Photographs by Andy Shupe
Arkansas football coach Chad Morris steps off a plane Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, at Drake Field in Fayetteville.
Thursday, December 7, 2017
FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has turned to a coach with deep Texas roots who is known for his high-scoring offenses to turn around its football program.
Chad Morris was hired Wednesday as head coach of a Razorbacks football team coming off a 4-8 season that led to declining home attendance and the firing of fifth-year coach Bret Bielema, who had a 29-34 record.
Morris, 49, flew to Fayetteville on Wednesday afternoon and met with the Razorbacks and football staff members shortly after. He will be formally introduced at a news conference at 10 a.m. today.
"All right, look forward to getting with y'all," Morris said while waving to a small contingent of media shortly after his arrival at Drake Field.
Asked how it felt to be in Arkansas, Morris said, "It's great. It's great. Go Hogs, man. We're excited."
Morris just completed his third season at Southern Methodist University, his first head coaching job, with a record of 7-5 and a berth in the Frisco Bowl against Louisiana Tech on Dec. 20. He had a 14-22 record at SMU, including an 8-16 mark in the American Athletic Conference.
New UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, hired Monday from his position as vice president of athletics at the University of Houston, grinned when asked about Morris after Yurachek's introductory news conference a couple of hours before Morris' hiring became official.
"If you just want me to in general talk about Chad Morris, when he took over the SMU program it was [1-11] ... at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference," Yurachek said. "I remember the day after Thanksgiving 2014, Houston played SMU and probably 1,000 people were in that stadium there.
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"Now that SMU program is going to a bowl game, and I think they're in the top 10 in the country in scoring offense. So I think it speaks volumes for what he's done at a tough place to build a program."
Morris signed an offer letter on a six-year contract with a salary of $3.5 million per year. The offer letter was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through a public-records request.
The offer includes incentives related to performance and academics that could total an additional $1.2 million per year. Morris also is eligible for three retention bonuses of $500,000, spaced two years apart beginning Feb. 15, 2019, if he remains employed by the university and the football program steers clear of major NCAA rules violations.
If UA fires Morris for convenience before Dec. 31, 2018, it would owe him $14.7 million. The figure drops to $12.25 million Dec. 31, 2019; $9.8 million at the end of 2020; $7.35 million the next year; $4.9 million at the end of 2022; and finally $3.5 million in the final year of the deal.
The Razorback Foundation -- the private, fundraising arm of the UA athletic program -- or another third-party guarantor would be responsible for the buyout payments, according to the offer.
UA also has agreed to pay SMU up to $2 million to buy out Morris' contract with that university. SMU is a private institution and not subject to open-records law.
Morris would owe UA $3 million if he left for convenience during the first two years of the contract. His buyout drops to $2.5 million on Jan. 1, 2020; $2 million on Jan. 1, 2021; $1.5 million on Jan. 1, 2022; and to nothing the following Jan. 1.
"The future is tremendously bright at the University of Arkansas with the addition of Chad Morris," Yurachek said in a news release confirming Morris' hiring. "I am confident that Chad will bring an exciting brand of football, phenomenal student athletes and championships to Fayetteville, and do it all with high integrity."
Morris' hiring completed a swift overhaul at the top of the UA athletics department and its key revenue producer, the football program.
Morris came aboard two days after Chancellor Joe Steinmetz appointed Yurachek as director of athletics after firing Jeff Long on Nov. 15, and 12 days after interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples fired Bielema on Nov. 24. Bielema's dismissal came minutes after the Razorbacks lost 48-45 to Missouri at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Attendance for Arkansas' six games at Reynolds Razorback Stadium dropped 2.6 percent from 2016 to an average of 67,752 tickets sold. The crowds for the Razorbacks' final three home games did not appear to exceed 45,000 in actual attendance.
Cromer Peoples and her advisers originally targeted Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn, but he turned down a lucrative offer from Arkansas to sign a seven-year deal with Auburn on Sunday that will top out with a salary in excess of $7 million.
Yurachek applauded Cromer Peoples for redirecting the search quickly to Morris.
UA officials began negotiations with Morris and his representatives Tuesday and completed the deal Wednesday. Morris informed his SMU team that he was resigning late Wednesday morning and arrived in Fayetteville around 3:15 p.m.
"My involvement in the search process for the football coach has really been being a resource to Julie as she's led this search," Yurachek said. "It's been 36 hours since I was officially hired as the director of athletics.
"It's hard for me to jump headfirst into a search. As the chancellor mentioned, Julie has done an unbelievable job with this search process, and really what I became for her was a resource during the last 36 hours."
Cromer Peoples declined an interview request with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after Yurachek's morning news conference.
"As we began our search for the next head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, Chad Morris was a name that quickly emerged as someone that would be an excellent choice for our program," Cromer Peoples said in the UA news release.
"Coach Morris aligns with the priorities we sought to find in our next head football coach including relentless work ethic and the ability to maintain good relationships within our state and beyond to attract the nation's top talent. Chad is demanding but still relatable to the student-athletes of this generation. He was identified by several closely connected with our program as someone that our state would embrace and would fit the fabric of our university and our program."
Morris' background parallels that of Malzahn.
Morris earned his stripes in Texas as a three-time state champion coach during 16 seasons at the high school level. He even flew his coaching staff to Arkansas to study Malzahn's offensive principles while Malzahn, a native of Irving, Texas, who claims Fort Smith as his hometown, was winning state championships at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High.
Morris was offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010 before moving to Clemson, where in four seasons as offensive coordinator he helped lead the Tigers to a 41-11 record, an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and four bowl berths. Clemson posted its top three scoring seasons in school history and four of its top five passing seasons during Morris' stint.
Morris is the 33rd head coach in the history of the football program and the third coach in Arkansas' modern era to come aboard with a losing record.
Ken Hatfield was hired after the 1983 season after a five-year stint at the Air Force Academy where he went 26-32-1. A former Arkansas player who was part of the Razorbacks' 1964 national championship season, Hatfield put together one of the Razorbacks' best multiyear runs with a 55-17-1 record in six seasons, the final two of which resulted in Southwest Conference championships in 1988 and 1989.
Hatfield left Arkansas for Clemson in January 1990 amid declining attendance that was linked to his triple-option offense. The Razorbacks promoted Hatfield's offensive coordinator, Jack Crowe, who had not been a head coach in more than a decade.
Crowe, who had gone 5-15 at Livingston College (now West Alabama), had a 9-15 record at Arkansas, including a loss to The Citadel in the 1992 season opener, the Razorbacks' first game as a member of the Southeastern Conference. He was fired a day later.
Morris, a native of Edgewood, Texas, attended Texas A&M and earned a degree in mathematics. He did not play college football.
Morris and his wife, Paula, have two children, a daughter Mackenzie and a son Chandler.
Information for this article was contributed by Matt Jones of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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