Morris hoping to rebuild relationships, not just the football program at SMU

New SMU head football coach Chad Morris

LM Otero/AP

New SMU football coach Chad Morris gets it.

His introductory press conference Monday was filled with all the typical rah-rah that comes with hiring a new coach. He said all the usual stuff about changing the culture and installing an exciting offense.

What Morris also said is that before you can repair a football program, you have to repair the relationships around it. That’s how he gets it.

Having grown up in East Texas attending SMU games on FCA days, he knows the history of the SMU program, both good and bad. He was a high school head coach in the state for 16 years, so he’s heard all the complaints coaches and players have had about SMU.

Yet he also knows what an opportunity SMU is. It’s a school sitting on top of a recruiting hotbed with the financial muscle – Morris will be paid anywhere from $2 million to $3 million a year, according to sourced reports – to give him whatever he needs.

But he also knows that merely fixing the team won’t fix everything. That’s something his predecessor, June Jones, never understood. Jones took SMU to four straight bowl games. Two years after that impressive streak, what’s left of the program Jones abandoned two games into the season is 0-11 with one game to go.

So when Morris, a highly regarded offensive coordinator at Clemson, was considering the SMU job, he knew it was a bigger task than most rebuilding jobs.

"I knew also that it was going to take more than just Chad Morris," he said to a packed room in the SMU student center. "It’s going to take the right fit, not from just a coach but the right fit from an administration, from the board and from the alumni, from our student body, which is so important in this turnaround process. We’ve got to involve our student body."

Over and over, Morris talked about bringing a spirit of inclusiveness to the program. He talked about his strong ties to high school coaches. He named several former players who had grumbled publicly about the state of the program and said they would all be welcome.

Jones, rather than engaging SMU’s fans, took every opportunity to bring Hawaii to the Hilltop. He wore a lei on the sideline during games, and preferred to wear black instead of the school colors. He tried to de-emphasize the school’s beloved pony mascot, Peruna, by bringing in two full-sized horses to stand in the end zone during games.

That’s why Morris, and Edgewood native and Texas A&M grad, won over the crowd Monday with one of his first comments about coming back to Texas.

"What great opportunity, to land in Dallas last night and I got to eat a Whataburger right off the plane," Morris said. "Life doesn’t get much better than that, let me tell you."

Because of a disconnect with the football program that started back in Death Penalty era, Jones seemed to encourage an "us against the school" mentality in his players.

It didn’t help that after Jones earned the signature win of his era, an upset of TCU in 2011 in Fort Worth, the Mustangs drew a sparse crowd for their next home game against UCF.

Jones didn’t understand that it takes time to undo decades of irrelevance, especially in an oversaturated Dallas sports market.

It also takes building relationships, something Larry Brown, SMU’s successful basketball coach, understands. The run Brown’s basketball team made in the NIT last season showed SMU how athletics can bond, rather than divide, a campus.

"We’ve got to have great players, but our student body and our faculty, it’s one," Morris said Monday. "We’re together in this. It’s not our own separate entity, we’re together in this process. We’ve got to lock arms and we’ve got to all move in the right direction and in the same direction."

Morris has a right to be as egotistic about his prolific offense as any coach, but he doesn’t claim to have all the answers in a playbook.

"We’re going to ask and we’re going to lean on a lot of people to get this done," Morris said.

He will lean on the fraternity of Texas high school coaches to get things fixed on the field. Morris said over and over "I am a Texas high school football coach."

High school coaches and SMU fans grew frustrated with Jones’ reluctance to recruit the state, relying instead on transfers and players sent his way from contacts around the country. That model worked for a while, but wasn’t conducive to the sustained success Jones was hired to build.

That’s why a cheer went up when Morris said he has recruiting visits lined up starting Tuesday.

"There’s some great players right here…Within a quarter of a tank of gas drive, you can get all you want," said Morris, who will quickly be joined by members of his new staff.

"I’ve got one guy in the air right now, he should be landing soon. I’ll have two more on the ground tonight. We’ll hit the ground running. The wheels aren’t going to stop on their cars."

Because of SMU’s unique situation, when Morris talks about bringing a culture change – as all new coaches do nowadays – he means both inside and outside the football program. It’s not just the team that has to change, but everyone else’s perception of it.

That’s where Morris’ extensive experience as a high school coach riding yellow dog school buses and attending Coaching School every summer will serve him well.

"I think that Texas high school football coaches do it the right way, I think that they have to do it all," Morris said. "They get it. They understand that you have to build relationships, and that’s what it’s all about."

People, not playbooks.   

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire

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