CLEMSON — Chad Morris had to make the call.
He knew it.
In late 2003, his career was at a crossroads: since arriving at Stephenville (Tex.) High School a year earlier, he’d tried blending his offense with that of former coach Art Briles, who’d left to become Texas Tech’s running backs coach.
And it simply didn’t work. After winning four state titles with Briles, Stephenville missed the Texas state playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
“It was a low point in my career,” Morris says.
Locals wanted blood. Morris needed change.
He called Gus Malzahn.
That call kick-started Morris’ meteoric rise through football’s ranks. It fueled a dominant run through Texas high school football, propelling him into college football and, in January, landing him Clemson’s offensive coordinator position with a $450,000 annual salary.
The hurry-up, no-huddle, spread-based offense has torched high school and college defenses all over America, leaving them gasping for air.
Eight years later, Morris says he’s still the same guy.
“I’m proud of where I came from,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who’ve influenced my life, a lot of players who bought into me and a lot of coaches who bought into me to put me where I am today. I’m forever indebted to those guys.
“I’m a high school football coach, and I’m dang proud of it. I’m so happy to coach college football, but the great thing about it, football is football. A lot of guys out there would love the opportunity to have the success I’ve had from high school to college and sitting now where I am today.”
Eight years ago, his career outlook seemed far more uncertain.
When Morris arrived at Stephenville, he was one of the state’s rising head coaches. He won a state title with Bay City in 2000 and made three other trips to the title game.
In his first career coaching stop at Eustace, Tex., Morris ran a power-I set, running as much as 50 times per game. He mixed in some no-huddle sets, and used a varied offense by the time he arrived in Stephenville.
It simply didn’t work. Locals asked him to keep some of Briles’ principles in the offense, and the result was a muddled mess.
“It was tough,” said Hank Carter, Morris’ quarterback at Eustace, who served on the Stephenville staff. “As far as high school coaching goes, it was as high-pressure as you can get. To not reach our goals was tough, but we were fighting with one hand tied behind our back. We were asked to do some things they’d done before, mesh them with what we’d done and it wasn’t working great.”
Joseph Gillespie, Morris’ defensive coordinator and now Stephenville’s head coach, said change was necessary.
“You’re dealing with a different caliber of athletes here,” he said. “Great football players, very football-minded, and a great talent level on a year-in, year-out basis. He had to come with a plan that great athletes would excel at and average athletes, who you have to count on to play at this level, would give an opportunity to be successful.
“It didn’t take him long to sit there and realize, it’s a good offense, but it’s not me.”
Making the Change
Morris knew what he needed: an offense like Gus Malzahn’s.
Malzahn was the coach at Springdale (Ark.) High School, and his wide-open offense smashed record after record. Two of his quarterbacks set national passing yardage records, and a third, Mitch Mustain, was the nation’s top recruit in 2006.
Morris called him, seeking advice as a fellow coach who wanted to change his offensive philosophy.
“He didn’t believe me,” Morris recalled. “He thought I was a rival coach trying to steal information from him.”
“I think at first,” said Malzahn, now Auburn’s offensive coordinator, “I was a little protective.”
So Morris flew from Dallas to northwest Arkansas for a playoff game. They met after the game, and Malzahn was still “a little reserved.”
“I said, ‘Coach, I’ll come back next Friday if you don’t believe me.’ He saw me the next Friday and knew I was for real.”
With the ice broken, Morris started to learn Malzahn’s system and implement it at Stephenville.
He brought the entire offensive staff to Springdale before the 2004 season, which Malzahn called an equal exchange.
“I shared ideas and took from him, too,” he said. “It wasn’t a one-way street as far as me giving him ideas. We picked each other’s brains.”
Over the next four years, Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense rejuvenated his career. Stephenville went 43-6 with quarterbacks Jevan Snead (a Parade All-America who signed with Texas before transferring to Ole Miss) and Kody Spano (who signed with Nebraska) leading the charge.
Gillespie said the system brought “a lot of excitement” to Stephenville; Carter said it made opposing defenses tentative.
“The biggest thing is tempo,” he said. “The last thing a defensive coordinator wants is having his guy not lined up right. If you don’t execute the call you’re dead in the water. Teams go fast in fear of not having the call in time. What it does is make defenses more simplistic.”
Gillespie says Morris is “very intelligent,” and “likes to take chances.”
“He does things unorthodox,” he said. “He doesn’t wear a security blanket. He’ll bluff a lot, and play his cards a little differently.”
Math and statistics are Morris’ specialties, and while he is focused on making defenses cover every inch of the field and using a fast tempo, his isn’t a run-and-shoot system. He can slow the game down, and has done so adeptly.
Despite that success, Stephenville never truly accepted Morris. When Lake Travis expressed interest, Carter said his boss “put together a wish list for the superintendent halfway hoping he wouldn’t meet him.”
Lake Travis acquiesced.
“It was sad,” Carter recalled. “A bunch of grown men crying. He was offered the job and talked to (wife) Paula, and we were sitting there, and he said, ‘Let’s go do it.’”
Smart move. With Garrett Gilbert – now Texas’ starting QB – at the helm, Lake Travis went 32-0 over the next two seasons, winning back-to-back Texas Class 4A state titles.
Tulsa had been the nation’s top offense under Malzahn in 2007-08, but after he was hired by Auburn, it slipped back into a funk under head coach Todd Graham.
When Graham called Morris, Malzahn did a little arm-twisting.
“I had to convince him,” Malzahn said. “He had a great job where he was, one of the top high school programs in the entire country. I told him, I think this’ll be a great opportunity for you to get into college.”
Following some more tears, Morris left for Tulsa, and as expected, invigorated the Hurricanes’ offense.
Last fall, Tulsa was the only program in America to rank in the top 15 in both passing and rushing offense; it ranked fifth in total offense, averaging 505.6 yards per game, and its 41.4 ppg ranked eighth nationally.
Pretty good for a high school coach, eh?
“When I first got into college, I heard that a lot,” said Malzahn, who now counts Morris among his closest friends in football; the two talk often and will vacation together this summer. “A whole lot. I think probably somewhat, he heard the same thing last year. His numbers speak for themselves. He’ll be very successful.”
A Quiet Leader
A certain stereotype exists about Texas high school football coaches. Steely. Intense. Over-the-top, kind of like Bud Kilmer, taken down in a coup by Mox, Billy Bob, Tweeder and Co. at the end of “Varsity Blues.”
That’s not Morris. At all.
At halftime of the Hawaii Bowl, Tulsa’s offense was out of kilter. The Hurricane led 27-14, but had only 94 yards of total offense and had committed six turnovers.
Time for a salty rant, right?
“The kids expected me to holler and scream, yell, say, ‘We’re not executing, what’s wrong,’” Morris said. “I went in, grabbed a bottle of water, and said, ‘We’re not going to change coaches. We’re not going to change players. We’re not going to change plays. Someone’s got to make a play.’”
Lo and behold, they did.
Over the next six plays, Tulsa piled up 206 yards and scored three times, sparking a 62-35 rout of Hawaii.
Carter says his mentor and former coach has the right attitude with players.
“He’s awesome with people,” said Carter, who succeeded Morris as Lake Travis’ head coach. “He’s up-tempo, positive, great with kids 18-22. He’s fantastic with those guys. He’s not like their buddy, but they want to fight for the guy.”
Oh, Morris will push his new players. No doubt. He’ll be just as likely to give them a pat on the back, though.
“I want (my players) to know that before they walk out of here every day, coach Morris is going to put his arm around them and leave them with a positive thought about football in their mind, no matter how hard I coached them that day,” he said. “I’m going to strain them and train them. But it doesn’t matter how hard I do that. If they buy into what I’m about, they’ll let you coach them as hard as they can be coached.”
And if he gets the same results out of Clemson’s offense that he has elsewhere, it won’t be long before Morris’ phone is ringing – perhaps with another major job offer.
“I think he’ll be a Division I head coach in a very short time,” Carter said.” He’ll do a great job and people will come calling. I’m sure he’ll keep climbing.”