CLEMSON -- Clemson's new offensive coordinator Chad Morris was not invited to many Christmas parties after his first season as head coach at Stephenville High School.
Sun-baked Stephenville rests on the flat plains of central Texas, where its 14,000 inhabitants rally around football on Friday nights. In 2003 under Morris, the program had failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. The school had won four state titles under former coach Art Briles in the 1990s.
The seat was uncomfortably hot for Morris. He needed to change philosophies. Through the friend of a friend, Morris was told about a coach in Arkansas running a cutting-edge scheme. The offense was wildly interesting to Morris. Morris was told about plays run at a lightning pace. Eighty plays per game. More possessions, more points. It appealed to his statistical sensibilities. Morris, who graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in mathematics and a minor in statistics, was intrigued.
Give him a call, Morris was told, it couldn't hurt. He made the call, which eventually led him to master a new offense and the job at Clemson. The coach's name? Gus Malzahn.
"(Malzahn) didn't believe me. He thought I was a rival coach that was trying to steal information from him," Morris said of Auburn's offensive coordinator.
"So I said 'Coach, I'm going to fly from Dallas to watch you play in a playoff game.' "
Morris flew to Arkansas, watched Springdale play and was impressed. He met Malzahn, who remained skeptical and apprehensive.
"I said, 'Well, I'm going to come back next Friday if you don't believe me.' So he said 'OK,' " Morris said. "When he saw me the following Friday come to watch him he said, 'OK this guy is for real.' We set up a time and built a friendship."
For the next five years Morris would take his staff to wherever Malzahn was: Springdale High, the University of Arkansas, where Malzahn was hired as the offensive coordinator, and Tulsa, where Malzahn was also hired as a play-caller.
Meanwhile, Morris had gone from the scourge of Stephenville to beloved, leading the program to a 75-6 record from 2004 to 2008.
"Morris is extremely sharp," Malzahn told the Tulsa World. "We shared ideas both ways. I got ideas from him, too. We just kind of kept that relationship."
In 2008, Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, called Morris asking if he could tutor his staff on how to install the no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Morris himself was becoming less of a secret.
When Tulsa needed a new offensive coordinator last season, Malzahn, the second-year coordinator at Auburn, recommended his friend, Morris, to Tulsa.
Morris led Tulsa to an offense ranking fifth in total yardage and eighth in scoring this season.
"We talk weekly," Morris said of Malzahn. "Gus and I go way back. I'm very honored that he lent a helping hand when I was kind of down. Coaches borrow. My philosophy is a lot of what Gus has believed in."
Morris has also taken elements from Urban Meyer's spread-option at Florida. He said he's borrowed from a countless number of coaches, strategies traced back to Sid Gillman and Don Coryell.
Like many Clemson fans, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was unfamiliar with Morris until he began researching different offenses, looking for a new approach just like Morris had done eight years earlier in Texas.
In his search, Swinney found Tulsa was five wins better with Morris than the year before after Malzahn had departed. Tulsa was ranked in the top 15 in both rushing and passing and had run 1,008 plays in 2010 compared to Clemson's 798.
Swinney can only hope the student mirrors Malzahn's success in a power conference.
Morris and Malzahn meet later this year in Death Valley when Auburn travels to Clemson. Their relationship started with a coach on the hot seat, seeking change, compelled to make a phone call. This Christmas season it was Swinney facing criticism, seeking a new direction in perhaps his defining hire.
"I've talked to Gus several times at length about Chad," Swinney said. "I think it's important to note Auburn won seven regular season games last year. We won six. They were 3-5 in conference play last year, they we were 4-4. This year, they won a national championship for first time since 1957."
What's next for Clemson?
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