Lunney takes over in interim
FAYETTEVILLE - Turns out the second half of the last close game that Chad Morris coached triggered the beginning of the end of his 22-game Arkansas Razorbacks tenure.
At Monday’s press conference explaining his Sunday decision to fire second-year coach Morris and to Arkansas reintroduce Barry Lunney, the former Razorbacks quarterback from 1992-1995 and the Razorbacks tight ends coach since 2013 under
Bret Bielema then Morris, as Arkansas’ interim head coach this season’s final two games, Yurachek described the impact of the second half of the 24-20 SEC loss at Kentucky.
It marked the third defeat in Arkansas’ current sevengame losing skid in its 2-8 overall, 0-6 SEC season still with two games to play.
Realizing Morris in 2018 inherited a 4-8 overall, 1-7 in the SEC 2017 team from
Bielema, Yurachek firmly supported Morris despite his 2-8, overall, 0-8 in the SEC debut.
And even after a disastrous 31-24 home nonconference loss to four-touchdown underdog San Jose State, Yurachek was heartened by the underdog Hogs’ fight in their 31-27 SEC loss to Texas A&M.
The Kentucky game cast doubt, Yurachek said. The ensuing 51-10, 48-7, 54-24 SEC losses to Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State, and nonconference loss to Western Kentucky confirmed them. Last Saturday’s 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky proved the final nail in the coach whose slogan was “Hammer Down.”
“I thought our program had taken some backward steps the past few weeks,” Yurachek said. “I look back to the second half of the Kentucky game. We fought really hard against Texas A&M. We played really well in the first half against Kentucky. I thought our season really turned when we couldn’t close out that game and get that win against Kentucky. I thought at that point in time our studentathletes were starting to lose belief on if we could actually ever get over the hump with the current leadership.”
Nobody presumed Arkansas would beat national powers Auburn and Alabama, but Mississippi State and certainly Conference USA Western Kentucky were deemed winnable games become losing routs.
“I don’t think we played very well and I don’t think we competed very well in either one of those (Auburn and Alabama) games, and we surely didn’t compete very well against Mississippi State or Western Kentucky this past Saturday,” Yurachek said. “I made a definitive decision after the game Saturday night. Chad and I meet every Sunday and we had met after the Mississippi State, and he understood from that meeting that the Western Kentucky game was a really key game for him and his tenure here.”
Yurachek, who approved Morris’ hiring but in reality didn’t hire him as he had not yet taken the Razorbacks’ athletic director job when former UA senior associate athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples led the search that hired Morris to replace Bielema, said Morris parts under terms of his contract.
Morris’ buyout over four years is reported to be $10 million.
“Obviously, it’s a challenge for us to take that money from somewhere and apply it to a buyout,” Yurachek said. “But, we’ve got a great chief financial officer that has assured me that we have the means to
do so, and I was comfortable making that change because of that.”
Yurachek said he parts “great friends” with Morris but did decisively address the question of the inevitable criticism that with not even two full seasons Morris had not been granted enough time to rebuild the Razorbacks.
“I didn’t have tremendously high expectations for us this season,” Yurachek said. “But one of those expectations was for us to go out each and every Saturday and compete like the Razorback football program should compete, and I thought we were no longer doing that. And I don’t think that takes time to motivate the players within your program to compete.
I think it was clear over the past couple of weeks that we were no longer competitive.”
Yurachek did say the circumstances makes finding the right coach imperative.
“I know I’ve got to get this search right,” Yurachek said. “We cannot afford as a department of athletics to go through this two or three years from now. The timing of this change gives me a little bit longer runway to really do my due diligence on this search and make sure we get the right candidate in here and that we allow that right candidate the time they need to build a program. Obviously it’s going to take steps. That first step is we’ve just got to be competitive.
As for the coaching search, other than possibly using a search firm just for candidates confidentially to make their availability known, Yurachek made it clear it begins and ends with him until submitted to Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz and the Board of Trustees.
“I have developed a list of candidates, absolutely,” Yurachek said. “I didn’t put any feelers out to see who’s interested. That’s not fair to Coach Morris for me to go out behind his back and see who may be interested in the position while I still have a sitting head coach.
But (with Morris dismissed) I will start that today and work through a list of candidates and add it up to see who truly is interested. I have no doubt we will have a strong candidate pool.”
As the interim head coach for this open-date week and final SEC games Nov. 23 at Ap-ranked No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with kickoff coming at 6 p.m., and Nov. 29 against Missouri at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Yurachek strongly endorsed Lunney, a Fort Smith native and the lone UA grad on the staff and a 1992 Razorbacks freshman quarterback when Coach Jack Crowe was fired after a season-opening loss to The Citadel and replaced as interim head coach by defensive coordinator Joe Kines.
“Barry Lunney is a former student-athlete,” Yurachek said. “He’s a Razorback, through and through. I asked Barry to step up under very tough circumstances, to take on the leadership of our football program. And without pause, he told me yes. I know I will get Barry’s best during the next three weeks, because he loves this football program, he loves this university, he loves this state and he’s invested in what we’re trying to do. And I know he truly loves the 120 men he’s now leading within our football program.”
Yurachek said from the meeting he told the team about Lunney coaching them that it’s reciprocated.
“The kids were really excited about Coach Lunney, I think for the reason we talked about,” Yurachek said. “He’s a Razorback. He’s walked in their footsteps. He understands what they are going through having an interim coach.”