Morris finds the sweet spot at Clemson

Chad Morris was a fine passer in high school. Strong arm. Smart. Accurate.

But his head coach at Edgewood High in Texas, well, he didn’t believe in throwing the football. It was the 1980s, and running the ball was all the rage. So Edgewood muddled through some mediocre seasons, Morris handcuffed from doing do the one thing he desperately wanted to do.

Until the final game of the season one year. Edgewood was playing its county rivals, and Morris decided to audible to a pass play. It worked. Edgewood scored. Morris went back to the bench, knowing his head coach would be unhappy.

But his position coach, Jack Shellnutt, always appreciated what Morris did in that game. That memory, from some 25 years ago, remains to this day. Perhaps it is because that play ended up foreshadowing what was to come. At least to Shellnutt, anyway.

“I always thought that was great,” Shellnutt says with a chuckle in a recent telephone interview. “I think his football career was a little disappointing, so when he got the opportunity to coach, I knew what he was going to do because he could throw the ball. He was very good at it.”

Turns out, Morris’ teams have been good at it and so have his quarterbacks. Headed into this season, Clemson is expected to have one of the best passing offenses in the country behind one of the best quarterbacks in the country -- all with Morris orchestrating the moves as offensive coordinator.

And yet, Morris is going into just his fourth year on the collegiate level after an incredibly successful high school coaching career. His preps-to-college rise is just the latest we have seen recently, following two mentors -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

Graham and Malzahn also came from the high school ranks and became college head coaches after brief stints as coordinators (Graham spent five years as a coordinator; Malzahn six). Both Morris and Malzahn worked for Graham at Tulsa; Morris patterned his high school and NCAA offenses after what Malzahn did as a high school coach in Arkansas.

While Morris is not a head coach yet, most everybody believes that time will be here soon enough. Morris is not only the highest paid coordinator in the country -- he is the hottest coordinator in the country. After Clemson finished No. 9 in the nation in total offense, and Tajh Boyd won AFCA All-America honors last year, Morris drew interest from several programs with head coach vacancies.

But the timing was not right for Morris. The timing may never be right, he says.

“Clemson has made a huge commitment to where it’s going to take a very, very special opportunity to ever leave,” Morris says. “That says a lot about what we’re trying to build here. If that day comes, it’ll be great. It will be wonderful. If it doesn’t, it will be wonderful, too, because we’ve got something really special going here. As we sit here today, I don’t have any intentions of leaving. I didn’t have any intentions of leaving last year. But I think it also says something, that if you’re having the success we’re having, people are going to talk to you, and that’s a positive thing.”

Does he want to be a college head coach?

“I would love to,” Morris says. “Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not going to gauge whether or not my career is successful or not on if I am. If it happens, and it’s the right opportunity, then great. There’s such a thing as not being the right opportunity, not being the right time.”

Morris found a way to capitalize on the right opportunity in early 2010, even though at the time, he thought it might be the wrong opportunity. After winning two straight high school football championships at Lake Travis High in Texas, Graham called Morris and wondered whether he would be interested in the Tulsa offensive coordinator job.

Morris said no.

Graham called again.

Morris said no.

Graham called again.

Morris said no.

Graham called a fourth time. He asked Morris to come up to Tulsa with his wife so they could take a look around. Morris finally agreed to take the job, albeit reluctantly.

“Even during that year, even with the success we were having, I just didn’t know if this is what I wanted to do,” Morris says. “I was pushed out of my comfort zone, which was good. It was the first time I ever worked for somebody. For 18 years I was my own boss. But I knew what a good assistant coach was because I had hired a bunch of them. The more we got into it, I thought, ‘This is it. We loved it.’ ”

Tulsa finished that season ranked No. 5 in the nation in total offense. In South Carolina, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney noticed. After deciding to make a change at offensive coordinator, he decided he wanted his offense to be more like Morris’.

The two did not know each other, but Morris made Swinney’s list of five finalists. Swinney started making some calls and doing his homework. He brought Morris in for an interview, and the two hit it off. Morris, with only one year as a collegiate coordinator, was hired.

“He did an awesome job on his interview,” Swinney recalls. “It’s easy now to look back, but at the time I had gotten more hate mail on that hire. People were just glad I hired him because they couldn’t wait for me to be gone in six months. I really lost my mind now because I didn’t hire this guy, this guy or this guy.

“At the end of the day, you have to do what you believe in because ultimately, you’re the one who’s going to be held accountable. If it doesn’t work, I have nobody to blame but myself. It was a big decision but I had no doubt. I was 100 percent.”

Swinney clearly made the right call. He might lose Morris sooner than anticipated. But that is for another day. Today, and for the rest of the season, Morris is here to make the Clemson offense even better than it has been the last two seasons.

One thing has changed since high school: Morris gets to throw the ball whenever he wants.