State of the Hogs: Morris' ability to relate key to Arkansas' future

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, May 11, 2018
Arkansas coach Chad Morris watches warmups prior to the Class 4A State Championship Game between Warren and Arkadelphia on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Photo by Jimmy Jones
Arkansas coach Chad Morris watches warmups prior to the Class 4A State Championship Game between Warren and Arkadelphia on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

— There are lots of ways to coach or lead. There are some that push hard and leave carnage in their wake.

Get on board, or get off the ship. There can be nastiness involved.

I've seen it up close and personal. Bobby Petrino comes to mind. Don't call it tough love. In fact, don't put love anywhere in the equation.

Then, there was Wilson Matthews. No one was tougher or had saltier language.

But off the field, no one loved on players harder than Matthews, the Frank Broyles assistant famous for his winter conditioning programs and bloody tackling drills. Matthews would demonstrate tackling, without pads, until Broyles halted it because players in pads were getting hurt.

So where does new Arkansas coach Chad Morris fall? He's more like Matthews than Petrino, but without the vocabulary.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis loves the way Morris pushes players, but without anything that damages the player-coach relationship. There is genuine love expressed as Morris pushes for effort, tempo and execution.

Chavis sees heavy emphasis on establishing relationships to build the culture in the Morris program.

“I've already used this statement: You have to change actions to change character and character changes the culture,” he said. “The point is this: Coach Morris does a tremendous job of being demanding in everything we do but not be demeaning.

“You can correct without doing that. He has a great gift and that's because of who he is, what he stands for - but it doesn't keep him from being competitive. In my opinion, it gives him a great edge.

“You can have all the great knowledge in the world. Certainly, Coach Morris has that, but being able to communicate with people and being able to motivate people is a big part of what goes into coaching football. Some people just have a gift for being able to motivate and communicate. It's so important.”

It was interesting to give Morris that feedback during an interview last week. Morris took it and ran, as if tempo was as important to the explanation as his fast-paced offensive system. It was clear that the thought behind what Chavis expressed pushed Morris' buttons in a positive way, just what he tries to do with his players.

It's OK to coach players hard as long as they know you care about them as a person.

“The biggest thing that I've gotten out of all of this is that it's about relationships,” Morris said. “The more that you can have that relationship with a player, the fact that he feels like he let you down comes into play. He's doing this because he truly loves his coaches and he doesn't want to disappoint anyone.”

There just isn't enough time in the day to do everything Morris wants to do in the relationship building. Just as he's trying to do that with his players and staff, he's working on the future. He's trying to build relationships on the recruiting trail, which has taken him away from his new players.

“In order to do that – where they don't want to disappoint you - it takes time," Morris said. "That's probably been the biggest challenge since I've gotten (to Arkansas). I wanted the relationships with the players to be just like it was when I walked out of at SMU.

“It wasn't. It's not going to be. It took three years to build that type of relationships. That takes time.”

All he can do is be consistent on a daily basis and learn the details about his players and their families.

“The biggest thing is that as long as players see that I'm genuine, we care about them and it's far more than just the game of football,” he said. “That's what this whole thing is about as we move forward with them.

“You can coach them as hard as you want as long as they know that you are real, you are genuine and that you honestly care about them. That's who I am. That's the way I was coached.”

Morris' philosophy goes back to his days as a quarterback at Edgewood High School, east of Dallas. His coaches there were almost all like what he wants to be today: a man who connects with his staff and players.

“I had several coaches that made an impact in that way,” Morris said. “Jimmy McInturf, Jack Shellnut and Jay Jameson were like that. Those guys were hard on me. Man, they had a unique way of connecting with you.

“Then, I was able to go and see the way Dabo Swinney has a relationship with his players at Clemson. We always talked about empowering them and giving them tools for life. In doing that it's all about what they look like, and act like at age 35 is far more important to me what they look like at 20 and 21.

“If I truly keep that in perspective that relationship at 20 and 21 is going to be strong, a relationship that includes being empowered, being held accountable, being disciplined and being equipped. And, it's about being loved.”

There is one thing that Morris said that does not include.

“What it's not is being entitled,” he said. “That's a fine line regardless of who you are, entitlement does not exist in our program.

“If you look at those coaches, it was the way I was I coached and the way I started coaching high school ball and then transitioning that into college. Then, when I saw Dabo do it, it reconfirmed it's really just about relationships.”

Morris built relationships in all types of situations, at several stops in his 16-year high school career. He also started from scratch in his one-year stay as offensive coordinator at Tulsa, where he had a previous relationship with only one other assistant coach.

“When you talk about a staff, I was my own boss for 16 years,” he said. “When I went from there to Tulsa, I walked into a situation that was a little bit volatile. That may be a little bit of a strong word, but there had been a lot of change.

“Todd Graham had moved from coaching offense and was going back to coaching defense. Gus (Malzahn) was removed for a year. They had been 5-7 and that staff was probably not going to last another year.

“Coming in and not knowing many of the staff members, it was about being genuine. I brought one staff member with me and there was Bill Blankenship there, who I knew a little bit.

“So now my staff here we are starting new. Some of the staff has been with me seven years, but some of them have been with me just a few months. It's about being genuine, real and straightforward, the same every day, never too high or too low.”

Morris said his son, Chandler, hears that same message about his practice habits as a high school football player at Highland Park in Dallas.

“Steady and consistent pays off,” Morris said “That's what I tell Chandler all the time. Him being a quarterback, I said, 'Look, one day is good then one day is bad, just be consistent.' Be the same guy every day and I'm also talking about just in relationships."

It's clear that the Morris-Chavis bond is strong. They love to talk about each other. Morris knew that's who he wanted to hire as defensive coordinator even before he became head coach at Arkansas. He knew it was a good fit.

“What I was looking for was someone who was well versed, well experienced in the SEC,” Morris said. “I was looking for someone who I had some familiarity with as far as scheme. I wanted it to be aggressive, multiple and someone that loves the pressure.

“I know what bothers us offensively. I remember playing against Chief when we were at Clemson and he was at LSU. I remember watching him with Dan Brooks, who was at our staff at Clemson and coached with him at Tennessee. They were really good friends. We would talk about Chief with Dan.

“When we had an opportunity to play him – and of course being a college football junkie I studied him – you watch those great defenses he had at LSU and even the year before we played them. I think we watched them the year before in the 9-6 game with Alabama, it was just the chess match that he brings.

“That intrigued me. We played them and to see the different exotic pressures, the way he'd get in and out of fronts was very impressive. We won, but we were impressed with his style.”

Morris called Chavis the night before his introductory press conference at Arkansas.

“I said, 'Look, Coach Chavis it's Chad Morris. First of all, Coach, I want you to know how much respect I've got for you and I think I got something that can help you. Would you be interested in talking about me about this?'

“It was like he never even batted an eye. Absolutely.

“He told me it was the first time to start at ground level. That intrigued me. That re-energized him, re-ignited him.”

Morris pitched to Chavis that the offense would help the defense in practice. Chavis understood that Morris has a gift at coaching offense.

“I shared with him that I've got something that can help you because if you can defend us offensively, you can pretty much defend everybody,” Morris said. “I can help you. If there are any deficiencies you have, I can help.

“So we sat down and watched film together defensively. I'm constantly asking questions. He's asking questions about offense.

“We are back and forth asking questions and from at that point, Chief said, 'I'm in.'”

That first relationship established by Morris in Arkansas could be a huge key in making the Razorbacks a winner again. It appears he has some gifts that are going to speed up the process.

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