Razorbacks experienced mixed bag under first-year football coaches

Chad Morris / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Chad Morris is the Razorbacks’ eighth head football coach since Frank Broyles stepped down from his head coaching role in December of 1976 to totally focus on his duties as the University of Arkansas’ athletics director.

I guess you could call him the 10th if you want to count interim head coaches like Joe Kines, who coached the final 10 games of the 1992 season after Broyles fired Jack Crowe following the season-opening, 10-3 upset to The Citadel, and John L. Smith who took over for a season in 2012 after former UA athletics director Jeff Long fired Bobby Petrino for inappropriate conduct that spring.

Smith never had a chance to retain the head coaching position. He was a stop-gap. Long felt he would have a better choice of candidates in December rather than in April to hire the best possible coach.

Kines did have a shot in 1992, but when the Razorbacks lost 10-3 at Mississippi State and 24-19 to SMU on successive November weekends, not even beating LSU, 30-6, in the final game of the season could save the job for Kines.

Broyles did pick Danny Ford, whom Kines had brought in midseason to work as an offensive and kicking-game consultant, to be the Hogs’ next head coach. Ford, who played offensive tackle for Bear Bryant at Alabama, had won a national championship at Clemson in 1981 and five ACC championships, and kept the Tigers a player on the national scene until he was dismissed in January of 1990 after getting crosswise with the chancellor.

Ironically, Ken Hatfield left Arkansas’ head coaching position after winning back-to-back Southwest Conference title to replace Ford at Clemson in January of 1990.

I’ll never forget the look on Kines face after that LSU game when he met Broyles and Ford laughing together on the ramp leading up to the training room in the old indoor workout facility as Kines left the players locker room. Kines’ face was jovial coming out of the locker room, but it sunk quickly. He guessed what was up.

The following Monday, Broyles named Ford head coach. However, the affable, veteran defensive expert stayed on as Ford’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach the next two seasons before he moved on to Georgia in 1995.

Bret Bielema / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Odd stuff like that just seems to happen at Arkansas.

But I digress.

The seven head coaches between Broyles and Morris were Lou Holtz from 1977-83, Hatfield from 1984-89, Crowe from 1990-92, Ford from 1993-97, Houston Nutt from 1998-2007, Petrino from 2008-11, and Bret Bielema from 2013-2017.

Of those seven, only three — Holtz, Hatfield, and Nutt — had winning seasons their first year at Arkansas.

If you go back to Broyles’ first season as the Razorbacks head coach in 1958, he didn’t have a winning first season either. His first group of Hogs lost their first six games before going 4-0 in November. That’s where Broyles’ old axiom that the fans “Remember November” came from.

That’s something to think about as we prepare for Morris’ first year as Arkansas’ head coach. It’s not impossible to have a winning first season at Arkansas, but even coaches that created high levels of success at Arkansas and elsewhere like Broyles, Ford, and Petrino couldn’t manage it.

Holtz had his best year at Arkansas in his first season of 1977. He had good teams thereafter, but Broyles left him an incredibly well-stocked cupboard of talent including one of the best defensive teams the Razorbacks have ever had, featuring Dan Hampton, Jimmy Walker, Dale White, Larry Jackson, Howard Sampson, and Vaughn Lusby among others. The Razorbacks also had a high-powered offense for its day and age. Holtz worked Ron Calcagni into a very good option quarterback, working out of the Veer with back like 1,000-yard rusher Ben Cowins, Michael Forrest, and Orange Bowl hero Roland Sales to hand off to. Robert Farrell, Donnie Bobo, and Bobby Duckworth were key receivers. The Texas Longhorns, featuring “The Tyler Rose” Earl Campbell, tagged the Hogs with their lone defeat that season, 13-9, in Fayetteville, despite All-American kicker Steve Little booting an NCAA record-tying, 67-yard field goal.

By the end of the season, the Razorbacks might have been the best team in America. Arkansas trounced Oklahoma, 31-6, in the Orange Bowl without Cowins, Forrest, and Bobo, whom Holtz suspend from the game after the trio were accused of a sexual assault in the Wilson-Sharpe Dormitory. Charges were later dropped against the three. The Hogs were voted 3rd after the bowls.

Holtz coached six more seasons at Arkansas and had a 60-21-2 record, and his 1978 team finished 11th, his 1979 team 8th, his 1981 team 16th, and his 1982 team 9th.

Houston Nutt / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Broyles fried Holtz after a 6-5 season in 1983 because of off-the-field issues as much as on-the-field; however, it was clear that Holtz had let recruiting slip after his first couple of seasons on the hill.

While the Razorbacks are not devoid of talent, Bielema certainly didn’t leave a top-five talent in place for Morris like Broyles did Holtz. Arkansas’ front-line defensive talent might be the best the Hogs have had since Arkansas finished with a top-10 defense in 2014, but depth is thin.

Arkansas has the raw material for a solid offensive line and a good running game, but so much of Arkansas’ new offense rests in the hands of the quarterback, and from what Morris tells us that job is still up in the air going into fall practice. Morris is an offensive whiz like Holtz, but nobody should expect the Razorbacks to be eve close to 11-win territory this season.

When Hatfield, an All-American kick-off returner and defensive back for the Hogs’ 1964 national championship team, did not inherit a fully-loaded roster from Holtz for the 1984 season either, but Hatfield was use to doing more with less at Air Force.

The Razorbacks were small but quick on both sides of the ball, and had a never-say-die toughness that made that season one of the most exciting in Arkansas history, despite finishing 7-5.

Had the Hogs beat SMU in the regular-season finale, they would tied for the conference championship and have made their first Cotton Bowl trip since the 1975-76 season, but the Mustangs nudged Arkansas, 31-28. The Razorbacks also were within a 4th-and-1 dropped pass of beating Auburn and Bo Jackson in the Liberty Bowl but fell, 21-15, to the Tigers.

Quarterback Brad Taylor wasn’t the ideal quarterback for Hatfield’s Wishbone-based offense, but he was a gunslinger that season throwing darts to sophomore targets James Shibest and Donnie Centers and senior Bobby Joe Edmonds out of the backfield. Freshman Tony Cherico was a super-quick, surprise standout at nose guard for Arkansas on defense.

Bobby Petrino / Staff photo

Talent-wise this team reminds me a bit of what Morris is taking over this season. There is ability, but not enough of it. The big difference though was that Taylor was an experienced and talented quarterback, who was a rugged and tough leader.

Taylor had one of the best arms of in terms of accuracy and strength in Arkansas history. His arm wasn’t on Joe Ferguson or Ryan Mallett’s level in terms of strength, but it was the next level down. Taylor was far more mobile than either of those two and was more accurate than Mallett.

Unfortunately, Morris has no one remotely similar to Taylor in his quarterback room going in to this season.

Nutt didn’t inherit a team from Ford in 1998 as loaded as what Holtz received from Broyles back in 1977, but it wasn’t that far off.

Ford left the Razorback program much healthier than he found it, and he had taught his players how to work, prepare, and be tough especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

Nutt’s first team had a hunger to win that he and his defensive co-coordinators Keith Burns and Bobby Allen stoked with a brand of enthusiasm that lit the team on fire for an eight-game winning streak to start the season.

Fans went from wondering whether Arkansas could beat SMU in the summer to dreaming of a national championship late in the season thanks to play by Hogs like Brandon Burlsworth, Madre Hill, Clint Stoerner, Anthony Lucas, C.J.McLain, David Barrett, Michael Williams, Emanuel Smith, Russ Brown, Grant Garrett, Zac Painter, Kenoy Kennedy, Ryan Hale, Melvin Bradley, and Quenton Caver among others.

Frank Broyles / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The season unraveled with the Hogs losing three of their final four games, including the Florida Citrus Bowl to Michigan and no-name quarterback Tom Brady, but that 9-3 season stirred life and hope back into the program that had been missing for nearly a decade.

From what we know about what’s returning for the Razorbacks, it does not seem that Bielema left that the type of talent behind for Morris, or a team with that type of hunger or experience. The 1998 Razorback squad wanted to win desperately. The returning Razorbacks never played with that kind of urgency for Bielema.

That’s why most are calling Arkansas’ trip to Colorado State as a huge game for Morris’ Razorbacks. It appears to be a key game the Razorbacks need to win if they hope to have a winning season or better.

From what we know about the returning players and Arkansas’ SEC slate, it’s difficult not to be wary and for some pessimistic going into the season, but with a new coach, a new attitude, and new offensive and defensive schemes, there is hope.

But Hog fans need to remember that patience is a virtue, and that Broyles and Petrino both had losing records their first seasons at Arkansas, but shortly thereafter led Arkansas to some of the program’s best seasons.