AUBURN – They’ve cut grass, lined fields, washed uniforms and taught classes. They’ve coached on dimly lit fields.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris
Gus Malzahn, No. 19 Auburn’s offensive coordinator, will look across the field Saturday and see ChadMorris, Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Not long ago, both were coaching their sport far from the glare of the spotlight of big-time college football.
Almost a decade ago, one high school coach reached out to another he’d heard of but never met. Malzahn, who was doing big things at Springdale (Ark.), shared the secrets of his cutting-edge offense with Morris, who had gotten off to a rocky start as the head coach in Stephensville, Texas. A friendship was born that is still strong today.
Malzahn and Morris are proud of their high school roots. They took the road less-traveled to college football’s fast lane. They’ll give that fleeting thoughts Saturday when they are on opposite sidelines at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium.
"I will always be a high school coach, and I'm proud of that,” Morris said. “It's who I am and I'll never back down from that. Eighteen years in Texas and then one in college, it's not like you start your whole career over.
"You take things you've learned for 18 years and you apply them to what you are doing now. I'm proud of that and it's something I won't back down from, ever."
Malzahn last coached at Springdale in 2005. He was offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006 and at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008 before joining Gene Chizik at Auburn and winning a national championship in his second season.
Morris’ career took off after he adopted Malzahn’s offense and added some of his own tweaks. The two became close friends, usually talking on the telephone at least once a week.
“He’s a great person,” Malzahn said. “He’s a wonderful coach. He’s an old high school football coach like me. He’s worked hard and been successful everywhere you’ve been.”
In 2009, after Malzahn left, Tulsa’s offense went in the tank and the season went with it. Malzahn talked Tulsa coach Todd Graham into hiring Morris from Lake Travis High School in Austin. The Golden Hurricane won 10 games, including a victory over Notre Dame. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was looking for a coordinator. With another strong recommendation from Malzahn, Swinney hired Morris.
Their unlikely journeys will cross paths for the first time Saturday. It might not be the last. Auburn and Clemson play again in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic to open next season.
“This is going to be a great week,” Morris said. “… He’s a great friend, a good person in his profession. He and his wife and their family are good people. So, yeah, is it going to make it a little more special this week? It’s going to be a lot of fun. He was texting me last night.”
Malzahn, too, says it’s going to be fun, though it’s safe to say there’ll be a bit of extra motivation for both coaches.
“We’ve talked about it,” Malzahn said. “Hopefully, things like this will give high school coaches opportunities that we’ve both been fortunate enough to have.”