Marc Morris didn’t wait around to be formally approved to take over the Carolina Forest football program to get cranking.
In the two weeks since it was announced his name would be presented to Horry County Schools, Morris has met with returning players and existing assistant coaches. He also finalized plans to bring at least two of his Cleveland (N.C.) assistants and another N.C. coach with him.
But more importantly, he has put himself in front of some of the people who will be charged with helping him build the perennial losing program into a contender. Morris has already met with members of the Carolina Forest Booster Club and students, teachers and parents at Ocean Bay Middle School.
“We felt like it was important to let the kids know, calm down all the rumors,” Morris said. “The way kids can bounce around down there, we felt it was important to talk to them. ‘I’m the coach at Carolina Forest, just relax.’ We wanted to put a face to the name, let them know how excited we are about being there.
“I think that’s something that will work both ways.”
At least one high-profile player has already transferred out of Carolina Forest. Rumors of more have swirled. That was of little surprise to those involved with the Panthers’ program following a 3-19 record the past two years and a coaching change.
Morris wanted to do his part to clamp off the departures, as well as the potential public relations hit.
“I know that when we talked with him, he wanted to make sure the middle school knew how important they are to the program,” Carolina Forest Booster Club President Joe Johnson said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it was lacking [before], but with him, it’s a major involvement. When you lose a coach, you have to make sure you keep the community involved.”
No quick fix
The struggles at Carolina Forest have been well-documented.
Despite a booming enrollment that now places the school as one of the state’s Big 16 football programs, the roster size and wins have not followed suit.
Former coach Drew Hummel, who stepped down on Nov. 11, was 30-57 in eight years with the team. He led the Panthers to the 2007 Class AAA playoffs. That may have been the high-water mark of his tenure.
The team was able to put together 7-4 seasons in 2010 and 2011 with the help of a non-region schedule that was considered weak for a Class AAAA program. The Panthers never did produce in Region VI-AAAA. They were 6-22 in region play from 2008 on and didn’t win a single game against a region opponent in 2008 or 2013.
Carolina Forest’s losing ways pre-date Hummel, though.
Overall, the team has qualified for the postseason just four times in 16 years. Of the first four coaches at the school, only one had an overall winning record. And that was Robbie Brown, who served as the team’s interim coach in 2004 while Doc Davis was serving in Iraq as part of his South Carolina National Guard commitment.
That is all information Morris had when he researched the job that is a formality away from being his. As the school did with Hummel, Morris should have some time to turn the team around.
“I think it’s a process. It’s not something you’re going to do in one year,” Johnson said. “Say for example he has five wins, or he has one win and someone gets injured – I don’t think it’s so much about the [wins] in the first year. It’s about the excitement about bringing in someone new.”
Morris won’t be going at it alone.
Defensive coordinator Travis Gaster, Morris said, is slated to start at Carolina Forest in April. Quarterbacks coach Shane Dular, most recently the head coach at South Johnston (N.C.), and likely offensive line and junior varsity coach Ken Shoemaker will also be joining the Panthers’ new head coach.
In Gaster and Shoemaker, Morris will have two of the familiar faces that helped him build Cleveland from a start-up program in 2010 to one that advanced to the third and second rounds of the N.C. playoffs in the last two seasons. They were also affiliated with Morris’ Harnett Central team that went to the state finals in 2009 in his final year at that school.
Still, he said it’s not going to be a complete overhaul.
“We are going to keep some current members who are on staff now,” Morris said. “I think it’s important to have a couple guys there to bridge the gap, that know the kids and the community. There are some quality coaches.”
Morris would not say exactly which assistants would be asked to return. So far, the only ones who certainly won’t be coming back are Will Bratcher, who has started a full-time teaching and coaching position at Conway, and Joe Bernard, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Albany.
Morris said he will arrange one-on-one meetings with the rest before the start of spring practice in May.
As for the new head coach, he will be pulling double duty in the next three months. He is under contract at Cleveland, where he also serves as an assistant athletics director, through the end of the school year.
His oldest daughter, Courtney, will be graduating from the high school this spring.
That won’t stop him from beginning the transition.
Building success together
One of the biggest knocks on Carolina Forest the past few seasons has been the defense.
The offense has put up some decent numbers behind the likes of quarterbacks Will Brunson and Danny Daly and a score of skill-position players, some of whom are now playing in college. But that defense was ultimately the undoing against one of the state’s toughest schedules.
Carolina Forest allowed 50.8 points per game last year, a figure that ranked dead last among every South Carolina High School League team. Five opponents – fellow Class AAAA programs Fort Dorchester, White Knoll, Goose Creek, South Florence and West Florence – each dropped 55 or more on the Panthers.
Cleveland was slightly better last fall, giving up 32 points per game, but it allowed fewer than 19 per game in 2012. During Morris’ final season at Harnett Central, the Trojans gave up a stout 12.6 points per game en route to reaching the state final.
Neither of those programs were in N.C.’s biggest class, but they weren’t far off. Harnett Central played in Class 4A (the state’s second-largest football division). After a year in 3A in 2011, Cleveland moved up to 3AA, the third-biggest of eight football playoff classifications.
The wins never stopped.
Between the two schools, Morris was 96-25, a record that includes 31 more wins than Carolina Forest has in its 16 seasons of play.
Of course, Cleveland’s offenses have had quite a bit to do with that, too. In 2013, the Rams’ spread offense piled up nearly 2,600 yards on the ground – including 2,100 from Coastal Carolina University signee and Shrine Bowl selection Isaac Martin. Cleveland also threw for 2,000 yards.
“I think one thing kids will get excited about is the tempo we play at,” Morris said. “Once they get out there and see what we do, we put a lot of faith in our quarterback.
“I think we like the system because it’s so multiple. It goes to a large range of kids. When I got to Cleveland, we were enormous. When we were at Harnett Central, we were small and fast. We can adapt it to the kids themselves. … We’ve been fortunate enough that kids bought into it.”
He’s begun to work on that, and not just in terms of his offensive and defensive strategies.
The meetings with players, both those already at Carolina Forest and the next crop, have been a priority. He wants to convince people that his style can win in a place where victories have been far exceeded by losses.
He built a winner out of Harnett Central, which previously had struggles similar to Carolina Forest. He then developed Cleveland’s program from nothing.
“The resume was very good,” Johnson said before identifying what he believed was Morris’ most impressive talking points. “He’s all about the kids. Of course you want the wins, but for him, the biggest thing was the kids.
“The coaches have to be a part of the kids’ lives, if they’re doing the things they need to do.”
That style has worked before, if for no other reason that Morris makes sure people know it’s not just about him.
He’s planning a meet-and-greet with parents, and he’s started to preach his three Fs – family, faith and future.
“I embrace community involvement with my program. After all, it’s the community’s team. It’s the senior’s team. We want them to feel like they’re a part of what we do, “ Morris said. “We look forward to the challenge. We feel it’s a great community, and one that’s been wanting a successful person in there.”