Tusk to Tail: ‘Yuri’ and Coach Morris promise a future in the fast lane

by David Rice ([email protected]) 1,291 views 

Growing up in the south, an athletic director’s term was similar to that of the pope. Tusk to Tail came of age as Hog fans during the 1978 Orange Bowl, the season Frank Broyles had become full-time athletic director after three years as coach and AD.  Broyles remained in charge for another 30 years before retiring in 2007, and continued to serve as an ambassador for Arkansas ath-a-letics until his death last August.

It’s hard to follow a legend.

Ten years after Broyles retired, some still considered his successor Jeff Long a carpet bagger, a Yankee businessman more concerned with raising revenue and academic standards than he was with wins and losses. Long was good at his job, goading boosters to “answer the call” and “never yield” while erecting a monument to extreme wealth in the North endzone. The building he demolished to build new luxury suites and private loge boxes just happened to have been named after Broyles. Legacy schmegacy.

I bitched about Long as much as anyone, mainly because a tiny share of all that money he raised and spent so garishly had once been mine. But I always assumed his job was secure. The Arkansas AD is one of the most powerful positions in the state. Long practically seemed to be above the law.

Coach Bret Bielema, on the other hand, began the year on shaky ground. Things never got better for the Hogs in any phase of the game during Bielema’s fifth season as coach. Arkansas’ offense managed only 7 points in the first loss to TCU, then scored 45 yet still fell short an eighth and final time to Missouri. It was time for Bielema to go.

Shockingly, UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz and the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees threw Long’s body out the door first. Bielema was behind him at the unemployment line shortly thereafter. The $160 stadium renovation, rumored to be vastly over budget, had earned  Long a reputation of being manipulative for his own benefit. Fittingly, Long’s termination revealed that his contract contained a 4-year rollover clause, virtually unheard of for an athletic director.

Long will be paid as much as $4.625 million to no longer work at Arkansas. That’s chump change compared to the $11.9 million Bielema gets for doing whatever he pleases, as long as it’s not coaching the Razorbacks.

So we had no coach, no AD, and an interim AD saying she would solely conduct the coaching search one day, then announcing a high dollar search firm had been hired to help on the next. This was in addition to the high dollar search firm looking for our next AD. Meanwhile, rumors persisted that the power brokers on the Board had a plan, one that was going to take the Razorbacks to the next level, you see.

One would think Hog fans might be wary of trusting a roomful of men who had already thrown more than $16-and-a-half million into the woodchipper. Instead, we charged ahead like Charlie Brown at Lucy’s football, thinking this would be the time we get it right, knowing there may never be a time that we get it right.

It has hardly been a week since getting played by Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and his agent Jimmy Sexton. It already seems like an ancient ludicrous footnote, filed amongst the Altmans and the Grobes, the Jimmy Johnsons and the Bill Selfs. There was about a two-day period where both the Auburn and Arkansas fans, as well as most prominent sports media, strongly believed the Gus Bus was headed to Fayetteville. Malzahn was invoked at least twice as many times as the Lord’s name at my church last Sunday.

Once Auburn finally ended it all with a $50 million contract, Malzahn essentially became a white elephant gift. Like him or not, he now belongs to the Tigers and can never be traded back to Arkansas. Most of us claimed to never want him that badly anyway.

We still had no coach, still had no AD, and Plan A had blown up in our booster’s faces. It was time to swing for the fences. Make those search firms earn their money. I mean, any time you can land Houston’s athletic director and SMU’s coach for only $16.5 million in buyouts, you have to pull the trigger, right?

First came new AD Hunter Yurachek from Houston. Though from a non-Power 5 conference, Yurachek comes highly recommended by people who keep up with such things. He’s also got the name and at least some of the look and swagger of a Bond villain. My advice is to own it, Yuri. Work on your accent. Maybe wear an eye patch or stroke a furry white cat at press conferences.

Yurachek’s introductory presser boldly announced that changes were coming to the Hill. In response to a question from Talk Business & Politics, the new athletic director said the protection coaches are provided with in their contracts is getting out of hand.

“We’ve got to get a handle on coaches contracts and the buyouts,” he said. “To me, losing football games is being terminated with cause. The protection sometimes that coaches are provided within their contracts to me is ludicrous.”

It’s a fresh approach, particularly in light of that smoking crater where $16 million used to be. The university should have more leverage in these situations, yet almost always get outbluffed by Sexton.

Clearly change doesn’t happen overnight. Shortly after Yurachek’s introduction, Chad Morris was named the 33rd coach of Razorbacks football. It was later revealed that Morris’ 6-year, $21 million contract contained the same type of buyouts as every other coach at a major university.

Some fans were apprehensive about the Morris hire. As a high school coach in Texas, Morris had stacked up championships like cord wood, and he eventually became the highest paid assistant in college football as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Morris began his college head coaching career at SMU in 2015 and steadily improved their record each season. His relentless recruiting of Texas talent has revived the moribund Mustangs, earning a bowl berth for the first time since 2012.

Still the fact remains, Morris has a losing 14-22 record, and he’s never coached a bowl game as a college head coach.

My trepidations evaporated before Morris had his own introductory press conference. His first meeting with the players, recorded and broadcast across social media, signals that there’s a new sheriff in town, and he ain’t wearing flip flops.

“Here we go guys. Let’s do this for me,” Morris snapped at his new team. “Everybody sit up, everybody – feet on the floor. Put your drinks down.”

For a moment it sounded as if he were addressing his old high school team. But leadership trickles from the top down. That guy who didn’t shave on game day, the one playing reggae in his office and wearing flip flops to the walk-through was probably a little lax on discipline. That didn’t work out so well.

Coach Morris is a walking soundbite, delivering bursts of Texan bravado tempered with the confidence of a champion. Nearly every word he says signals a sea change from Bielema’s philosophy. He first emphasized the need to recruit speed.

“You either have speed or you’re chasing speed,” Morris told the assembled media.

Chasing speed would be an upgrade. Our team generally just watched the guy blow by them the past couple of seasons.

Following six seasons of plodding post-Petrino inefficiency, Tusk to Tail welcomes the change in philosophy. Maybe we really are better off without the Gus Bus. Morris brings the same offensive innovation and intensity, but at half the price. His recruiting pipeline into Texas should prove invaluable.

Buckle up for the Morris era. It looks like it’s going to be a fun ride.

“We’re going to put it in the left lane, pop the clutch and put the hammer down,” Morris said about his fast tempo, high scoring offense.

It may take a little time to get things rolling, considering Coach inherited a team built for comfort, not for speed.

There’s nothing worse than people who drive slow in the left lane.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, and David Rice. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics against the advice of attorneys and family. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail