Arkansas had its best back-to-back seasons in the Southeastern Conference when Bobby Petrino was leading a high-powered offensive attack during the 2010-11 seasons.
The Razorbacks have turned to an up-tempo, offensive-minded coach — albeit one without the Petrino's scandalous baggage — to try and rekindle that level of success.
Arkansas hired SMU's Chad Morris on Wednesday, ending nearly two weeks of uncertainty following Bret Bielema's firing moments after the season ended. The 49-year-old Morris inherits a program in disarray, though his arrival — along with the hiring earlier in the week of new athletic director Hunter Yurachek — represents a fresh start for a program desperately in need of it.
"The future is tremendously bright at the University of Arkansas with the addition of Chad Morris," Yurachek said. "I am confident that Chad will bring an exciting brand of football, phenomenal student-athletes and championships to Fayetteville, and do it all with high integrity."
Morris agreed to a six-year contract worth $3.5 million annually. He leaves the Mustangs after agreeing to an extension through the 2023 season last year.
His contract also calls for incentives to be established that could net Morris up to an additional $1.2 million annually. He'll also receive retention bonuses of $500,000 in 2019, '21 and '23 if he's still employed at Arkansas — and there have been no major NCAA rules violations.
Should Arkansas fire Morris, his buyout begins at $14.7 million in 2018 and drops to $12.25 million in 2019. That's followed by $9.8 million in 2020, $7.35 million in 2021, $4.9 million in 2022 and $3.5 million in the last year in 2023. He would owe the school $3 million if he leaves for another job in 2018-19, $2.5 million in 2020, $2 million in 2021, $1.5 million in 2022 and nothing in 2023.
Yurachek was familiar with Morris from when Houston nearly hired him in 2014 before going with Tom Herman. The former Cougars athletic director thanked Arkansas interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples for her help with identifying Morris before his hiring on Monday.
Morris went 14-22 in three seasons at SMU. He took over a team that finished 1-11 in 2014, won two games his first season and improved to 5-7 in 2016 and 7-5 this year.
He replaces Bielema, who was fired after compiling a 29-34 record in five seasons, including 11-29 in the Southeastern Conference.
The Texas native was a longtime high school coach before beginning his collegiate career as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2010. He then spent four years as the offensive coordinator at Clemson, helping lay the foundation for the Tigers' national championship last season.
Throughout his rise, Morris remembered his Texas roots — considered a key component for an Arkansas program which hopes to mine some of the state's top prep talent with his hiring.
"I'm a Texas high school football coach. That's who I am," said Morris, a Dallas native, when he was hired at SMU in 2014. "I think that Texas high school football coaches do it the right way."
The Razorbacks went 21-5 over the 2010-11 seasons and had one of the best offenses in the country led by quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson. They went 4-8 in their first post-Petrino season in 2012 under interim coach John L. Smith, and they followed that with an up-and-down five seasons under Bielema. Arkansas is 33-42 overall following Petrino's firing, the school's worst six-year stretch since it went 22-38 from 1948-52.
Bielema was expected to repeat Petrino's success when he was hired away from Wisconsin. However, after a steady rebuild of the program, Arkansas collapsed to end the Bielema era — losing 10 of the last 14 games. Athletic director Jeff Long wasn't around at the end; he was fired Nov. 15, leaving the coaching search to Cromer Peoples, among others.
"Coach Morris aligns with the priorities we sought to find in our next head football coach, including relentless work ethic and the ability to maintain good relationships within our state and beyond to attract the nation's top talent," Cromer Peoples said.
The Razorbacks were believed to have interest in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, a former high school coach in Arkansas, but he agreed to a seven-year extension with the Tigers on Sunday.
Now, they get another former high school coach known for his offensive prowess — with Morris having spent 16 years as a high school coach in Texas and going 32-0 and winning a pair of state titles in his only two seasons at Lake Travis in the Austin area.
Several current Arkansas players voiced their approval of the hire on Twitter. One comment from a former Razorback now at SMU resonated with Arkansas fans desperate for the program to find its footing once again in the SEC.
"Arkansas, y'all are getting a good one," tweeted quarterback Rafe Peavey, who began his career with the Razorbacks before transferring.
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