Welcome to the 2019 edition of the Arkansas football coaching search, not to be confused with the 2017 edition. This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the Arkansas coaching search. Tomorrow, we will evaluate the candidates.
The Hogs are back in the market after less than two seasons. The call had to be made. Chad Morris finishes 4-18 in two seasons, 0-14 in the SEC, and 2-4 against Group of 5 teams. He is, without a doubt, the worst coach in Arkansas football history. He has a case to be called the worst coach ever hired by a Power 5 team.
Here are the worst Power 5 coaches since 1996, by win percentage:
- 1. Ted Roof, Duke (6-45, 12%)
- 2. David Beaty, Kansas (6-42, 13%)
- 3. Carl Franks, Duke (7-45, 14%)
- 4. Jon Embree, Colorado (4-21, 16%)
- 5. Paul Wulff, Washington State (9-40, 18%)
- 6. Dave Roberts, Baylor (4-18, 18%)
- 6(t). Chad Morris, Arkansas (4-18, 18%)
Arkansas is by far the best program of any of them. Had Morris been allowed to finish the season and go 4-20, he would have passed Roberts and Wulff.
How’d We Get into This Mess?
Arkansas has now wasted so much money that the program literally cannot afford to screw this hire up. Let’s review how we got here.
- The stadium expansion. Although it looks nice, it was totally unnecessary and represents a colossal waste of resources. It probably didn’t help Jeff Long’s case to push this through.
- Bret Bielema’s extension. Never forget that Long gave a raise and extension to a coach who was 2-14 in the SEC. This ended up backfiring spectacularly as Bielema never got things rolling. Faced with an unnecessarily-large buyout, the Board of Trustees decided to fire the guy responsible for that contract before showing Bielema the door.
- A chaotic, rudderless coaching search eventually settled on Morris, who had a 14-22 career record but also had a son who played with Jerry Jones’ grandson. Morris had some of the qualifications that Arkansas was looking for, but record was not among them.
- Morris turned out to be a spectacularly bad hire. He’s now been fired less than two years into his tenure, meaning that Arkansas is now paying yet another buyout.
A whole lot of bad decisions have come back to bite Arkansas. There’s one decision that hasn’t proven to be bad: the hiring of Hunter Yurachek as athletic director. Now it’s time to put that one to the test. Hunter, what’ve you got?
Why Chad Morris Failed
A lot of things had to go wrong for Morris to fail so spectacularly. Let’s take a look at them so the Hogs don’t make the same mistake twice.
#1 – The early signing period
The new December signing period really hurts first-year coaches. Morris was barely on campus by the time he had to convince several prospects not to sign early with other schools. His first class ended up being almost a total wash. Receiver Mike Woods, one of the purely Morris recruits, has been good. Rakeem Boyd, another Morris recruit, has been great. Jarquez McClellion has been a two-year starter at cornerback. But most of this class either hasn’t contributed or has been bad. That meant Morris started out in a tough spot.
#2 – Failure to improve the offensive line
Morris was dealt a bad hand as former offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, who torpedoed the Bielema era, left behind a ragtag group of linemen that was probably the worst in the conference. Failure to recruit better players (see #1) meant that Arkansas’ offensive line has remained bad for two years. If your line is bad, it’s hard to do much of anything. That’s part of the reason Morris’ offense never got going.
Things weren’t about to get better: the top in-state lineman, Conway’s Robert Scott, is an Ole Miss verbal commit as of this writing.
#3 – Bad offensive assistants
Morris got the ol’ Clemson gang back together after taking the Arkansas job. That should have been a red flag. Joe Craddock, Dustin Fry, and Justin Stepp had zero SEC qualifications. You can probably get away with a subpar receivers coach as long as he’s a good recruiter (and Stepp definitely is), but you cannot survive a bad offensive coordinator or offensive line coach.
The offensive line coach part should be obvious. Offensive line is all about technique. Your offensive line coach has to be intense and have fantastic attention to detail. Every little movement by a lineman can make or break a play.
As for offensive coordinators, they should be another “voice in the room” for the head coach. They should have a track record of coaching quarterbacks (what was Craddock’s track record?) and they should bring their own unique set of experiences to help give some perspective to an offensive-minded head coach’s thinking. Sometimes, they should disagree with the coach. “Yes-man” offensive coordinators like Paul Petrino or Craddock are very risky because they ensure that the entire offense is run based on the purported genius of one man: in Petrino’s case, it worked. In Morris’ case, it didn’t. Bad offensive assistants hurt in the development of a quarterback capable of running the offense.
#4 – No attention to detail
Compare the way Morris talks about football to the way basketball coach Eric Musselman talks about basketball. Notice any difference? Muss is a basketball junkie. He eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. He’s adept to the latest trends and mindful of the smallest thing his players are doing.
I never saw that with Morris. One of the problems with the “I’m really a high school coach at heart!” aura that Morris gave off is that…. well, sometimes it’s true. Morris didn’t conduct himself like a professional. Many of his coaches didn’t conduct themselves like professionals. They acted like rah-rah guys who were blissfully unaware that Nick Starkel’s footwork is a disaster and Boyd is tipping plays based on his alignment and the left guard keeps looking at the wrong defender so he can’t pick up the blitz. I watched the sideline during the Western Kentucky game: on multiple occasions, a banged-up Treylon Burks limped over the sideline. Not once did a coach or anyone more up the hierarchy than the water girl come to talk to him. Arkansas’ quarterbacks – even the starters – tend to mill around on the sideline, talking to no one, when the defensive is on the field. What kind of sideline is that?
#5 – Fear
Morris exhibited a total lack of faith in his players from the very beginning of his time in Fayetteville. His decision to punt on 4th-and-1 from midfield against Colorado State defined him. Despite the stupid “left lane, hammer down” slogans, Morris coached terrified. He punted when he should have gone for it, he tried to run out the clock the second he took the lead, he played the absolute most conservative option at quarterback every single week. He would always wait about one or two drives too late to make a quarterback change. Every. Single. Time. He was scared because he was in over his head.
His absolute terror of making a decision drove him to not only make bad decisions, but also to defend them by insulting his players’ intelligence and throwing his own players under the bus. The social media reactions of current players to his firing suggest that he had not endeared himself to them. Arkansas lost by 26 to Western Kentucky because in the end, his own players weren’t motivated to play hard enough to save him.
#6 – Inability to fix the defense
Arkansas’ defense was bad when Morris arrived, but he somehow is leaving it even worse. The hiring of John Chavis made a lot of sense, but Chavis seems to have mailed it in this year.
In Chavis’/Morris’ first year, the defense was very bend-don’t-break. It was awful on first down and gave out yards like candy, but it didn’t give up big plays and was above-average on third down, allowing it to get off the field against offenses that shot themselves in the feet. But in his second year, although the Hogs still limited big plays, the third-down defense collapsed to among the worst in the nation. That ended the whole bend-don’t-break approach, and even a havoc-inducing defensive line couldn’t save a disastrous back seven.
Part of Arkansas’ problem is talent, which is an issue that pre-dates Morris and will take several years to fix. The linebackers are too slow, which is a huge problem. But part of it is defensive players who simply look confused. Western Kentucky’s long touchdown pass came on a totally busted coverage. The Hog defense busted several coverages a game. Was the scheme too complicated? Were the players not getting enough coaching during practice? Was the staff not prepared for what the opponent was doing?
#7 – Plays over players
One of the reasons Arkansas couldn’t go hurry-up on offense is that the Hogs shuffled personnel on basically every snap. I’ve never seen a group of receivers shuffled in and out so often. The way Morris and Craddock talked in press conference — and, more importantly, the way they coached in the games — suggests that they emphasized the brilliance of their scheme over the simple idea that you should try to get the ball to your best players. Bobby Petrino’s mantra was “feed the studs”... Morris’ seemed to be more similar to Charlie Weis claiming that his team had a “decided schematic advantage.” See the difference?
Arkansas is not in a position to emphasize X’s and O’s over Jimmys and Joes. The Hogs need to feed the studs they have. At halftime of the Western Kentucky game, Rakeem Boyd had three carries for 82 yards. Three carries. I get that Boyd isn’t super durable, but he’s more durable than that. How did you not start your weekly gameplanning with “How can we get Rakeem Boyd in space as often as possible?” Maybe that explains the total lack of sideline communication I discussed in #5. Arkansas football games were just Morris and his play sheet, staring down SEC defenses. No wonder it didn’t work.
What Morris did well: recruiting
Morris missed on some high-value targets, but he brought in a strong group of receivers and defensive players, particularly during his second class. The staff were relentless recruiters, which worked to the Hogs’ benefit. But recruiting means little if you can’t actually turn potential into production.
What Hunter Yurachek Is Looking For
Yurachek has some interesting hires during his career. At Coastal Carolina, he hired a CEO, Joe Moglia, to coach the Chanticleers football team. Moglia turned out to be a really good hire. At Houston, he reportedly tried to hire Lane Kiffin before he was overruled and forced to hire Major Applewhite, who was bad.
At Arkansas, he’s hired Musselman and gymnastics coach Jordyn Wieber.
Let’s take a look at some things to look for:
- Professional experience. Both Musselman and Wieber bring experience from the highest levels of their sport. While Morris was a high school-oriented coach, Arkansas needs an NFL-oriented coach. With systematic changes to way the NCAA operates coming up the pipeline, a shift to a professional approach would benefit Arkansas greatly. We’ve already seen schools like LSU hire NFL assistants and benefit immediately. Keep an eye on Kiffin, Matt Rhule, or any current NFL coach or assistant who could be fired or be willing to jump.
- A clear plan. “What’s your plan to win at Arkansas?” should be a question asked to every candidate. Arkansas has unique challenges due to its geographic location and position in the SEC West. Chad Morris wanted to turn Arkansas into Clemson. Bret Bielema wanted to turn Arkansas into Wisconsin. The next coach needs to turn Arkansas into Arkansas.
- Emphasis on what works. I actually thought the hire of Chad Morris was on the right track here. He just wasn’t the right guy to do it. Any successful scheme at Arkansas should emphasize speed at the skill positions and tight ends. It cannot be too dependent on the offensive line, defensive line, or linebackers. That’s tough. But it’s doable. Coaches like Mike Norvell or Eli Drinkwitz are fits here.
- Attention to detail. Arkansas has to maximize all the talent it has. The new coach has to be adept to current trends in football and able to identify and correct even the smallest mistakes. He has to run an organized sideline. He has to optimize practice time. He can’t waste his talent.
We discussed what Arkansas needs to do on offense to win during the 2017 coaching search:
I write all of that say this: demographics matter! Geography always wins. The only scheme that will win at Arkansas is the one that relies heaviest on players that can be obtained through Arkansas’ traditional recruiting pipelines. It’s tempting to suggest “let’s just go hire an ace recruiter, then we can get whoever we want!” Don’t fall victim to this temptation. That simply isn’t how it works.
Those players are speedy skill position players like Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Treylon Burks, Dennis Johnson, and many others. Tight ends like Hunter Henry, C.J. O’Grady, Chris Gragg, and Jeremy Sprinkle are also common. The state produces its fair share of quarterbacks, mostly pro-style passers, although high-level five-star recruits are really rare.
It does not produce many offensive linemen, power running backs, or physical possession receivers. Overall, enough offensive talent is accessible that there’s no excuse to not have a competent offense in Fayetteville.
It’s a different story on defense. The state does produce some good 4-3 defensive ends like Jamaal Anderson and Antwain Robinson. It produces some speedy defensive backs, although playmaking safeties are really rare. Linebackers are almost non-existent. Bielema really got lucky to get Martrell Spaight and Dre Greenlaw as close together as he did. The Hogs generally have to venture into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to get quality defensive tackles and linebackers, which means they are usually getting guys who slip through the cracks at the SEC programs in those states.
Overall, building a defense with players from Arkansas’ footprint is really tough. It doomed Bielema, and it didn’t help Morris.
Tomorrow, we will evaluate more than a dozen potential candidates based on the criteria we’ve laid out here. The Hogs really have to get this hire right. The margin for error is almost zero.