FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The last time Arkansas coach Chad Morris felt this much pressure to win was nearly 20 years ago.
His first year at Stephenville High School in East Texas resulted in the Yellow Jackets missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. When the season ended, Morris made a visit that changed his career path: He went to Springdale, Arkansas, where Gus Malzahn was doing things few had ever seen before. Having already turned Shiloh Christian into an offensive dynamo, Malzahn was developing a powerhouse of a program at Springdale High and was coming off a state championship game appearance in just his second season.
It took effort for Morris to get some advice from Malzahn. But over the course of spring and summer 2003, the two became close and by the end of the 2004 season, Morris’ Stephenville squad was 10-1 and he was on his way.
Now, with the two scheduled to play against each other each year in the SEC, the advice part of their weekly chats has faded.
“We still talk every week but the week we play each other. I haven’t talked to him in over a week,” Morris said. “Nothing like we did when I wasn’t in the same conference with him.”
Morris is 18 games into his tenure at Arkansas without an SEC win to show for it. The Razorbacks (2-4, 0-3 SEC) are 4-14 overall and 0-11 in league play since his arrival. Malzahn’s 11th-ranked Auburn team (5-1, 2-1) visits Saturday.
Unlike last year, before the two had played each other as rivals, Morris hadn’t been asked much about his relationship with Malzahn in the week leading up to their game. Bigger things are at stake now. But just like in 2003, Morris is still taking the initiative to figure out how to turn things more favorably.
“You go back to just daily decisions and encouraging your players to continue to play hard, to see, to give examples of other teams,” Morris said. “Washington Nationals are a prime example. May 23, what are they, 12 games out of first place? Below .500. Only eight teams in the history of baseball have ever come back and made the postseason. That was on May 23. Sharing that with our team today was, ‘Look how they finished.“’
The Nats’ first trip to the World Series aside, Arkansas is not that far from being 5-1 or even 6-0. Other than a 14-point loss to Ole Miss, a game in which Arkansas trailed by just seven in the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks have lost by less than a touchdown each time. Still, the opponents have not been fearsome; Kentucky, which rallied to beat Arkansas last week, is just a .500 team itself.
“He’ll get the thing turned around. There’s no doubt about that,” Malzahn said. “You see them getting closer. They could have won the last two games. Had opportunities. Just a matter of time before they get over that hump.”
He is not exactly a stranger to coaching pressure, either. Malzahn was rumored to be Arkansas’ top choice to fill the vacancy left by the firing of Bret Bielema after the 2017 season. The Arkansas native and a former offensive coordinator with the Razorbacks, Malzahn’s seven seasons at Auburn have been tenuous. A loss to Arkansas would give his critics fresh fodder.
A Razorbacks win would certainly be a boon for Morris. He was 2-4 his second season at SMU in 2016, too, when the 11th-ranked team in the country visited Dallas. SMU came away with a 38-16 win over Houston and, after the next year, Morris jumped to the SEC.
“It’s going to turn. It’s turned in the previous places I’ve been a part of,” Morris said. “It’s difficult being stuck in a corner. It’s not fun at times being stuck in a corner. The only way to get out is to put your head down and keep swinging and keep working.”
Sounds just like the sort of advice Malzahn might give him. Just not this week.
“I think the glaring thing that stands out to me is his guys are playing extremely hard. And that’s a tribute to him and his staff,” Malzahn said. “Like I said, some other teams around the country that lose a game or two and they don’t play hard. He’ll hang in there.”
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