FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Chad Morris is wading carefully through a discussion of the trials and travails of his first season at Arkansas – the Razorbacks are 1-5 – when he is interrupted. Barry Lunney, the Razorbacks’ tight ends coach, appears at the glass doors to Morris’ office. He smiles and hands an iPhone to the head coach, who disappears into the hall to talk with an important recruit, Little Rock’s Hudson Henry.
Ten minutes later, Morris reappears. He hands the phone back to Lunney. They high-five. And let’s be clear: a commitment from the No. 1 tight end in the country as ranked by 247Sports is worth celebrating at any time, in any college football program. But when you’re in your first season, and you’ve won one game in six tries?
“It just reaffirms the course that we’re on, and to stay the course,” says Morris, who was prohibited by NCAA rules from specifically discussing the recruit – but Henry announced his decision Thursday.
Beaming over a victory that many will never see and pointing to a a note atop his desk, Morris continues:
“I’ve got written right here: ‘Be present, not perfect.’ Stay the course. Be who you are. And then you get phone calls like this.”
And then you tally victories when you get them.
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A coach’s first season is difficult, almost by definition. They usually inherit difficult situations. The exception is when a new hire takes a team to dramatic improvement. But at the midpoint of the season, several highly anticipated new hires are struggling – some far beyond what anyone would have predicted.
* Chip Kelly, who was easily considered the most sought-after coach on last year’s carousel, is winless in five games at UCLA.
* Scott Frost, Kelly’s former protégé, who returned home to Nebraska amid hopes he would restore the Huskers’ glory, is winless in five games, too. The Cornhuskers have equaled the worst start in the program's 129-year history.
* Willie Taggart is 3-3 at Florida State, which seems great by comparison to Kelly and Frost. But halfway through the season, the Seminoles are seen as one of the biggest disappointments in college football – and that was before blowing a 20-point lead to lose last Saturday at rival Miami.
Though the reasons varied, expectations for the new guys’ debut seasons were high at all three places. But perhaps they shouldn’t have been. Frost, Kelly and Morris took over programs that each had four wins in 2017. Taggart took over Florida State after the worst season since the end of the Bobby Bowden era.
None of the four programs were expected to do more than one thing: improve. Instead, their starts have been disastrous. On the Pac-12’s weekly teleconference last week, someone asked Kelly: What’s the hardest part of 0-4 right now?
“Our record,” Kelly said.
Anything beyond that?
After a 31-24 loss to Washington, the record is 0-5. In the spirit of dubious “first time since” notes, it’s the Bruins’ worst start to a season since 1943. And don’t try to tell Kelly things are getting better, that a very young team is showing improvement. He clearly believes they are, but in his postgame interview session after the loss to the Huskies, he made this point and then reiterated it:
“You’ve got to win, you know what I mean? We’re not into moral victories,” Kelly said. “We don’t go in and high-five each other and say, ‘Hey, that was close. Yay team!’” There’s a winner and a loser. … I’m not a guy that gets solace in, ‘We were close,’ you know what I mean?"
The struggles are exacerbated, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek says, because of our larger culture is increasingly geared toward instant gratification. Failure is magnified in some cases because once the coaches are hired, those first offseasons are filled with optimism, all possibility and potential. And then a very different reality sometimes sets in.
“I don’t know if anybody has any magic pixie dust that they can come in and sprinkle and make your program all of the sudden better,” he says.
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