn’t bode well for Morris getting to enjoy the fruits of his brief labor of recruiting. 

He’s only got Auburn, Alabama and LSU coming up, Missouri at the end, and what ought to be a winnable game at home with Mississippi State on Nov. 2. But the Western Kentucky game may be the most important of all for his Hog coaching future.

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