When Chandler Morris stepped onto a small stage to announce his college commitment on Jan. 2, he was followed by his father, Chad.
Chad had seen hundreds of commitments on TV as a college coach. Some had gone his way and some didn’t. He would typically get anxious waiting to see whether the wide receiver he had poured so much time and resources into recruiting would choose his school or whether that game-changing running back would commit and add that needed piece to the offense.
He was usually on the other end of the screen, though. And this time, he was anxious for a different reason.
His son was about to make his college choice for the second time in his recruitment. The first time, he chose Arkansas, an opportunity that would have allowed father and son to team up. Playing for his dad was something Chandler had put a great deal of thought into, and Chad had the chance to put on his recruiting hat to try to get his son on his side.
“I just had to make sure I had a good relationship with his mom, that’s the big thing in recruiting,” Chad said jokingly. “You just try to give him an opportunity to be himself and his own man and grow. That was kind of a big deal for us. We just wanted him to grow into his own man, and I felt at Arkansas we had an opportunity to do some special things there. And we were looking forward to that.”
Chandler had been committed to Arkansas since June 2019. But after the Razorbacks fired Chad as head coach on Nov. 10 amid a 2-8 season, he withdrew his commitment.
He found himself in an uncomfortable predicament. As a recruit, his future head coach was fired, and he would now have to find a new landing place. But he also saw himself as a 17-year-old, watching his father publicly lose a dream job he had poured his heart into, a dream job that was supposed to give them more father-son time.
“Going through it as his son, it really hurt, especially to see a family member let go. That part was tough and it was tough on him, and all our family,” Chandler said. “We knew there were better things ahead, though. And as a recruit, especially going to play for your dad at Arkansas, that was a big positive, the reason why I wanted to go to Arkansas.”
Both Chad and Chandler took a step back from Arkansas together and a step back from the public debates about whether Chad deserved to lose his job and whether he had done enough on the field and in recruiting.
Yet Chandler saw his father allow doubt to creep in. Maybe the analysts were accurate. Maybe his firing was a sign he should step away from coaching, from the game that had given him so much.
“I told him I didn’t know if I was going to get back into coaching,” Chad said.
That’s when Chad got some advice — from the person whom he had taught everything.
“(Chandler’s) the one that brought the wisdom to me and said, ‘Dad the happiest you’ve ever been is coaching football,'” Chad said. “He said, ‘You’ve told us our whole lives when things get tough, you get back up and don’t flinch. You need to pick yourself back up and let’s not flinch.’ He was right, and that brought a lot of perspective back to it.”
Those words Chad once impressed on his children were now being used on him. And it reignited his passion for coaching.
He knew that at some point, he would go back. For the time being, he wanted to be home with his children and was set on turning the negative of losing his job into a positive of building bonds as a father.
Chandler’s high school team was in the playoffs, so the two spent time going over film and analyzing opponents. They made sure to spend some of his newfound free time away from football, too, to help create a balance.
“When all this happened, it was kind of an opportunity for us to step back and say maybe it wasn’t meant for me to coach you.”
“It was a lot of fun that he was home every day. I’d pick his brain and I felt like I was playing my best in the playoffs,” Chandler said. “A huge part of that was him being home, helping me study film. He was just able to be a dad and we got to go hunting together, which was fun. We had a good time, we don’t really get that opportunity to go this time of year, so it was fun to be with him.”
Chandler’s high school team went 11-2 and made a playoff run, but Highland Park lost in the regional semifinals of the state tournament 33-27 in overtime to Frisco Lone Star. He threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns while running for 83 yards and a score as well.
Though devastated by the loss, he had his dad by his side to console him. And Chad gave Chandler the same advice his son had given him only a short time ago: When things get tough, you don’t flinch.
“He was in tears and said, ‘Dad, I did all I could do,'” Chad said. “And I said, ‘That’s right. We’re not going to harp on it, we’re going to get better because of it.’ I said, ‘Let’s load up and go to the Iron Bowl tomorrow, because I know Gus (Malzahn) would love to have us.'”
The two packed up and left to go on a quasi-recruiting visit (after all, schools were coming after him again) that camouflaged as another opportunity to bond as father and son.
This time around, Chad sat back and helped as a father rather than a coach trying to land a commitment.
Little did they know, however, that just 10 days later, Chad would accept a job offer to join Malzahn at Auburn as offensive coordinator.
The job offer intrigued him, but it brought back the thoughts he had after being fired from Arkansas. It brought back the thoughts of the newfound time he could spend with his children as their dad. It wasn’t an offer he immediately jumped at accepting.
“I said, the contract I’m signing right now is Team Morris. This is my team,” Chad said. “I’ve been apart and I’ve been doing football and I’m not going to do anything unless Team Morris agrees. They were 100% on board with this, they wanted this.”
That meant that Chad had another opportunity to recruit his son, another chance to have that coach-player relationship.
But they reflected on the experience they had at Arkansas, how things went so sour so fast for Chad. What if something went wrong if Chandler was the quarterback for his father? How quickly could the experience turn into a negative?
Auburn had a spot for him, if he wanted it, but Chandler wasn’t sure that was the best decision.
“To be honest with you, just as I went through all that the last few months, I could see how if it didn’t go well it could’ve gotten really difficult for him and us as a family,” Chad said. “When all this happened, it was kind of an opportunity for us to step back and say maybe it wasn’t meant for me to coach you.”
On that stage, Chad stood nervously behind his son and watched as Chandler pulled out an Oklahoma hat from a backpack. As he did, they knew they wouldn’t have the opportunity to be coach and player.
But they also knew that over the last few months, they grew closer thanks to a negative situation. While Chad won’t be Chandler’s offensive coordinator, he’ll get a chance to nervously watch his son forge his own path and make his own decisions.
And he’ll get a chance to solely be his dad.