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Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011

Auburn football: Gus Malzahn will face protege Chad Morris at Clemson

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Long before he became Clemson’s offensive coordinator, Chad Morris’ coaching career was at a crossroads.

His highly successful run in the Texas high school ranks came into question in 2003, when he failed to make the playoffs after a 6-4 debut season at Stephenville High outside of Dallas.

The books, movies and TV shows don’t lie about Texas football.

“There weren’t a whole lot of Christmas parties I was invited to,” he said.

Morris sensed football was changing, that there was something cutting edge he needed to find, knowing if he didn’t he’d be seeking new employment.

It took him one state over to Arkansas, where he picked the brain of a young offensive innovator named Gus Malzahn, whose teams were plowing through the competition with an up-tempo, no-huddle attack.

Eight years after their personal and professional relationship began, Malzahn and Morris will meet as foes on a college football field when Auburn plays Clemson this Saturday, their high school days in the past but never far from their minds.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Morris said. “Just knowing the path that he took to get to where he is and the path that has led me to where I am today, I think that’s unique.”

High-school-to-college success stories are becoming more common these days. Art Briles, who helped build the ridiculously high standards at Stephenville that nearly got Morris fired, is thriving as Baylor’s head coach.

Malzahn, in his third year at Auburn, is the highest-paid coordinator in the country, a trail-blazer in the sense that he went straight from high school to a coordinator job in college.

Morris, his protégé, has followed his lead, making the college leap at Tulsa, where Malzahn once coached, before moving to Clemson in the offseason.

“I think Gus has opened up and paved the way for a lot of guys,” Morris said.

The two met through a friend of a friend back in 2003, although Malzahn was reluctant at first to divulge the secrets of his offense to someone out of the blue.

“I don’t know if Gus plays cards or not,” Morris said. “But I know if he did play cards, he’d be a heck of a poker player because like I said, he doesn’t show his hand very much.”

Morris persisted, though, eventually gaining trust by taking his entire coaching staff to watch Malzahn’s Springdale High team in the playoffs in back-to-back weeks.

“I knew he was a serious guy,” Malzahn said.

Malzahn didn’t give Morris the keys to his offense, but he gave him ideas. The difference was amazing.

Running at a lightning quick pace, Morris’ Stephenville teams went 43-6 the next four years. After that, he left for Lake Travis High outside Dallas, where he went 32-0 and won back-to-back state championships in 2009 and ’10.

“That year we went 6-4, while it was one of the more disappointing careers of my year, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Morris said.

While Morris continued to make his name at the high school level, Malzahn thrived in college. His offense impressed at Tulsa for two years, earning him a job at Auburn. A perfect season, Heisman Trophy winner and national championship later, he was the toast of college coordinators.

Malzahn continued helping Morris out. When Tulsa needed to replace him as coordinator in 2008, Malzhan suggested his friend. Then-Golden Hurricane coach Todd Graham, a former Texas high school coach himself, didn’t take the advice and Tulsa went 5-7.

Graham called Morris the next year. After turning him down three times, Morris, reluctant to leave his plum high school job, finally said yes. Morris’ offense finished fifth nationally his first year at Tulsa, averaging 505.6 yards per game as the Golden Hurricane went 10-3.

When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sought a new coordinator in the offseason, Malzahn again put in a good word for Morris. Swinney obliged. It prompted Malzahn to jokingly text Swinney this week, suggesting the Clemson coach spot Auburn seven points on Saturday for his Morris referral.

Their offenses aren’t carbon copies -- “You can’t go out and be Gus Malzahn,” Morris said. “You have to be yourself.” -- but they’re similar. Both use no huddle, both push the pace and both score points in bunches.

When the two meet Saturday, it will be a minor moment on the college scene, but a bigger one for what they represent to high school coaches.

“Hopefully things like this will give more high school coaches opportunities that we’ve been fortunate enough to both have,” Malzahn said.

“What it does it gives every high school coach out there in the country a hope,” Morris said. “And it tells them, yes, if I work hard, if I win and produce, this too can happen.”

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