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Texas' Favorite Son, Chad Morris, Is Ready to Finally Save SMU

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 23, 2015

AP Images

Before Chad Morris can take back the state of Texas and go toe-to-toe with the state's sudden glut of football-coaching goliaths—like Briles, Sumlin, Patterson, Kingsbury and Strong—his new home needs furnishing.

Rummaging around the furniture store with his wife, Paula, Morris is ready to leave the makeshift apartment that has bridged his transition from Clemson, where he was one of the nation's best offensive coordinators, to SMU, a program that only recently hit rock bottom.

Today he is seeking out sofas and such to furnish his new digs, taking just a few hours away from a massive rebuilding project—one of the largest fathomable—although he refuses to use that vile word.

"I don't see it as a rebuild," Morris told Bleacher Report. "I see it as a new era. It's a fresh start, and it's going to be something different from anything any SMU fan has seen."

It's a new era for a historic program that won exactly one game in 2014, scoring just 15 touchdowns. For perspective: 107 players individually matched or surpassed this total last year nationwide. SMU didn't just struggle in 2014; it was one of the worst—if not the worst—teams in the nation.

To coincide with a fresh start, Morris has watched roughly 10 minutes of SMU from last season. He caught a small portion of the Mustangs' final game live and has followed up this experience with a grand total of zero minutes of film. He doesn't plan to watch any more.

After successful stops in Tulsa and then Clemson—the place where he made a name for himself as one of the nation's brightest offensive coordinators—many waited to see where Morris would land. When he decided on SMU, some found the decision curious. Many assumed he could have landed a job at a place with more recent success.

As it turns out, however, this is a marriage that has been in the making for quite some time. A high school football coach in the state of Texas for 16 years, Morris jumped at the opportunity to come home.

"The city of Dallas is hungry. I'm from that city, I'm from this state and I grew up coming to SMU football games," Morris said. "I coached high school ball in this state, and I know the importance of football here."

It won't be easy. Art Briles, Charlie Strong, Kevin Sumlin, Gary Patterson and Kliff Kingsbury are not going away. Tom Herman, now at Houston, is only getting started. Texas football is as ruthless and unforgiving as it has ever been.

But with the help of 22,000 high school coaches seemingly invested in one of their own and a plan in place to capitalize on the one thing he knows better than just about anyone else, Morris is ready to embrace his former home in his latest endeavor. And home is ready to embrace him right back.

"It's important to the state of Texas and important to the high school coaches that he's a success," Cedar Hill head coach and back-to-back Texas state champion Joey McGuire said. "He's one of us."

 

Chapter One: Returning Home

Image via SMU

In his 16 years as a Texas high school coach, Morris won multiple state titles in multiple stops. Given the level of difficulty and competition, this was nothing short of Saban-esque. His back-to-back state championships at Lake Travis ultimately catapulted him to the collegiate ranks.

A model of consistency, Morris won more than 80 percent of his games at the high school level, and yet it wasn't always good enough. In the rare instances when one of his teams lost, the Morris family would often wake to a freshly placed "For Sale" sign in its front yard Saturday mornings, a gesture from a disappointed and passionate fan. Paula Morris would often try to remove the sign before her husband saw, but he knew.

"Every Friday night is the Super Bowl," Morris said.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing either. He didn't look forward to surprise lawn ornaments, but it ultimately helped shape the coach and the man. The expectations, as magnificently unattainable as they might have been, were a sign of success. The signs were badges of honor he carries with him in his new football life.

"I take great pride in saying that I coached high school football in the state of Texas," Morris said. "I know there are many, many coaches in that state that could be sitting here doing this interview. They are every bit as qualified, if not more qualified, than I am."

RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

After Morris worked under Todd Graham for a year at Tulsa, Dabo Swinney hired him at Clemson to add points to the scoreboard.

His unique uptempo, spread offense—known appropriately as "basketball on grass"—allowed the Tigers' wealth of position talent to flourish over four seasons. In that time, his profile morphed and developed: The former high school power became a commodity.

"Over the course of the four-year tenure I was in Clemson, I probably had four opportunities to leave to become a head coach," Morris said. "But the timing wasn't right. Had this job been in Florida, or North Carolina or South Carolina, I just don't think the job would have been the one."

Although tempting propositions trickled in, none were perfect. When the SMU position officially opened in December, Morris—despite knowing the work and makeover necessary—was instantly drawn to the vacancy. The timing and geography was right.

"I knew I had a great situation in Clemson. SMU knew I had a great situation in Clemson," Morris said. "This job, this situation, the wheelhouse of my recruiting, at home and in a conference that's full of turnaround programs, I think it can be done," Morris said. "Otherwise I wouldn't have taken it."

Chapter Two: Meet the Neighbors

Image via SMU

On a rare snowy Texas day earlier this offseason, with schools closed and much of the impacted areas essentially shutting down for the day, Adamson High School head coach Josh Ragsdale and his offensive coordinator spent the entire day locked in the SMU film room with Morris and his staff.

"We talked football from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We watched film, went on the board, and any detail we wanted Chad gave us," Ragsdale said. "That was shocking to me. That's so valuable for our staff."

Adamson is located only a few miles away from SMU's campus. Taking back roads, Ragsdale can be there in seven minutes. And yet, despite the proximity, the coach's relationship with SMU up until the past few months has been almost nonexistent.

"When the SMU game was on, I didn't really care to watch," Ragsdale said. "I couldn't name one coach on their staff other than June Jones. That's a problem."

This midweek encounter wasn't anything in particular. It was a foundation for recruiting and many conversations ahead. It was help for competitive minds seeking out an edge. And perhaps on a far simpler level, it was a room full of Texas high school coaches doing what they like to do: talk football.

Josh Ragsdale takes in spring practice at SMU
Josh Ragsdale takes in spring practice at SMUImage via Josh Ragsdale

Let's go down the road a bit, although not too far. Todd Peterman, still fresh off a promotion from offensive coordinator to head coach at DeSoto High School—just a 30-minute drive from SMU—has also logged hours with Morris since he took over. In fact, the regime change ultimately helped Peterman get his dream job.

Morris hired former DeSoto head coach Claude Mathis to his staff when he took over, which left an opening at the high school. With his head coach gone, Peterman pondered his future at the program. Morris, understanding the situation, offered his services.

"He asked me if there was anything he could do to help get me the job," Peterman said. "He didn't have to do that, but he did."

Ultimately Peterman got the job. Morris didn't have to pull any strings to make it happen, although the conversation stuck with the new DeSoto head coach. A relationship and friendship formed.

Operating in far different circumstances, Joey McGuire—a high school coach who garnered serious interest from collegiate programs this past offseason, including Texas—checked his phone after Cedar Hill capped off its second consecutive state championship late last year.

A slew of congratulations greeted him, although none were more noticeable than the unified effort coming from a program only 25 minutes from his workplace.

"Every single one of SMU's coaches between the time that game was over and midnight sent me a text congratulating me and our program," McGuire said. "From Day 1 when Chad stepped on SMU's campus, he's made it a point that they are going to recruit Texas. They're going at it really hard."

Ask any Texas high school coaches who've been in the game long enough about Chad Morris, and they'll beam about his football presence in the state. They'll speak of him as if he's a friend—and many are—referring to him simply as "Chad." They've been saying it for a while.

"Chad was always such a good guy when he was winning," Peterman said. "He was inviting, and that's why a lot of high school coaches are such big fans of his here."

More significant to Morris in his current situation, many of these coaches already have a sense of who he is and what his program will ultimately be about even though the first game is still months away.

"I trust Chad Morris," Ragsdale said. "I trust him as a man and what he teaches kids. That's where I want my kids to be."

Chapter Three: Seeing It Through

LM Otero/Associated Press

Still wandering around the store looking for the appropriate furnishings for his new home, Morris reveals his game plan in a sentence that is as simple as it is intricate.

"You can recruit all the kids you want with 10 dollars in a tank of gas," Morris said. "And if you can just keep the kids from leaving the state…"

Wait a second; hold it right there.

While keeping Texas players from leaving the state is a shared philosophy, there are still Texas-sized obstacles functioning within the state lines.

With Baylor, TCU and Texas A&M operating with more momentum than they've had in ages, recruiting should not be assumed. And then there's the biggest giant of them all, Texas, poised to bounce back now that Charlie Strong has settled in.

There's a solution for this, too. Compete when you can, but embrace the state's magnificent size and resources.

"Texas, TCU, Baylor and A&M are all going to get their 25 [kids]," Morris said. "Well, that's 100 kids total. If you can just keep the other kids from leaving the state, you can sign one of the top classes in the conference every year."

Morris watched Art Briles revive a Houston program that was tiptoeing toward extinction before Briles ignited a sleeping giant. He watched Gary Patterson thrive at TCU and make a move to a larger conference feasible. Each coach has had ample opportunities to leave during his tenure. Up until now, they have politely declined.

"They're building there, and they know the importance of football in that state," Morris said. "That's what excites me about SMU. You're in one of the hotbeds of recruiting, and you have an opportunity to get this thing turned."

It won't happen this spring or this fall. Despite his unwillingness to use the term, the rebuild at SMU will take years and multiple Texas-heavy recruiting classes. It will demand a philosophical change and a great deal of nurturing. It will take time.

With his expectations of conference championships and a Top 10 ranking, Morris isn't simply thinking about relevancy. He's aiming much higher than that, hoping to bring his winning ways back home.

"I hope that in the not-too-distant future, you and I will do an article about one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of college football," Morris told me.

But first things first. Does that chaise come in black?

Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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