The last time we checked in with Chad Morris, a name that shall forever live in Razorback infamy, he had just put the hammer down on his boss Gus Malzahn’s career at Auburn.
Within weeks, Morris got fired too. At Auburn, he had lasted just a little more than half the time he got during his 23-month tenure as Arkansas’ head coach.
Lots of Arkansas fans would love to see Morris immediately go back to coaching high school ball.
They feel used and abused after he came in promising great things, but walked away with a severance of more than $10 million after achieving an overall record of 4-18.
Still, it’s unreasonable to think the 52-year-old one-time offensive innovator won’t land somewhere. The coaching fraternity is small and longtime relationships matter.
Morris, who has a decades-long friendship with Gus Malzahn, has already played one of his buddy cards when he got Auburn’s offensive coordinator position shortly after Razorbacks athletic director Hunter Yurachek showed him the road.
But Morris still has at least one card left to play: the Clemson connection.
Ah yes, those other Tigers. The place where the Legend of Morris the Offensive Genius began flourishing on a national scale all those years ago.
From 2011 to 2014, Morris served as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Clemson, helping turn around a team that had gone 6–7 in 2010 under head coach Dabo Swinney.
Former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips, younger brother of Razorback great Lloyd Phillips, said he had seen something special in Swinney and promoted him to the head coaching position, though many felt Swinney was unprepared. Phillips kept the faith when things looked bleak, signed off on hiring Morris, then a relatively unknown offensive coordinator out of Tulsa.
“I had no qualms going with Chad, even though his work at the college level was minimal,” Phillips later recalled. “But his high school record was pretty spectacular in what he accomplished in the state of Texas, and he came in here and he changed the paradigm on what we did offensively.”
Under Morris’ jittery, Red Bull-fueled hands, he masterminded a fast-tempo, spread offense that brought Clemson back to national prominence. It went 42–11 in his years there.
Head coach Dabo Swinney loved him, and Morris loved him back.
Indeed, at the end of the 2011 season, Clemson gave Morris a six-year contract worth $1.3 annually. He tied Malzahn, then Auburn’s offensive coordinator, as the highest-paid assistant in the nation.
In later years, at Arkansas, Morris would try to play up those Clemson years and make the case he was modeling the Hogs’ program off what Swinney had done.
To be fair, the programs shared some similarities, as I pointed out. They included:
- Both Swinney and Morris were non-native, Southern head coaches
- Both Swinney and Morris had developed recruiting pipelines to big states next door (Georgia, Texas)
Originally, “Morris had enough of those Swinney qualities with his energy, his media skills and his positive coaching style to make it seem like Arkansas was getting Costco Dabo — close enough to the name brand that a slight drop-off in quality was barely noticeable,” USA Today columnist Dan Wolken wrote.
Turns out, it was more like Kwik-E-Mart Dabo.
All the talk about improvement happening within the program that was invisible to the outside world in the 2019 season proved to be talk only. It was one of the most embarrassing “The Emperor’s New Clothes” moments in SEC coaching history.
Perhaps, though, those Clemson ties haven’t been tapped out yet.
While Morris was at Clemson, one of the young rising assistants under him was running backs coach Tony Elliott.
Since Morris left, Elliott has been promoted to co-offensive coordinator with Jeff Scott and now sole offensive coordinator. Under his watch, Clemson has won two national titles and produced the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft in Trevor Lawrence. His 2018 and 2019 produced back to back 650 point seasons — the first school to achieve that since Yale in 1888-89.
Tony Elliott is destined for a head coaching job one day. Tennessee could be his first.
A few insiders, such as Mike Farrell of Rivals.com, have reported Tennessee wants to hire Elliott to replace the fired Jeremy Pruitt and that the job is his if he wants it.
To what extent Elliott is an actual frontrunner is hard to parse given the nature of the modern college football hiring process and its outsourcing to third-party companies. If new Volunteers athletic director Danny White wants a proven, steady hand at the wheel to help Tennessee revive its reputation in the wake of the Pruitt disaster, then someone like Gus Malzahn or Sonny Dykes makes more sense.
Elliott is more of an unknown commodity, just like his predecessor was. And just like Morris and Jeff Scott were. In 2020, Scott had a Morrisian first season as the head coach of South Florida, going 1-8. Still, that doesn’t prevent the rumor wheel from going into overdrive on what a Tony Elliott hire at Tennessee could mean in terms of a new staff.
Check out the excerpt of potential hires laid out by USA Today’s Dan Harrelson below. Besides Morris, you’ll see three other former Razorback coaches at the end of this list:
- Chad Morris (Available, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks)
- Kevin Steele (Interim Tennessee head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers)
- Charlie Harbison (Missouri, cornerbacks)
- Dan Brooks (Available, defensive tackles)
- Marion Hobby (Cincinnati, defensive ends)
- Brandon Streeter (Clemson, quarterbacks and passing game coordinator)
- Thomas Austin (Georgia State, offensive line)
- Corico Wright (Furman, safeties)
- Tyler Carlton (Available, wide receivers)
- Justin Stepp (South Carolina, wide receivers)
- Joe Craddock (UAB, tight ends)
- Dustin Fry (Available, offensive line)
Lord have mercy. Seeing Morris somehow pull off a third major SEC coaching gig in four straight seasons would be a sight to behold by itself. But if Joe Craddock (his OC at Arkansas) were somehow looped into the action as well?
Paul Finebaum would need to host a special to field the number of fan calls pouring in for that one.
Even if Morris doesn’t land in Knoxville, but Tony Elliott leaves Clemson, Morris could still end up clad in orange by simply returning to the place where all the “magic” originally began.
What a reunion that would be.
Morris can’t expect to use the same tactics that were so cutting edge a decade ago to take Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei’s game to a level far above what he was able to do with Ty Storey, Nick Starkel or Bo Nix.
The game has evolved, and Morris has yet to prove he can adapt enough to stay ahead of the curve. If he returned to Clemson and couldn’t innovate enough, he could tarnish his legacy there in the same way Bo Pelini hurt his at LSU after a disastrous return to the former defensive coordinator position in 2020.
Yet some Clemson writers remain smitten with Chad.
Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lentz considers Morris to be the No. 1 “dream” option to replace Elliott, ahead of Joe Moorhead, Graham Harrell and even Eli Drinkwitz:
“Since we are dreaming, why not start with the man who began the offensive explosion for the Tigers? Under Morris’ offense, the Tigers set 127 offensive records (89 individual/38 team) and posted the top three scoring seasons in school history, as well as four of the top five passing seasons at Clemson.”
Elliott, for his part, believes Morris will succeed again.
“I have no doubt that he’s going to bounce back,” he said of Morris after the Arkansas debacle. “It’s just tough for any coaching family to go through a situation like this because at the end of the day, I don’t believe there’s any coach out there that wants to do a bad job.”
“I think every coach wants to do a good job and they do what they believe they need to do to get the job done, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out and that’s the unfortunate piece of it. So, just praying for him and his family, but I know the kind of man he is. I know he’ll bounce back.”
Hawgbeat.com’s Nikki Chavanelle, who covered Morris at SMU and Arkansas, keeps the faith too. “I still think that he can be a very, very good offensive coordinator. But I just don’t know if he’s been in the right situations with the right people around him to make that show.”
Hear more of Chavanelle’s insight on Morris and what we wrong at the end of this clip:
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