by Mark Carter
Hunter Yurachek said he reached a “definitive decision” to fire Chad Morris as head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks following the Hogs’ disappointing blowout loss to Western Kentucky on Saturday in Fayetteville.
Yurachek, Arkansas’ second-year athletics director, said he had explained to Morris following the Mississippi State loss on Nov. 2 that the team needed to show improved effort moving forward. It didn’t, and Yurachek now is in the market for a football coach. He introduced interim head coach Barry Lunney Jr. Monday at noon in Fayetteville during a press conference televised statewide.
“I know I’ve got to get this search right,” Yurachek said in explaining the rationale in letting go of a coach less than two full seasons into his tenure. Morris, though, never approached the 4-8 mark that ultimately led to Bret Bielema’s dismissal in 2017. He went 2-10 overall his first season which included a program-first winless conference record, and this season the Hogs were 2-8 and still winless in SEC play after the WKU debacle. And the team hasn’t been competitive in a game since blowing a two-touchdown first-half lead at Kentucky on Oct. 12.
Both Yurachek and Lunney cited the UK game as pivotal. “I think it turned after Kentucky,” Yurachek said. “I thought the players lost the belief that they could get over the hump.”
Lunney added that the team hadn’t been the same since halftime of that game. “We haven’t recovered from that.”
Last season, the Hogs built a 17-point second-half lead against Ole Miss in Little Rock only to lose in the final minute. Morris later confessed that the loss “took the wind out of our sails,” and the team never recovered.
Lunney is a Fort Smith native and former Hog quarterback who has served on the Razorback staffs of Houston Nutt, Bielema and Morris, for whom he coached tight ends and special teams. He generally is considered the most likely member of the current staff to be retained by the new coach because of his Arkansas ties.
As for the coaching search, Yurachek said he will lead the search himself and utilize a consulting firm only to gauge interest of candidates and conduct background checks. He declined to reveal potential candidates on his list.
UPDATE: Per Hawg Sports, SportsLine on Monday afternoon released its odds on who will be the next head Hog. Memphis coach Mike Norvell, who played college ball at UCA and whose wife is from Arkansas, leads the pack with 3-to-1 odds.
Highlights from the press conference:
- Yurachek said he saw a program that was regressing and not even competitive against non-Power 5 teams. “I got the sense that our players were no longer enjoying the experience of playing.”
- The UA will honor the terms of Morris’ roughly $10 million buyout, which calls for a payout of 70 percent of the contract’s value over its remaining four years. Yurachek insisted that he was reassured the university could afford the buyout.
- Yurachek said he had developed a list of potential candidates but out of respect for Morris, has not yet contacted anyone to gauge interest in the job before the firing. “We will have a very strong candidate pool,” he said.
- He said Morris understood that Western Kentucky was a “key game” for his future as Razorback coach, and doesn’t believe the firing took Morris by surprise. “He understood it was a professional decision.”
- Tight end C.J. O’Grady will not be returning to the team.
- Lunney said he’s the right man for the job and recalled his freshman year for the Hogs. In 1992, Arkansas’ inaugural SEC season, the Hogs fell to 1-AA The Citadel in the opener in Fayetteville, costing Jack Crowe his job. Defensive coordinator Joe Kines took over as interim, and the Hogs limped to a 3-7-1 mark. But one of those wins was at then No. 4 Tennessee in Lunney’s first start. Lunney said Kines helped sew the seeds for what would become an SEC West title season three years later. That can happen now, he said. “He gave us hope and confidence,” he said.
- Lunney admitted that being head coach of the Hogs has been a lifelong dream, but insisted his only focus is getting players ready to close the season the right way, “fighting like Razorbacks.” The Hogs finish the year at LSU on Nov. 23 and in Little Rock against Missouri on the Friday after Thanksgiving. “Our only goal is to play our best football game of the year in Baton Rouge, period,” he said.
- Lunney on what it’ll take for the new coach to succeed: “Whether you’re from here or not, it’s important to understand and embrace our culture. You have to understand the history and heritage of our program.”
- No staff changes are planned outside of moving special teams assistant Daniel De Prato from a consulting role to an on-field coach.
- Lunney declined to name a starter at QB. Criticism of the Morris regime included failure to develop a consistent starter there. Lunney on not giving anything away to LSU: “We’ll Gomer Pyle ‘em. Surprise, surprise, surprise.”