It was always going to be a jarring change in going from Bret Bielema to Chad Morris. Bielema attempted zig where the rest of the SEC was zagging, throwing it back to an old school, ground-based offense while the remainder of the conference flew into the future.
After an 11-29 SEC record in five seasons, Arkansas decided it wanted to zag after all, hiring Chad Morris and his spread offense from SMU.
Much like his colleagues Willie Taggart, Chip Kelly and Jeremy Pruitt in the FBS Hiring Class of 2018, Morris has yet to click at his new destination. The Razorbacks are 4-14 under Morris, including 0-9 in SEC play. Worse, the Hogs are 2-3 against FBS opponents in non-conference play, losing to Colorado State and North Texas in 2018 and to San Jose State on Saturday.
Again, this was all to be expected — or, at least it should have been. You can’t just snap your fingers and turn seven fullbacks and 19 tight ends (all numbers approximate) into 26 wide receivers. You don’t go from 500 rushes a season to 400 passes without some growing pains in between.
On top of that, much like Taggart, Kelly and Pruitt, Morris would be expensive to fire at this point in his tenure.
Morris’s contract, signed Dec. 5, 2017 and running through Dec. 31, 2023, is actually modest by SEC standards. He earns a $500,000 base salary with $3 million in “other compensation.” Other than three $500,000 retention bonuses, paid on Feb. 15 of 2019, 2021 and 2023, there are no scheduled raises.
Morris tied for ninth among SEC head coaching salaries in 2018; he’ll rise a bit in 2019 thanks to the first of those $500,000 retention bonuses, but by 2020 a $3.5 million salary for an SEC head coach will seem like an outright bargain.
Where Morris gets expensive, though, is the buyout clause.
If terminated without cause before Jan. 1, 2023, Morris would be owed 70 percent of his remaining salary and “other compensation.” After Jan. 1, 2023, he’d be owed the full $3.5 million salary, covering the final year of the contract.
Should a change happen this fall, Morris’s buyout would put him slightly ahead of Pruitt and Kelly’s $9 million buyouts, but well below Taggart’s $17 million.
Arkansas owes Bielema $320,000 a month through the end of 2020. Paying upwards of half a million dollars a month to two ex-coaches would not only be a bitter pill to swallow (and this doesn’t even include the costs of paying a third head coach plus his staff), it would be reckless management of the football program. Asking a third coach to win with a roster built by two different coaching staffs with wildly different philosophies is a recipe for nothing but further dysfunction.
The move for Arkansas is no move — to hunker down with Morris, to put down the shovel and believe that night is darkest just before the dawn.