Culture change key factor in football turnaround

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It was 12:15 a.m., but SMU head coach Chad Morris was bursting with energy. His Mustangs had just knocked off Tulsa 38-34 to earn their sixth win of the season. For the first time since 2012, the Mustangs were going bowling.

“I’m actually numb right now,” Morris said.

For Morris, it was a night that had been three years in the making. He had taken the helm in University Park in 2014, following a 1-11 season that saw the Mustangs finish among the worst teams in the nation. In the season before Morris’ arrival, SMU was last in points per game and second to last in points allowed per game.

From the moment he arrived on campus, Morris worked to change the culture of the team—to create a winning program from the ground up. In the days leading up to the Tulsa game, Morris reminded his players of that first year.

“We talked all week along about the journey that we’ve been on,” Morris said. “Every day along the way, just piling small decisions and to help change this culture—that all started 1,062 days ago. It truly has been one day at a time.”

It was a slow journey that at times seemed fruitless. In his first season at the helm, the Mustangs went 2-10, and lost to FCS James Madison at home. Still the Mustangs took small steps toward becoming a winning program. Steps that were easy to overlook. The offense, once last in the nation, ranked No. 73. Slowly but surely, Morris was setting the foundation.

“Growth was happening,” Morris said. “No one could see it, but it was happening. It was happening underneath the soil. The roots were taking place and the culture was taking shape.”

2016 saw the Mustangs upset No. 11 Houston at home. It was the biggest win for the program since SMU beat No. 6 Pittsburgh in the 1982 Cotton Bowl. One week later, a win at Tulane improved the Mustangs’ record to 4-4. With four games left in the season, the Mustangs only had to win two games to make a bowl.

But they couldn’t successfully do the job. After they lost to Memphis by 44 at home, and to USF by 8, a 75-31 drubbing at the hands of Navy all but sealed the Mustangs fate. They would have to wait until 2017 for another chance at a bowl game.

This year, Morris has seen his team do a complete 180. The Mustangs have fought hard to win football games, coming back from early deficits in four out of their six victories. This change is something that Morris didn’t see in past years and something that Morris and his players attribute to their culture.

One of the oft-repeated phrases in the Mustangs’ locker room is “E plus R equals O,” meaning events plus response equals outcome. It’s something the players repeat often. Several players even have the phrase in their Instagram bios. Morris and his staff have just drilled it into them.

“Every team meeting is about culture,” defensive end Justin Lawler said after the Mustangs beat UConn in a hard-fought game Sept. 30. “It’s all about a response.”

Morris said the past week led to a lot of reflection. He asked his players why they had come to SMU, why they had stuck it out in the dark times when the wins were few and the losses were many. Morris reflected with his coaching staff as well. Why had they taken the SMU job knowing they were facing a complete turnaround?

With reflection came answers.

“I saw it as an opportunity to change young men’s lives,” Morris said. “To help build where we are at today — that’s why.”

SMU’s 6-2 start is the program’s best start since 1984. The team is 5-0 at home for the first time since 1982 and only half a game behind Memphis in the AAC West standings. With the way the program has trended in the past few years, this season could already be considered a success.

Still, Morris isn’t happy yet. He is hungry for more wins and more achievements. After all, his culture doesn’t allow for complacency.

“This isn’t going to be the defining moment for these kids,” Morris said. “The defining moments are still to come.”

At the end of the day, Morris himself has to admit that he has taken the program to a new level—to heights that it has seldom seen since the days of the death penalty.

“There’s no question in my mind that the SMU Mustangs are trending in college football with what we have been able to do,” Morris said.

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