Why a coach with a 14-22 record just got a big promotion

Chad Morris' 14-22 record at SMU isn't overwhelming, but it's what he has learned and how he has elevated the Mustangs behind the scenes that has athletic directors across the country putting his name on their short lists. Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS -- Ignore the record.

Yes, it defies logic, but if you can't look beyond the wins and losses with Chad Morris, you'll never understand why he landed a good Power 5 job.

Not every on-the-rise college coaching candidate is created equal, and if it seems as if Morris is put in a different category than others in similar positions, it's true. His tenure at SMU includes eight more losses than wins, and the Mustangs finished tied for third in the AAC's West Division this season. Morris has guided SMU to bowl eligibility for the first time, but he isn't chasing championships like UCF's Scott Frost, Memphis' Mike Norvell, Boise State's Bryan Harsin, Arkansas State's Blake Anderson, Troy's Neal Brown or Toledo's Jason Candle.

All of those coaches have much better FBS records than Morris. Some, like Morris, also enjoyed success as former Power 5 offensive coordinators. Yet Morris just landed an SEC job at Arkansas, while the others listed above, outside of Frost, have not moved up yet.

The reason? A unique profile with national connections in the college game, and, more important, virtually unparalleled local connections in a state that produces more FBS talent than any other.

Morris was the first college coach to work with Deshaun Watson, Clemson's generational quarterback, who stayed at Morris' house earlier this fall when Hurricane Harvey displaced the Houston Texans to Dallas. Morris' success as Clemson's offensive coordinator laid the groundwork for the Tigers' remarkable run the past few years. He's also a Texas legend after spending 16 years as a high school head coach in the state, taking six teams to state title games and winning three, including back-to-back undefeated championships during his final two years at Austin powerhouse Lake Travis. He was named coach of the year 11 times before entering the college ranks as an assistant for Todd Graham at Tulsa, where he spent a year before heading to Clemson.

"Knute Rockne could go to SMU and probably have the same record that he's got right now. Chad's done a phenomenal job at SMU. You can't just look at a win-loss record."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

He also has won big everywhere but SMU. Should it excuse his 14-22 record with the Mustangs? Not completely. But Morris might be the rare candidate who simply needed to lead a college program before leading a bigger college program, rather than a coach who needed to flourish at the former to leapfrog to the latter.

"Knute Rockne could go to SMU and probably have the same record that he's got right now," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN.com. "Chad's done a phenomenal job at SMU. You can't just look at a win-loss record. You can't. You've got to look past that. You've got to pull the curtain back and see the bigger picture."

Those taking a wider view of Morris might see SMU as the place he won the least but grew the most. It started with learning how to fail. Not losing-championship-games-in-heartbreaking-fashion failing. Like, real failing.

The Mustangs went 1-11 the year before he arrived after a brief renaissance under June Jones. SMU's local ties had frayed as Morris inherited a roster with 64 non-Texans. The facilities were outdated. The Mustangs went 2-10 in his first year with six losses by 20 points or more. The season culminated with a 63-0 loss at Memphis.

Morris and his staff were forced to "surrender the outcome."

"We were coaching harder than we ever coached, and we weren't getting the results on the scoreboard like we wanted," he said. "It was frustrating for our staff, for our coaches, for the players. We had to say, 'We just might be good enough, so we've got to focus on the daily wins.' It was just daily, a best-you-can-be day.

"I learned a lot about myself that way."

Morris knew how to manage people. He had led football staffs of 35 and athletic departments of 75-80 as a Texas high school coach/athletic director. He also knew the booster world from his time under Swinney at Clemson. But at SMU, he had to become a better delegator, which meant backing away from the offense, which wasn't easy.

After calling plays in Year 1, Morris relinquished duties to Joe Craddock, a 30-year-old who had been Morris' graduate assistant at Clemson before joining him at SMU.

"I've been a top offensive coordinator," Morris said. "I know what it's supposed to look like. I know the time you have to put in, and I can't give that time. It's not fair to these kids and these coaches. I can't be a great head coach and a great coordinator."

In team meetings, he started to address the entire room rather than directing his message toward the offense.

"At this level, the biggest challenge, and it certainly was for me, too, is you try to do too much," Swinney said. "As he's progressed, he has really developed a great trust for his staff, and empowered those guys, and realized how to be efficient with his time and be the best asset that he can be for his staff."

Morris spent less time on play designs and more on the topic all modern-day coaches seem to emphasize: program culture. He also focused on making SMU a Texas-centric program again.

All 47 players SMU signed in his first two recruiting classes came from Texas. His 2017 class included only Texas high school players, as well as three transfers from out of state. SMU has an open-door policy with high school coaches, who come in droves for out-of-season practices to pack the sidelines and chop it up with Morris.

"I'm the only head coach in this state that has sat behind that desk, both as a head high school coach and a head Division I coach, now that [former Baylor coach Art Briles] is gone," said Morris, on the 2018 ballot for the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. "I knew my connections back in this state were going to be what it would take to rebuild this program, the connections with the high school coaches. It's a big deal. It's a fraternity."

Morris didn't need the SMU stint to land a Power 5 job. He became the nation's highest-paid assistant in 2012, earning $1.3 million at Clemson. If he'd stayed with the Tigers, he would have a national title and would be by far the nation's most coveted coordinator. "Not gonna lie," Morris said with a smile, "wish I was there when they won it."

"He's human, right?" SMU athletic director Rick Hart said. "It hasn't been, in any way, a second-guessing. But I left Oklahoma in 2006 to take the athletics director job at Chattanooga. It's hard when you go from BCS bowl games and Final Fours and then you don't have that. Of course, you're going to sit there and think, 'Man you don't get too many chances to play for a national championship.'

"If he wasn't having those thoughts, I'd be worried."

Morris' desire for success churns the way it always did, perhaps even more so now than ever. He improved SMU's win total in each season, but the big breakthrough hasn't come.

Still, it was enough to move up the coaching ladder in a way it isn't for most candidates. But Chad Morris isn't most candidates.

"He's well prepared for any program," Swinney said, "because all of your experience matters."