Arkansas fires Chad Morris after 4 wins in less than 2 seasons
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has pulled the plug on Chad Morris’ tenure as its head coach with two games remaining in his second season.
The decision to fire Morris comes the day following a 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky, after which he said he still believed he was the right guy for the job and needed more time because the rebuild was "not an overnight fix."
He was 4-18 with the Razorbacks, a record that includes a winless mark in 14 SEC games - tied for the second most losses to start a tenure since the conference was founded in 1933 - and four losses to Group of Five opponents.
"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,” athletics director Hunter Yurachek said in a statement. “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.”
According to his employment agreement, Morris is owed a buyout of 70 percent of his remaining contract by the UA. That is about $10.147 million, which will be paid in equal monthly sums through Dec. 31, 2023, and could be offset by future income. (For a more detailed breakdown of his buyout, click here.)
Tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr., the Razorbacks' longest-tenured assistant, will serve as the interim coach. The Fort Smith native has been on staff since 2013 and was a four-year starting quarterback at Arkansas from 1992-95.
Hired during one of the most tumultuous periods in school history, Morris was tabbed as the Razorbacks’ 33rd head coach in December 2017 by interim athletics director Julie Cromer Peoples.
He was introduced just one day after Hunter Yurachek’s introduction as the permanent AD - replacing Jeff Long, who was fired nine days before head coach Bret Bielema was let go minutes after a season-ending loss to Missouri.
Prior to getting the job at Arkansas, Morris was the head coach at SMU for three seasons. Although his overall record was 14-22, he inherited one of the worst teams in college football that won just one game in 2014 and improved its win total from two to five to seven during his tenure.
Morris was also instrumental in turning Clemson into a national power by installing a hurry-up, spread offense as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator for four years.
That track record of rebuilding programs and creating exciting offenses is what drew Arkansas to Morris and ultimately led to his hiring. “We’re going to put it in the left lane and pop the clutch and put the hammer down,” Morris said in his introductory press conference when describing his offensive style.
However, much of his tenure was spent in the right lane with his hazards flashing.
The Razorbacks never had a true starting quarterback, with two completely different battles headlining fall camp before both of the last two seasons and six total quarterbacks starting at least one game over that time.
Strong-armed Cole Kelley initially won the job, but was replaced by Ty Storey after a slow start against FCS Eastern Illinois. Storey started the next week at Colorado State before getting benched for Kelley in a game Arkansas blew an 18-point lead and lost 34-27.
Another loss to a Group of Five team, this time a 44-17 beatdown by North Texas in which the Razorbacks threw six interceptions (including four by Kelley) and ended up on SportsCenter for allowing a 90-yard fake punt return touchdown, sent Arkansas spiraling to a 2-10 season.
The Razorbacks lost their eight SEC games last season by an average margin of 22.6 points. That includes being outscored 90-6 in road losses at Mississippi State and Missouri to end the year, which is tied for the third worst back-to-back losses in school history.
After their season-opening win over Eastern Illinois, the Razorbacks only other victory was a 23-0 win over Tulsa started by true freshman quarterback Connor Noland. They averaged 335.7 yards and 21.7 points for the season, which was 118th and tied for 114th nationally, respectively.
Following the season, Storey and Kelley transferred, Noland eventually decided to focus on baseball and Morris brought in a pair of graduate transfers in Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel.
Hicks won the starting job out of fall camp, but the Razorbacks narrowly beat FCS Portland State in their opener and Starkel took over at halftime of the loss to Ole Miss in Week 2. The Texas A&M transfer threw for 305 yards in a win over Colorado State, but imploded with a five-interception performance in an embarrassing loss to San Jose State.
Neither one of the transfers was effective the rest of the season and Morris finally made the switch to redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones and true freshman KJ Jefferson after nine games.
With the uncertainty at quarterback, the Razorbacks averaged just 22.3 points and 353.5 yards over the first 10 games of the season. Those figures rank 108th and 103rd nationally, respectively.
Meanwhile, the defense was even worse throughout Morris’ tenure - despite his promise to bring in “the best defensive coordinator in all of football” and subsequent hire of SEC veteran John Chavis.
Morris and Chavis inherited a unit coming off the worst defensive season in school history in 2017 (36.17 points/game and 438.3 yards/game) and actually slightly improved its numbers last season.
However, the 34.8 points per game by Arkansas’ opponents in 2018 were still the second most in UA history and 108th nationally. The Razorbacks allowed 413.2 yards per game, as well, which ranked 79th in the FBS and was the fourth-most they’ve given up since 1947.
They regressed in 2019, though, allowing 36.2 points (123rd in FBS) and 446.7 yards per game (108th in FBS) - both of which are on track to beat the 2017 marks for the worst in school history.
The result of being bad on both sides of the ball last season was the worst tenure of a head coach in school history, in terms of wins and losses. Morris’ .182 winning percentage is worse than John Tomlin (.222, 1943), George Cole (.300, 1942), Otis Douglas (.300, 1950-52) and John L. Smith (.333, 2012).
Another aspect of Morris’ resume that intrigued Arkansas was his status in Texas, where he was a high school coaching legend before breaking into the college ranks.
The Razorbacks hoped to mend relationships where Bielema burned bridges. The former coach signed just 15 players from the Lone Star State - a traditionally fertile recruiting ground for Arkansas - during his five-year tenure.
Sure enough, in his first two classes - which included an abbreviated recruiting period before the inaugural early signing date - Morris signed 10 players from Texas (11 if you include JUCO signee Rakeem Boyd). Half of his 2020 commitments - seven of 14 - are from Texas, too.
Recruiting in general was a bright spot for Morris. After hastily throwing together the No. 61 class in a couple of weeks in 2018, he brought in one of Arkansas’ best classes during the Rivals era in 2019.
The Razorbacks signed a school-record 13 four-star prospects, including five in the Rivals250. The class was ranked 20th nationally.
Five of those players - wide receivers Treylon Burks and Trey Knox, offensive lineman Ricky Stromberg, defensive end Mataio Soli and defensive back Greg Brooks Jr. - became starters as true freshmen, and two others - defensive ends Collin Clay and Zach Williams - played enough to burn their redshirts.
Many expected Morris to build on that class in 2020 and he even had three four-star commitments at one time or another, but one de-committed over the summer and two more followed suit during the season.
Whoever Arkansas hires as his replacement will have until Dec. 18 to put together a class before the early signing period and until Feb. 5 to put the finishing touches on it before the regular signing period.
The results on the recruiting trail didn't translate to the win column, though, and fans ultimately lost interest.
Only 42,985 tickets were sold to Saturday's game against Western Kentucky, which made it the lowest attendance in Fayetteville since a 1997 win over Mississippi State.
It was also the seventh time in their last nine home games the Razorbacks had fewer than 60,000 fans. In the previous 94 games at Razorback Stadium post-2001 expansion, they had only three such games and all three were from 2001-03.
Arkansas will now be looking for its fifth head coach in 10 years. Bobby Petrino was fired in 2012, John L. Smith was the interim coach that season, Bret Bielema was at the helm from 2013-17 and Morris had the job for two years.