Today it was announced that Arkansas is firing head coach Chad Morris, meaning that they’ll be joining Florida State and probably USC in hunting for their next head coach in the upcoming silly season.
Chad Morris is a fellow who’s had a major impact on the game of football, even without having much in the way of head coaching success. I’m honestly pretty surprised it went so sideways for him in Fayetteville but your margin for error is pretty thin competing in the SEC West. Determining what Arkansas should do next is a tough task, I thought it’d be interesting to back up and take a 10,000 foot view of this program and what kind of options they have.
The Razorbacks’ positioning in the college football landscape
Arkansas is sort of an in-between program. In one sense, they definitely belong in the SEC even though they’ve only been included in that conference since 1992. The SEC West is largely defined by the deep south culture and people, which Arkansas certainly fits into pretty well.
You could argue that the deep south basically extends to the “pine curtain” that some use to define the start of “East Texas.” If you don’t know your Texas geography, East Texas is a rural region devoid of many major population centers. The entire region includes about two million people, but that’s including the southern extensions of “East Texas” such as the “golden triangle” down by Houston. Back in the day, Arkansas was a part of the Southwest conference with Baylor, Texas, TCU, Houston, Tech, Rice, Texas A&M, and SMU.
Arkansas’ heyday as a program took place when they were a member of the Southwest conference, and in particular when they were coached by Frank Broyles. The program has 13 national championships and one national championship. All of them took place in the Southwest conference and all but six of those conference titles came under Broyles, who ran the show from 1958 to 1976.
The “game of the century” involved the undefeated Razorbacks taking on the undefeated Longhorns in 1969. Texas won, leading to President Richard Nixon naming them national champions and giving them a trophy after the game. As it happens, that was one of the last big games of college football with all-white football rosters.
Neither the integration of black athletes into the game nor Arkansas’ eventual integration into the SEC have necessarily boosted their football program. While the lower half of Arkansas (if you cut it diagonally) is part of the “black belt” of the US that’s not where the University is and the state’s three million residents ultimately include about 500k black Americans. That’s a fair chunk of a small population (three million people in the state), but it doesn’t compare to the larger populations of black Americans that you find in Louisiana (1.2 million), Mississippi (1.1 million), Alabama (1.3 million), or Georgia (3.2 million) where these prominent SEC programs that Arkansas competes against can be found. There’s simply not as much talent to be found in Hog country.
I noted earlier in the summer that Arkansas does manage to lock down their state quite well in recruiting. From 2015 to 2019 when I studied numbers across the country, Arkansas produced an average of about four blue chip (4-star or higher) prospects per year and an average of three of the would sign at home with the Razorbacks. That’s a solid start, but from there the Razorbacks have to recruit on someone else’s turf and convince kids from further east to choose Arkansas over the other SEC schools or they have to go west into East Texas.
Chad Morris’ 2019 recruiting class included 11 players ranked as 4-stars out of 25. That put them 23rd nationally but only 10th in the SEC. Two of those players hailed from Arkansas, another two came from Texas, and then one more came from Oklahoma. The Texas kids were from DFW (Mansfield Legacy) and East Texas (Jefferson). Those are traditional and natural recruiting grounds for Arkansas, and the reason they choose to play Texas A&M in Dallas and always play them so hard. It’s tough to recruit at a high level though going up against Oklahoma, Texas, A&M, and then also the various Big 12 programs or other SEC programs that poach those regions.
The other six bluechips that Morris signed in 2019 were from the South (and IMG, if you don’t count that).
This recruiting struggle is a primary issue with the Razorbacks. Even when they recruit at a high level, locking down the best Arkansas kids while landing high level talents from surrounding states in highly competitive recruiting atmospheres, they have to go compete against places like LSU, Alabama, and Auburn.
Since joining the SEC for the 1992 season and counting up to where we are now in the 2019 season, the Razorbacks have gone only 91-129-2 with no conference championships (few West division titles though).
Problem-solving with Chad Morris
The challenge at Arkansas is basically to hire head coaches that can utilize superior strategy or tactics to give the Razorbacks an advantage that they can’t get from recruiting. If there’s a pathway to Arkansas recruiting better than LSU or Alabama, I don’t know what it is. Even matching A&M and Auburn is pretty dang tough and not super feasible. When Ole Miss is also rolling with their deep pocketed alumni? Forget about it.
Lots of people have noted that Arkansas should really be in the Big 12, and basically be the southern team in the conference. That’d help them in terms of winning closer to a level that they’d like since their recruiting would be more competitive AND they’d be playing more games in regions where they’d like to recruit more. However, they’d also make less money without the SEC TV payouts, and the goal of the football program is ultimately to bring financial security to the University. Leaving for the Big 12 would be a bet that the ensuing championships and major marketing boost would make up for no longer getting payouts from games like last Saturday’s LSU-Alabama game that had 16 million viewers.
The better path would be to find a strategy that gives Arkansas a leg up on the rest of the SEC. Bret Bielema did more or less the exact opposite of that. He came out of Wisconsin, where the Badgers have unique advantages in the B1G West recruiting kids from a populous state with German ancestry and frames that easily fill out to 250+ pounds. Bielema resolved to turn Arkansas into a similar program that could win by fielding the biggest, baddest OL in the league. Not a great idea when you are the smallest state with the fewest athletes.
Bielema managed to find some big kids to fill out his OL, ironically recruiting one from Denmark, but he couldn’t do the same on DL. After some of the exceptional DL he inherited from his predecessor like Trey Flowers graduated the Hog defense basically fell apart. The Razorbacks did have some clever offenses that yielded results but they couldn’t stop anyone or control games like intended.
Chad Morris was going to bring strategy to bear that could give the Razorbacks a needed lift. If you read in my book…
…Chad Morris comes up as a innovator with the smashmouth spread philosophy. He built the offense at Clemson that went on to beat Alabama a few times in the National Championship, he missed out on those rings to help build SMU into the program that Sonny Dykes is now winning with. He also helped build the Lake Travis football program that has dominated Texas HS football and won 5 straight state titles beginning with Garrett Gilbert and ending with Baker Mayfield.
At Arkansas he’s had two major problems with a third looming. The two main problems are defense, which I understand that he largely delegates to past his prime John Chavis, and QB where he’s fielded a few different guys that haven’t been able to land the shots down the field that make his offense deadly. The looming problem is the shrinking window of opportunity before increasing numbers of SEC programs finally adopt “Flyover Football” spread tactics. LSU is playing really high level spread passing football right now, obviously, and just became yet another team to expose Nick Saban’s shortcomings with that scheme. Even if Arkansas can get on track with it, how do they stand out if LSU is executing that style?
It’s a tough deal. The best bet for Arkansas would be to hire a top spread coordinator and also manage to make a really smart hire on defense with someone that understands how to defend these sorts of schemes. They were halfway there with Morris, perhaps if they had hit the QB transfer market this coming offseason and hired a different DC they’d have been in position to make a leap. Instead they felt they needed to be done with Morris since he’d failed to produce even the hint of progress on the scoreboard.
Options in the Ozarks
So where do the Razorbacks go from here? There’s a couple of obvious names that will come up.
He’s going to be mentioned for big jobs until he takes one. The word on the grapevine is that Stoops left Oklahoma because they wanted to name Lincoln Riley “HC in waiting” and rather than dealing with an awkward transition Bobby decided to go out on his own terms. His decision to coach in the XFL since has helped lead to rumors whenever there’s a job available that he’s the candidate. There have been rumors suggesting he was going to replace Gus Malzahn at Auburn, that he was about to take the Florida State job, and now there are rumors tying him to Arkansas.
The benefits of hiring Stoops would be that A) he’s likely to go hire a top spread OC and B) he has some experience trying to stop the best spread offenses. It’s hard to know whether Bobby still has juice for accomplishing option B but at least he knows what you’re up against.
Is Arkansas the job that would bring him back? I dunno.
The state’s favorite son! There were rumors he might leave Auburn to return home when they instead hired Chad Morris. The trick here is that Auburn is a better job. You can recruit Alabama and you’re close to Atlanta, which produces an obscene amount of football talent these days. The toughest part of the Auburn gig is the schedule, which regularly includes 4-5 games against other programs with national championship resources.
Arkansas isn’t that much better in that regard but they might be more patient and have a healthier relationship with Malzahn than Auburn does. Still, I don’t think this is super likely. He’s having a good year this season and there’s a chance he could take down Alabama in the Iron Bowl and then bring back an exciting young QB and talent for 2020.
Memphis’ head coach is familiar with recruiting the region that Arkansas lives in and smartly evaluating talent so as to come out with some guys that can really play despite picking from the ranks of leftovers.
He’s a smashmouth spread guy, like Morris, but he has his own spin on it. Up until this year Norvell, like Morris, was struggling to find a DC that he could delegate that side of the ball to without getting bad results. This year the Tigers are playing much better defensively and will probably win the AAC. He’s also shown an aptitude for using the transfer market to find QBs, which is a really valuable skill in an era where you’d better win quick if you want to survive to the contract extension.
Presumably Arkansas would be in competition with FSU for Norvell, unless they hire Deion Sanders or whatever other whacky thing is being rumored now.
He’s going to be mentioned in jobs like this for the foreseeable future. Campbell almost pulled off a defining win last night in Norman and came up one point short.
Campbell would be perfect for Arkansas. He knows how to recruit nationally, he knows how to evaluate players that have been leftover by bigger programs, he knows smashmouth spread football, and his DC Jon Heacock is a leading innovator in the inverted Tampa 2, spread-stopping defense.
The issue here for Arkansas is that Campbell is rumored to be desirous of one of the top Midwestern jobs. He’s from Mount Union (Ohio) and has stayed in the Midwest thus far coaching at Toledo and Iowa State. Those jobs aren’t open yet, but this man has a young star TE, sophomore star QB, and now a star freshman RB. There’s no rush here, if he doesn’t want the 5th or 6th best job in the SEC West he can reasonably expect to have more solid seasons at Iowa State that could propel him into other jobs or make him an attractive option if a Midwestern option opens up.
For instance, which job is better for a guy like Campbell? Arkansas or Michigan State? Because that could be a real option in two months.
We’ll have to wait to see what comes up, though we likely won’t have to wait too long.