Outside of the weeks when they’ve gone head-to-head as opposing coaches, Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris have communicated regularly.
The two are close friends in the coaching industry, with their careers intertwining over the last 15 years. So, it should come as no surprise that Malzahn was quick to reach out to Morris on Sunday following the latter’s firing at Arkansas. The Razorbacks parted ways with Morris after less than two seasons, as he guided the program to just four wins over his 22 games as head coach. The failed experiment in Fayetteville, Ark., came to a head Saturday in the form of a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky, a Group of Five program featuring a former Arkansas transfer, Ty Storey, at quarterback.
“I hate it for Chad,” Malzahn said. “He’s a wonderful person, a wonderful coach. He’ll bounce back.”
Malzahn and Morris have a longstanding friendship spanning 15 years despite having never coached together, never lived in the same state and never faced each other as head coaches until last season, when Morris first took over at Arkansas.
The two first crossed paths when they were high school coaches, with Morris coaching at Stephenville High in Texas and Malzahn at Springdale High in Arkansas after turning Shiloh Christian into an offensive juggernaut during his tenure there. After Morris got off to an uneven start at Stephenville and missed the playoffs in his first season at the helm, he sought out Malzahn with the hopes of picking up some innovations to his offense back in Stephenville.
Always guarded, Malzahn was “a little bit leery” at first when approached by Morris during a state championship game in Arkansas. Eventually, Malzahn relented and invited Morris and his staff to Arkansas. After several trips to Arkansas, Malzahn finally opened up to Morris and the two shared ideas.
Morris turned things around at Stephenville, making the playoffs in each of the next four seasons before taking his system to Lake Travis High, where he went 32-0 and won back-to-back state titles in 2008 and 2009. Since then, the careers of Malzahn and Morris have somewhat mirrored each other.
Malzahn made the jump to college in 2006 as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas before moving on to Tulsa in 2007-08. Morris wasn’t far behind, becoming Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2010, a year after Malzahn left for the same position at Auburn. A year later, Morris became the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Clemson from 2011-14, with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney consulting with Malzahn before making the hire.
While Malzahn’s first college head coaching job came at Arkansas State in 2012 before moving on to Auburn a year later, Morris’ first opportunity came at SMU in 2015. He remained there for three seasons before making the jump, like Malzahn, to the SEC ranks when Arkansas hired him prior to last season after making a failed run at Malzahn for the program’s opening.
Morris could never get it going in Fayetteville, however. The Razorbacks went 2-10 in his first season and showed no improvements this season, going 2-8 — with losses to San Jose State and Western Kentucky — and failing to win an SEC game during his tenure.
“There’s no doubt he’ll bounce back,” Malzahn said. “Just hurting for him.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.