Ole Miss would be wise to pursue SMU’s Chad Morris
Offensive line coach Matt Luke is Ole Miss’ interim head coach, but athletic director Ross Bjork will launch a national search to hire a long term replacement to help rebuild the Rebels into an SEC West contender once again.
Until a new head coach is hired, Ole Miss fans will almost certainly hear names such as Les Miles, Chip Kelly and Lane Kiffin discussed for this opening — heck, expect to hear Jon Gruden’s name as well. The usual and often unrealistic suspects will be linked to this job as they typically are when the college football coaching carousel spins.
But one name that Bjork should consider is Chad Morris.
The SMU coach was in the mix for the Baylor gig that ultimately went to Matt Rhule this past offseason. Morris finished his second full season at SMU with a 5-7 mark — a three-win improvement from his debut 2015 campaign. The Ponies won just one game the year before his arrival.
Despite a 7-17 mark in Dallas, Morris is considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the college game. After a long, successful stint in the Texas high school coaching ranks and quick turnaround at Tulsa, he arrived at Clemson and was a big part of the Tigers’ ascent into a national power.
Working as Dabo Swinney’s offensive coordinator from 2011-2014, Morris was one of the biggest reasons eventual two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson came to the ACC school. The offense under Morris was one of the most prolific in the FBS, and it helped land him his first head coaching gig at the college level.
Watson became one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and his play was a big reason the Tigers made back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances and won the program’s first national championship since 1981. That doesn’t get accomplished without the helping hands of Morris.
The 48-year-old’s ties to the state of Texas should be very appealing to Ole Miss. The arrival of Texas A&M has helped the Lone Star State became even more of a focus for SEC coaching staffs, and Morris would be very valuable to a Rebels program that needs to compile Top 25 recruiting classes to remain relevant in the rugged West division.
His familiarity with the Texas high school coaching ranks was likely very appealing to the Baylor brass. Plus, with the Rebels needing to fight off Mississippi State for the best in-state players, perhaps Morris would be open to keeping a few of the current staff members — particularly Luke — to help those efforts as well as he transitions to the new gig.
Maintaining the Rebels’ strong offensive brand in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s departure is also critical. Not only is it necessary to reel in top offensive recruits, but it would help the players’ adjustment to their new coach — particularly those who were recruited to play a specific scheme. Morris’ offense is similar to the one Freeze ran while in Oxford: up-tempo and power-based.
A big reason Ole Miss was able to race out to a 7-0 start in Freeze’s third season and climb as high as No. 3 in the country — its highest mark at that stage in a season in almost 50 years — as well as beat Alabama in back-to-back years and go to consecutive New Year’s Six bowls was because of Freeze’s offense. With the college football landscape littered with up-tempo units, Ole Miss can ill afford to take a step back offensively with its next head coach.
But would Morris even want to take this job if Ole Miss expressed interest?
That’s a fair question for any prospective candidate. The football program self-imposed recruiting restrictions, and the NCAA could deliver even bigger blows when its investigation is complete.
There’s also the Nick Saban factor. Jimbo Fisher and Tom Herman didn’t want to join the SEC West when the LSU job was open, and Saban still resides in Tuscaloosa.
Still, Bjork could offer Morris significantly more money (he makes $2 million per season with the Mustangs) and a Power 5 gig. Ideally, he’d offer a longer-term deal like the seven-year contract Rhule received to undertake a major rebuild in Waco. State rules cap contracts at four years, but there are creative ways to essentially guarantee extensions. What head coach wouldn’t want to compete in the best conference in the country at a place that has good facilities and the money to provide security for generations?
Morris still has work to do, though, if he has designs on a bigger gig. It would be a tough sell for Bjork — even though Morris has a strong track record — to bring in a coach who is coming off a losing season at a place such as SMU.
Herman and Lincoln Riley earned top jobs despite not having long, sustained periods of success as head coaches (or any, in Riley’s case), but Morris needs to win with the Mustangs in 2017 to become a strong candidate for an SEC job.
One thing working in Morris’ favor, though, is that — along with Herman and Riley — he has always been considered an offensive guru and a respected future head man in college coaching circles. The fact that Texas hired Herman and Oklahoma hired Riley might have helped pave the road a bit for Morris, whose SMU squad upset Herman’s Houston team in 2016.
SMU returns nine starters on offense, including star senior wide receiver Courtland Sutton, as well as improved defensive depth. Morris believes his team is ready to take a big step forward, earn a bowl bid and even compete for an American Athletic Conference crown despite AAC media picking the Mustangs to finish fifth in their division.
A breakthrough year would make Morris a very attractive candidate for an Ole Miss program that is reeling.
The only question is whether there would be mutual interest.