Tusk to Tail: Back to rebuilding after being overpromised and underdelivered
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The Chad Morris era ended Sunday as the Arkansas coach was fired the morning after a 45-19 rout by Western Kentucky. It was just Morris’ second season in Fayetteville, 22 games into his Razorbacks’ career. Morris had won only four games, two of which came against lower level FCS schools. He will be paid nearly $10 million to leave the university.
Neither the loss to the Hilltoppers nor the subsequent firing of Morris was unexpected by Tusk to Tail. If it wasn’t evident from the players’ apathetic “Hog Walk,” attended by just a couple dozen fans and family members, it became abundantly clear on the field. Morris had lost his team. Some of our tailgating friends began wishing that the axe would fall during halftime, when Arkansas trailed WKU 35-7. Others saw the signs much earlier.
“Does anyone really believe the torture is going to end this weekend,” our godfather of tailgating Craig May asked in his prediction of the Western Kentucky game, published last Thursday. “RIP Chad.”
“We lose this game and Sunday or Monday will be a repeat of ’92 and the Jack Crowe firing by [former Arkansas Athletic Director Frank] Broyles. Only this time it will be after game 10,” continued Todd Rudisill, referencing the Hogs’ only other firing of a football coach before the end of a season. “[Current Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter] Yurachek can’t afford to lose any more season ticket holders. … I think [Morris] is in over his head.”
Western Kentucky was led by former Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey. Storey transferred after being benched while Morris signed graduate transfer quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel, as well as talented freshman KJ Jefferson for 2019. Storey completed 22 of 32 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown Saturday, adding two more scores on the ground. It was Storey’s first victory as a starter in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium after going winless in his nine starts under Morris. It was also Storey’s first win over an SEC team, giving him one more than his former coach.
Cole Kelley, another former Arkansas quarterback who transferred to Southeastern Louisiana after last season, was 20 of 24 for 273 yards and a touchdown Saturday at the Top 10 FCS University of Central Arkansas. Chalk it up to chance or possibly karma, but Kelley rushed for another four touchdowns against the Bears to beat them 34-0. UCA had previously beaten Western Kentucky at the start of the season.
Morris had infamously promised that Arkansas would have “one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football,” but it never came to fruition. The shortcoming at the quarterback position was considered the main contributing factor. Once Storey and Kelley transferred and Connor Noland quit the team to focus on baseball, Hicks and Starkel alternated starting the first nine games this season. That duo of duds gave way to redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones Saturday.
Jefferson began playing off the bench last week, instantly becoming a fan favorite. He was the seventh quarterback to play during Morris’ short Arkansas career, but the only one who has not started a game. While Storey scored touchdowns on each of his five first half possessions Saturday, Jones and Jefferson combined to complete only 9 of 25 for 87 yards and two interceptions. Hicks and Starkel did not play this week, presumably due to their previous poor performances.
The Morris era was fraught with excuses for poor performance. In the beginning, we were told the players inherited from former coach Bret Bielema were not good enough to succeed in his system. That myth was exposed, in part, by the performances of Storey and Kelley this week.
As the losses and pressure increased for Morris, he and his staff began pointing to the number of young players contributing this season. While true, that was by Morris’ own design. He chose to play the freshman he recruited over the upperclassmen brought in by Bielema.
Morris was not the first Arkansas head coach to start a youth movement. During their first seasons here, Bielema and Bobby Petrino before him started heralded freshmen in the trenches and skill positions alike. Those teams took their lumps, too, but there was notable improvement each week. By nearly every metric, Morris’ young squad regressed.
“You might think it’s crazy to fire a coach after two years,” Rudisill concluded, “but when there seems to be no improvement, no organization, no taking responsibility, lower attendance than ever, and a stubbornness to not play your best players, you have no choice.”
So here we are as Arkansas football fans, following a rudderless ship. Some new coach will be hired, tasked with rebuilding the program from the ashes of past failed rebuilding projects. He will be paid handsomely for his efforts, and paid even more to leave if it doesn’t work.
The likely list of candidates features some men with iron clad accomplishments, but also feet of clay. Morris had been one of only three head coaches to not have played football in college. The other two, Washington State’s Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes from SMU, are potentially being considered as his replacement.
It seems unlikely that Arkansas would consider a second consecutive SMU coach, but across the mighty American Athletic Conference (established 2014) in Memphis, Coach Mike Norvell may get a shot. Norvell was rumored to have been considered in 2017 when Morris was hired, but those same rumors indicated Norvell may have some skeletons in his closet.
However, history indicates that fans may be willing to overlook minor scandals as long as their team is winning. If so, other coaches with checkered pasts that could be considered include former Baylor coach Art Briles and former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, still rehabilitating his back and his image at Liberty University.
Yurachek has shown a propensity to hire dynamic up and coming coaches, as he did for basketball with Nevada’s Eric Musselman. What the candidates lack in tangible experience is offset by a cheaper price tag. Heading up that list would be Alabama-Birmingham’s Bill Clark and Appalachian State’s Eliah Drinkwitz. They have built successful programs from the ground up, but that was the reputation preceding Morris, as well.
The SEC’s Western Division is no place to learn on the job.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.