MUNCIE – Adam Morris needed a break. Then in his first year at Scioto High School in Dublin, Ohio, Morris had completed his season playing freshman football for the Irish. He was looking forward to the possibility of playing varsity as a sophomore. While he didn’t feel that was certain, he saw it as a strong possibility.
Morris didn’t play a winter sport that year, so he went to the football team’s weightlifting program every day. He maintained grades to be eligible to play football, but his preoccupation with the sport didn’t allow him to reach his full potential in the classroom. So Scioto coach Karl Johnson told him to take some time away from weightlifting during the spring, and to come back with improved academic marks.
“That just really had a profound impact on me,” Morris said. “To have to leave school every day where all my teammates were going to lifting, and ‘Why can’t I go?’ I couldn’t go just because my grades weren’t where they could have been.”
Morris’ grades improved, and after about a month off, he was back in the weight room. His grades never dropped back to where they were in the middle of his freshman year.
In addition to the academic improvement, Morris also became a standout player for the Irish, a starting defensive lineman who also saw some action on offense in certain situations. He went on to play at Ball State University, where he started every game in his junior and senior seasons.
“He’s got a motivation to be successful, and drive and determination,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest kid coming out of high school. And to go into Ball State as a Division-I guy and just have the determination and the will. And he’s just a high-character guy. He does things the right way and sets his goals on what he wants to achieve and then gets to work on them.”
Things have come full circle for Morris; he was recently appointed the head football coach at Central High School. As a coach, he’s come to realize the importance of the development of a player between his freshman and sophomore seasons, as it was for him, and it’s his job to facilitate that development, as Johnson did for him.
“It’ll be a big thing for us here,” Morris said. “You go from being in middle school to coming to the high school, but you’re still in freshman sports, a lot of kids are. So starting to make that transition from freshman football to what I was hoping to be varsity football, and you’re no longer a freshman in the building, that’s a really big time frame.”
Coming to Muncie the first time
Growing up in the Columbus, Ohio, area, Morris began playing football in the first grade. He did participate in other sports as a child, including soccer, golf and swimming, but football was the one that stuck.
Central graduate Eddie Faulkner, now an assistant coach at North Carolina State, was an assistant coach at Ball State at the time and recruited Morris to the Cardinals from Scioto.
Morris had hoped to make his commitment before practice started for his senior year, and Ball State was his only offer at that time. Looking back on it, though, he’s confident he would have chosen Ball State even if he had waited for other offers. He knew then that he wanted to pursue teaching and coaching after college, and he believes Ball State’s education program would have won out even if other schools had entered the mix.
He made the move to Muncie just in time for the historic 2008 season, when he played in two games as a true freshman. Ball State went 12-2, winning its first 12 games.
By the time Pete Lembo arrived as Ball State’s head coach before the 2011 season, Morris had started all 12 games in his junior season the prior year. He was a team captain in 2011, and he won the Paul Schudel Strength and Conditioning Award that Lembo and his staff instituted that season. Lembo, who often redshirts true freshmen, remembers wishing Morris had been redshirted as a freshman so he could coach him for two seasons instead of one.
“Adam was really one of the guys in the forefront, saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to give this a chance. We’ve got to embrace Coach Lembo’s plan and his staff’s plan,’” Lembo said. “And I just felt like he was one of those rock-solid guys that you knew might not be the biggest, fastest, strongest, but you knew he was going to practice hard every day and be very detailed. And just be the kind of grinder that you could build around.”
Morris hopes his experience of going through that transition to playing for Pete Lembo can be helpful in his current job. He played for three different coaches at Ball State, with Brady Hoke coaching the Cardinals in 2008, Stan Parrish in 2009 and 2010, and Lembo in 2011. Some of his players, especially those who started their high school careers at Southside, have been through a similar amount of coaching turnover, so he’s optimistic he can relate to them.
“If nothing else, I’m just sensitive to it,” Morris said. “But the kids have been great. There hasn’t been any issues as far as, maybe resentment, because they’ve played for so many people. The kids just want to play, I think they’re just happy to have somebody and they’re drawn to anybody who cares about them.”
After his playing career was over, Morris stayed in Muncie to complete his special education degree, and he served as an assistant coach at Central for the 2012 season.
Leaving and coming back
With his degree in hand, Morris then went to work as an assistant coach at Lawrence North beginning in the 2013 season.
Given his pedigree and their prior relationship, Johnson wanted Morris to return to Ohio and work for him. Morris elected to pursue coaching opportunities in Indiana instead.
When Morris went to work at Lawrence North, he was given the role of defensive line coach, a natural fit for a former college defensive tackle. As a young coach ambitiously pursuing a head coaching opportunity, Morris was always looking for opportunities to learn from other coaches on the staff. Seeking a leadership opportunity, he became the Wildcats’ special teams coordinator (and also the program’s junior varsity head coach).
“When you see a defensive lineman and he’s talking to the kick returners, those kids are going to be like, ‘Come on, coach, you never returned a kick in your life,’ ” Lawrence North defensive coordinator Ruben De Luna said. “But you don’t have to listen to him very long to understand, ‘OK, he knows what he’s talking about.’ Maybe he’s not done it, but he’s talked to guys who have done it and talked to guys who have coached it and he knows what he’s talking about.”
De Luna said the Wildcats players seemed to flock to Morris, and De Luna describes him as a ‘kid magnet.’
“(One thing) is his energy level and passion,” De Luna said. “The kids can see through phonies, and Adam’s not a phony. He’s genuine. He has a passion for kids and a passion for the sport, and I think the kids saw that. I think, too, since he was a little younger and a little less removed from college than the rest of us, the kids can find him on YouTube and see highlight films and that kind of stuff, where that stuff didn’t exist when me and some of the other coaches were playing. They saw themselves in Coach Morris.”
Morris spent part of the 2014 season on staff at Lawrence North. Then, when a change in his teaching job led him to Warren Central, he was an assistant coach there for the rest of the season. It was there he worked for Jayson West, the Warriors’ head coach. When Morris mentions the coaches that had a particular impact on his career, he first mentions Johnson. He said Johnson and his staff gave him such a positive experience in high school football, it made him want to stay involved in the sport.
Morris said De Luna had a particular influence on him in the way he teaches and installs football. When he’s at practice, his style is similar to De Luna’s. From West, Morris said he learned about managing a program, watching how West handled the other duties that come along with being a head coach.
Armed with what he had learned from those influences, and other coaches he’s played or worked for, Morris applied to return to Central to become a head coach for the first time, following the departure of Brad Seiss, for whom Morris worked in 2012. Morris was hired in June.
That left Morris with a quick turnaround as he set out to build his program. One of his first tasks was learning his player’s names, a more difficult job than other sports given football’s large roster size. He had a bit of an edge in having coached at Central in 2012, when the current seniors were freshmen, and from following the program from afar in the two seasons since. The process seems to be coming together.
“I feel good about the names, I really do,” Morris said. “Especially older kids. And then the next challenge is the freshmen.”
Senior cornerback Isaiah York said he didn’t play football during Morris’ first stint at Central, so he has enjoyed getting to know the new coach since his return. He said Morris is fun to be around, but there’s a clear sense that he has a passion for the sport and a business-like approach. York said the defensive meetings are an example, with a healthy does of laughter that also doesn’t interfere with the task at hand.
“How he addresses practice (is fun),” York said. “A lot of competition, we compete a lot, we have fun. It keeps us really motivated, he brings a fire here and it’s really cool.”
Senior center George Foley did get to know Morris when he was a freshman, so he felt a familiarity when Morris came back.
“He’s an up-tempo kind of guy, really high-energy,” Foley said. “He’s all about respect and things like that, likes to keep good manners on and off the field.”
Morris’ passion for football is long-standing, and he enjoys more than just the games on Friday nights. He loves practice, saying it might even be better than the games for the opportunity it provides to teach and be around the players.
But there is other teaching that also comes with the job. There will come a time when he is in Johnson’s shoes, when a player needs a boost between his freshman and sophomore years. His former coach thinks he’s up to the task.
“Absolutely, and I’ve seen him do it as an assistant coach already,” Johnson said. “Taking kids to practice at Ball State. He’s going to take those kids that might be, and he wasn’t rough around the edges by any stretch, but he can take those kids that are rough around the edges and show them a better way to do things that’ll help them. Everybody wants to be successful, not everybody wants to work to be successful. And he’ll do a great job of getting the kids to realize that you can’t be successful without work.”
Contact prep sports reporter Sam Wilson at (765) 213-5807. Follow him on Twitter @SamWilsonTSP.