Clemson aide finally finds his niche
Chad Morris had always planned to quit coaching.
During his years as a high school football and basketball coach, he had taken the exams to be an actuary. He also had taken tests to work for the FBI and DEA and to be a firefighter.
Every time Morris got close to taking another job, however, his players told him the same thing, “Coach, you can’t leave us.”
But for the first time in Morris’ coaching career, he wasn’t hearing those words in 2003 after he failed to lead tradition-rich Stephenville (Texas) High School to the playoffs in his inaugural season. It was the first time the Yellow Jackets had missed the postseason in 15 years.
Disappointed fans in the football-crazed Texas town put “For Sale” signs in his family’s front yard. He and his wife, Paula, were purposely not invited to some Christmas parties.
The worst was when a student in the sixth-grade class his wife taught wore a T-shirt with “Morris” inscribed in a circle and a line drawn through it.
Morris was already miserable enough. Each day after work, he was coming home and just lying on the couch.
He was so distraught he made the rest of his family unhappy. But he was heartbroken the day his wife came home upset about the T-shirt.
“It was pretty much the lowest point of my career,” Morris says.
One night, though, Paula had enough of her husband’s moping and gave him two options.
“Look, you’re going to have to get up off that couch and figure out how to fix this thing and quit feeling sorry for yourself or get out of the profession,” Morris recalls being told. “Go be a fireman, go sell cars or whatever you want. But you’re not going to make us miserable anymore.”
Morris was inspired by his wife’s words. He knew one of his predecessors at Stephenville High, the legendary Art Briles, had been successful because he was an innovator.
“I knew that there was a bigger and better mousetrap out there,” Morris says. “I just had to go find it.”
Shortly thereafter, Morris’ college roommate called to tell him about a then-high school coach in Northwest Arkansas, Gus Malzahn, who was running a two-minute offense for entire games. Morris sought out Malzahn to learn from him — and the decision forever changed Morris’ life.
Because nine years after nearly giving up on the sport he loves, Morris is one of college football’s hottest names — despite being just 21 months removed from high school football.
Now Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Morris has the No. 8 Tigers (6-0, 3-0 ACC) off to their best start in 11 years entering their game Saturday at Maryland (2-3, 1-1). He has made them perhaps this season’s biggest surprise with their fast-paced, spread attack that has a goal of running 80 plays per game, one that he learned from his mentor, Malzahn, now Auburn’s offensive coordinator.
Under Morris’ tutelage, dual-threat Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd has finally lived up to the hype he brought with him to campus. In his first year as a starter, the redshirt sophomore has thrown for 1,742 yards and 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
“He’s definitely been amazing,” Boyd says of Morris.
There’s even optimism among Clemson fans this season that Morris, 42, can match Malzahn’s accomplishments of coaching a Heisman Trophy winner and winning a national championship.
“He’s one of those rising stars,” Malzahn says of Morris, who had a 169-38 record as a high school coach. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s got everything it takes to be a big-time college coach.”
Morris’ vagabond journey to college football’s bright lights started off in the small time. He attended high school in rural Edgewood, Texas, which is 60 miles east of Dallas and has a population of about 1,350.
There were 36 students in Morris’ graduating class at Edgewood High School, and he was the school’s starting quarterback all four years in a run-heavy I-formation offense.
At the time, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and quarterback Danny White had started using the shotgun snap. Before practice, Morris and his teammates used to work on the shotgun in hopes their coach would let them try it in a game, but he wouldn’t.
When Morris graduated in 1987, he accepted a scholarship to Texas A&M University-Commerce but decided after two-a-day practices he didn’t want to play football anymore and quit before the season started.
Morris transferred to Texas A&M because he had grown up always wanting to be an Aggie. He considered becoming a student assistant for the football team, but his passion was high school football.
On Friday nights in college, he and his friends attended high school football games.
“I loved my Friday night football,” Morris says.
When Morris graduated from Texas A&M in 1992 with a degree in math and a minor in statistics, he planned to be a businessman. He started taking a series of 10 exams to become an actuary.
After passing the first two, he proposed to his wife, who was finishing college. To earn money for the couple while he continued to take the actuary tests, Morris figured he could get a job teaching math and coaching high school football.
But once his wife graduated, the couple’s plan was for him to focus solely on the business world.
“We were going to move on,” Morris says.
To get his first coaching job, Morris sent out résumés to high schools. He had several job offers, but all but one was to coach junior high football.
That job was in Eustace, Texas, a one-stoplight town of about 800 nearly 60 miles southeast of Dallas. He took a position as a math teacher at Eustace High School and coaching the varsity’s quarterbacks and running backs.
The deal also included him serving as an assistant for the basketball and baseball teams — all for an annual salary of $21,975.
After Morris’ first year, he was promoted to Eustace High’s head basketball coach. His motto for coaching basketball was 94/32 — representing the length of the court and the minutes in a game.
Hank Carter, who played basketball and football for Morris at Eustace High, recalls that Morris didn’t know much about basketball when he started coaching it. He remembers Morris always reading basketball books and taking meticulous notes.
Carter says Morris styled his team’s play after Loyola Marymount University’s fast-break style and his goal was to get a shot up every seven seconds.
“It was run-and-gun and press all the time,” says Morris, who compiled a career record of 128-32 in high school basketball.
It was while at Eustace High that Morris explored being a fireman, FBI agent or DEA agent. But after a few years, he became Eustace High’s head football coach — but only on the condition that he also be athletic director and remain head basketball coach.
On the move
Morris took a gamble in 1998 when he left to become athletic director and football coach in Elysian Fields, Texas. The pine tree-lined community near the Texas-Louisiana border is so tiny it isn’t recognized by the US Census Bureau.
Morris led Elysian Fields High School to two straight state championship games but lost both. After the defeats, he left for Bay City, Texas, a town of nearly 19,000 about an hour southwest of Houston, where he won his first state championship in 2000.
The next season, Morris and Bay City High School once again played for the state championship but lost. With his teams making state championship appearances four straight years, his daughter, Mackenzie, had gotten used to her father being busy with football until Christmas.
It got to the point that she used to ask him, “Dad, how many more football games until Santa Claus comes?”
When Morris took over at Stephenville High in 2003, Briles had been coaching in college for several years but still cast a daunting shadow.
It was a dream job for Morris, though one packed with pressure. Stephenville High had won four state championships under Briles, now the head coach at Baylor.
“He was basically a god in that town,” Morris says of Briles.
Briles’ legend affected Morris’ decisions his first season at Stephenville High. To appease the locals, he tried to keep the offense similar to Briles’ and even kept some of the same terminology.
“Art would do it this way,” Morris recalls Stephenville Athletic Booster Club members telling him. “Art would do it that way.”
It didn’t work for Morris, and his team went 6-4, ending Stephenville’s playoff streak.
Time to try something new
It was after Morris’ disappointing first season that he heard about Malzahn’s success at Springdale (Ark.) High School using a no-huddle, spread offense. Morris always had run an I-formation offense with some shotgun and option, but he was attracted to the uniqueness of Malzahn’s attack.
“It was definitely putting stress on defenses,” Morris says.
Morris first called Malzahn, whose team at the time was in the playoffs, about visiting him. When Morris got in touch with Malzahn, he mispronounced his name and tried to explain who he was.
“You don’t know me, but I’m Chad Morris from Stephenville, Texas,” Morris began.
The conversation was brief, but at the end, Malzahn told Morris to call back in January. Morris, though, knew Malzahn’s team was playing for the state championship that week in Little Rock, Ark.
So he and his offensive staff flew there to watch Malzahn’s team in action. Springdale High won, and after the game, Morris introduced himself to Malzahn.
But Malzahn thought Morris was an Arkansas high school coach trying to steal his offense. To prove Malzahn wrong, Morris and his offensive staff visited him at Springdale High.
Morris and his staff spent four days learning Malzahn’s offense. During those sessions, Malzahn recalls Morris asking questions like if a wide receiver’s route was supposed to be 10 or 10-1/2 yards.
“That attracted me to him early,” Malzahn says. “The attention to detail and the preciseness.”
When Morris and his staff headed home, he told them at the airport they had to make a decision about Malzahn’s offense.
“If we’re going to do this, we all need to be all in and let’s do it,” Morris recalls telling them. “We also need to understand that if it doesn’t work out, we’re going to get fired.”
Morris and his staff committed to Malzahn’s offense. In the first season running it, Stephenville High had a 10-1 record and the second-best offense in Texas.
After the season, Morris and his staff returned to visit Malzahn and share ideas, a tradition the two have continued every year since, even in the college ranks.
Taking it to another level
Over the next four years, Morris had a 43-6 record at Stephenville. But after his 10-2 record in 2007, an insurance salesman circulated a petition to fire Morris. The man never had met or talked with Morris; his rationale for seeking Morris’ firing was that he didn’t call plays like Briles.
Tired of the comparisons, Morris took a job as coach of affluent Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, in 2008. The school had won a state championship the previous season, but having learned from his first-year struggles in Stephenville, Morris implemented his offense immediately.
In his two seasons at Lake Travis High, he went 32-0, won state two championships and shattered national offensive records with star quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who later signed with Texas.
After his first state championship at Lake Travis High, Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman called Morris and invited him to teach the Aggies’ staff about the tempo of his offense. The next season, Texas A&M went from 10th in the Big 12 in total offense to second with a faster-paced attack.
Just before Morris won his second state championship at Lake Travis High, Tulsa coach Todd Graham visited him. Malzahn had been Graham’s offensive coordinator and was leaving for Auburn but recommended that Morris be his successor.
Graham, a former Texas high school coach, knew Morris. He and his staff also had visited Malzahn in Tulsa for their annual meeting earlier that year.
“I liked that Chad could teach,” Graham says. “He was used to teaching five sections of mathematics.”
Morris didn’t want to leave Lake Travis High. He thought it was the nation’s best high school job and liked making a difference in the lives of his players.
But he was most concerned about his two children. Because of the amount of time Morris would have to devote as a college offensive coordinator, he wanted to ensure he was paid enough that his wife no longer would have to work as a teacher and could focus on the couple’s children.
Graham offered Morris a job and told him to win a state championship. Graham also told Morris he couldn’t say no until he visited Tulsa.
When Morris visited Tulsa with his family, Graham did his best to convince to him to leave Lake Travis High.
“Chad, you’ll make a bigger difference in kids’ lives at the college level because their parents aren’t there,” Morris recalls Graham telling him. “I promise you too that your wife won’t have to work and I’ll make sure your kids are involved. What more can you do at the high school level that hadn’t already been done? Chase your dream, Chad. Chase this dream.”
Finally, after rejecting Graham three times, Morris accepted the job as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator and associate head coach in January 2010.
“Chad turned me down more than my wife,” says Graham, recalling that his wife twice turned down his wedding proposals before agreeing to marry him.
When Morris put in his offense at Tulsa, Graham had his coaches teach the different installations to one another and videotaped them for their players to watch. But Morris wasn’t comfortable doing that and instead taped his installations alone in his office.
“He was extremely nervous,” Graham says.
Morris was afraid of letting down Graham and also adjusting to not being in charge for the first time in years. But Graham understood Morris’ anxiety.
He had felt the same way nearly a decade earlier when he left as coach of Allen (Texas) High School to become an assistant for then-West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.
“These kids are just like the 17-, 18-year-olds you’ve been coaching,” Graham recalls telling Morris. “They know if you care. They know if you are organized. I’m telling you, you can do this thing.”
Morris was still nervous entering Tulsa’s season opener at East Carolina last season, his first game as a college coach. The contest was a back-and-forth shootout the Golden Hurricane eventually lost 51-49 when the Pirates threw a touchdown pass as time expired.
Tulsa’s loss was Morris’ first in more than two years. The next week, the Golden Hurricane lost again.
With Morris dejected, his wife did her best to console him.
“If this isn’t what you thought it was going to be, then we will go back to Texas and you will get a job,” Paula Morris recalls telling her husband. “We’ll go back to the way it was when we were happy.”
“I know,” Morris replied. “I know.”
Tulsa lost only one more game the rest of the season, mainly because of Morris’ explosive offense.
More change on the horizon?
Meanwhile, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was floundering in his second full season. His team lost four of its last six games to finish with a 6-7 record, the Tigers’ first losing season in 12 years.
Before Clemson even lost in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last year on New Year’s Eve, Swinney planned to fire offensive coordinator Billy Napier, whose unit ranked around the bottom one-third of the Football Bowl Subdivision in most categories.
Swinney insists he wasn’t worried about his job but acknowledged there was “outside pressure.”
Before Swinney started his search, he made a list of the characteristics he was seeking in an offensive coordinator:
• Fast tempo
• Be able to spread the field and attack
• Involve Boyd
• Have the threat of option
• A lot of misdirection and play action
But Swinney also didn’t want to deviate from his core value of running the football.
With all that in mind, Swinney came up with a list of 15 candidates that included Morris.
Swinney didn’t know Morris, but when he looked at Tulsa’s offense last season, he liked that it was among the FBS’ top 15 in both rushing and passing.
“That is really, really hard to do,” Swinney says. “That’s the kind of balance I would love to have.”
Every time Swinney eliminated names from his list, the more he kept thinking about Morris.
Before Tulsa played in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, Swinney called Morris.
Swinney liked Morris’ background in high school football and thought it would be an asset for his young team, which this season has a combined 44 true freshmen and redshirt freshmen.
“Having spent almost his entire career in high school, a freshman in college was an old player to him,” Swinney said. “It was a young player to me. That intrigued me.”
During their conversation before each other’s bowl games, Swinney and Morris hit it off.
“It was almost like he’s a brother I’ve known my whole life,” Swinney says.
Swinney was thorough in his research on Morris. He talked several times with Malzahn, who was busy preparing for his team’s matchup against Oregon in the BCS title game.
Swinney also talked with Sherman and Texas coach Mack Brown about Morris. He even called parents of players Morris had coached.
“He will be a great fit for you and Clemson,” Swinney recalls Brown telling him. “He’s an outstanding coach. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
When Morris interviewed at Clemson, Swinney had Boyd sit in on it. After two years as an understudy, the highly touted quarterback finally was going to get his chance as a starter in 2011.
“He was a huge factor,” Swinney says of Boyd. “One of the main reasons I made the decision I did was because of Tajh. I knew what skill set he had and I felt like he could really thrive under Chad by having the ball in his hands running and passing. I just really thought that would make us an explosive offense.”
Swinney thought Boyd was apprehensive about Morris at first. But Boyd insists he wasn’t.
He recalls noticing that as Morris talked about his offense, the emotional Swinney got increasingly excited.
“Yeah, man!” Boyd recalls Swinney saying. “I love it!”
Before Swinney hired Morris, several well-known head coaches called him on behalf of other candidates. They told Swinney he would be making “the worst mistake of his life” if he didn’t hire their candidates.
All along, Swinney had been praying about whom he should hire as his new offensive coordinator.
“The good Lord was pointing me to Chad Morris,” Swinney says.
But Swinney was prepared for the backlash of hiring Morris. He knew it wouldn’t be a popular decision to bring in someone with less than a year of experience coaching college football.
“People were looking at me like, ‘He’s really lost his mind now,’ ” Swinney says. “I really didn’t care. I was sold on him.”
Since being approached by Swinney, Morris had been seeking counsel from Malzahn. Because of Malzahn’s preparation for the BCS title game, sometimes the two wouldn’t talk until 1:30 a.m.
“I wanted to make sure I was going to have complete control of the offense,” Morris says. “That was a big concern of mine.”
When Morris got that assurance from Swinney, he took the job. He interviewed for the Tulsa job when Graham left for Pittsburgh but kept his word to Swinney.
When Boyd tried to learn Morris’ offense this past spring, the quarterback struggled immensely. So much that Morris wasn’t sure if Boyd would be his starter.
Morris felt Boyd was trying to memorize the offense instead of learning it. After spring practices were over, Morris had a frank talk with his quarterback.
“Look, this is a pivotal time in your career,” Morris recalls telling Boyd. “If playing is important to you, you’re going to listen to what I’m telling you. You better learn the offense and not memorize it. Just memorizing is only going to get you so far.”
Boyd listened, and though he’s still learning, Clemson became the first team in ACC history to beat three teams in a row that were ranked in both The Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls during its undefeated start this season.
And back in Stephenville, Morris’ critics aren’t as vocal as they used to be, Stephenville Athletic Booster Club president Robert Lemons says.
“Those people aren’t saying much of anything at this time,” Lemons says. “They just don’t want to remember they had bad things to say back in the day.”
But Morris still remembers and won’t ever forget. And, now, he’s finally sure of his career plans.
He wants to be a head college football coach.