Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Arkansas fires Chad Morris as head football coach
Arkansas coach Chad Morris is shown during a game against Western Kentucky on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas fired football coach Chad Morris on Sunday, a day after the Razorbacks’ 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky.
The loss dropped the team’s overall record to 2-8. Morris was 4-18 in two seasons as the Razorbacks’ head coach, including 0-14 in SEC games.
“As part of my continued evaluation, I have come to the conclusion that a change in leadership is necessary to move our football program forward and position it for success,” UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek said. “It is clear that we have not made the progress necessary to compete and win, especially within the Southeastern Conference. Throughout our history in football, as well as with our other sport programs, we have demonstrated that the University of Arkansas is capable of being nationally competitive. I have no doubt that as we move forward, we will identify a head coach that will help lead our program to that benchmark.
“I want to express my personal and professional regard to Coach Morris and thank him for his investment in the lives of our student-athletes.”
Barry Lunney Jr. will serve as Arkansas’ interim head coach for the Razorbacks’ final two games against LSU on Nov. 23 and Missouri on Nov. 29. Lunney, who was an Arkansas starting quarterback from 1992-95, has served as the team’s tight ends coach the past seven seasons and added the title of special teams coordinator earlier this year.
According to the terms of his contract, Morris could be owed more than $10.1 million in severance pay, which is equal to 70 percent of what he’d have been paid had he fulfilled his contract. The contract runs through December 2023. Morris will be obligated to mitigate the buyout by seeking employment.
Morris, 50, was hired from SMU in December 2017, 12 days after the Razorbacks fired Bret Bielema at the conclusion a 4-8 season. Saturday’s loss dropped Morris’ college record to 18-40 in five seasons.
Before moving into the college coaching ranks, Morris was a high school head coach in Texas for 16 seasons from 1994-2009. Morris had a record of 169-38 in the prep ranks. His teams won three state championships and he had three other state runner-up teams. In October, Morris was elected to the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame.
Arkansas hired Morris at the end of a rocky time in the program’s history. Bielema and athletics director Jeff Long had been fired within a span of two weeks, and the search that resulted in Morris’ hiring was led by then-interim athletics director Julie Cromer Peoples with the assistance of a search firm. A simultaneous search was being conducted for an athletics director.
Morris’ hire was announced the same day that Yurachek was introduced in his position. Yurachek praised the hire at the time and as recently as a September speech at the Little Rock Touchdown Club gave Morris a public backing.
“Chad Morris has our football program headed in the right direction,” Yurachek said on Sept. 23, two days following a 31-24 loss to San Jose State, “and we're just going to have to be more patient than most of us want to be, including myself."
At SMU, Morris had improved the Mustangs’ win total each year, from one victory the year before he was hired to seven in his final year in 2017. Morris was hailed as an offensive innovator, based largely on his time as coordinator at Clemson from 2011-14.
But the Razorbacks’ offense never flourished under Morris, ranking 13th among SEC teams in total offense last season and 12th entering Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky, with an average of 355.1 yards per game. Morris struggled to develop a solid starter at quarterback, with six different players starting at least one game at the position in the past 20 games.
The offensive struggles were matched by poor defensive play. John Chavis, who Morris hired as the Razorbacks’ first $1 million per year assistant coach, coordinated a defense that ranked 11th in the SEC last season and that is ranked 13th in the conference this year, allowing an average of 443.9 yards per game.
Blowout losses have been a frequent occurrence for the Razorbacks under Morris, who has lost nine games by at least 26 points.
Arkansas has lost its past four games by an average of 34.5 points to Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi State and Western Kentucky. The 138-point loss margin is the Razorbacks’ worst four-game stretch ever.
The Razorbacks finished 2-10 in Morris’ first season in 2018 and set the program record for losses in a single season. Arkansas began 2-1 this year but has lost seven straight games, bookended by losses to non-Power 5 opponents San Jose State and Western Kentucky in Fayetteville - games the Razorbacks paid $1.5 million apiece to play.
They were the third and fourth losses under Morris to teams from either the Mountain West Conference or Conference USA. The Razorbacks lost to Colorado State and North Texas last season.
“It’s going to take some time,” Morris said Saturday when he was asked several questions about his job security and the program’s future. “This is not an overnight fix. We’ve seen that now for two years. We’re all frustrated. We’re all incredibly frustrated.”
Morris noted the team’s youth following the Western Kentucky game. Entering the game, 49 percent of the team’s starters this season were either freshmen or sophomores, and the number is expected to increase over the final quarter of the season.
“We have a big youth movement on this team and a lot of young guys that are contributing and who will be tremendous football players,” Morris said Saturday. “Where we are right now with these guys we have some major deficiencies that we have to fix, we have to fill. This is not an overnight fix."
Fan support has waned under Morris. Arkansas’ on-campus season ticket sales fell by 16 percent this year to 43,397.
According to announced attendances at home games that are based on tickets distributed, more than 135,000 tickets went unsold for the Razorbacks’ six games in Fayetteville.
Saturday’s announced attendance of 42,985 was the worst since a renovation expanded the stadium’s capacity to 72,000 prior to the 2001 season.
Another expansion last year increased the stadium’s capacity to 76,412.
With Morris gone, Arkansas will look for its fourth head coach since Bobby Petrino was fired for misconduct in April 2012, three months after leading the Razorbacks to an 11-win season and No. 5 finish in the postseason Associated Press poll.
Arkansas has a record of 37-60 since Petrino was fired, a time during which the Razorbacks have finished with five losing records.
John L. Smith was hired to a one-year contract and finished 4-8 in 2012. Bielema coached Arkansas to a 29-34 record and three bowl games in five seasons.
Lunney will be the program’s first interim coach since Smith and fourth interim coach since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992. Joe Kines coached 10 games in 1992, when Lunney was a freshman, and Reggie Herring coached in the Cotton Bowl to end the 2007 season.
Not counting seasons with interim coaches, Morris’ 22 games are the fewest for a Razorbacks head coach since Bowden Wyatt coached 21 games from 1953-54.
Morris was one of five SEC head coaches hired prior to last season. Three of the other four - Florida’s Dan Mullen, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher - have won at least 50 percent of their games this season, and Mississippi State is 4-5 in its second season under Joe Moorhead.
Arkansas is the second Power 5 program to fire a second-year coach this season. Florida State fired Willie Taggart last Sunday following a loss to Miami that dropped his record to 9-12.
The addition of a December signing period for football has become a consideration for schools as they weigh when is the best time to make coaching changes. In 2017, Morris had two weeks between when he was hired and the first day of the signing period.
This year’s early signing period begins Dec. 19. The Razorbacks have had as many as 16 players committed from the high school class of 2020, including Morris’ son, Chandler, who is a highly-rated quarterback at Highland Park High School in Dallas.
Three players - offensive lineman Ty’Kieast Crawford, linebacker Martavius French and defensive back Jamie “Greedy” Vance - de-committed during the regular season, and receiver Savion Williams announced his de-commitment within an hour of the UA announcing Morris’ termination.
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