If Troy Morrell had a quarter for every time somebody has asked him why he’s still coaching football at Butler Community College after years of great success, he’d be rich enough to not have to coach.
The question is wrapped in respect, of course. People are amazed at what Morrell has accomplished during his 12 seasons in El Dorado after a quick four-year rise from part-time assistant to head coach. It’s obvious to everyone that the 41-year-old Morrell really knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by the 127 players and counting he has sent to higher levels of football.
But there’s also something deflating about the question. It’s as if those who ask Morrell why he’s still at Butler think he should be driven only by ambition and the monetary rewards that come with advancement. Morrell tells them, simply, that he enjoys coaching at Butler and has no desire to take an assistant’s job, working for somebody else, at some ambiguous university.
Can’t Morrell simply be content?
“I’ve had opportunities to leave for certain things,’’ Morrell said in his typical understated way. “But nothing seemed too intriguing.’’
Then he went into a spiel about his family – son Dylan, a seventh-grader; daughter Madelyn, a fourth-grader; and his wife of almost 20 years, Jessica – about how family life is precious and about how he doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it.
“I’m a humble type of person,’’ Morrell said. “I don’t need all the … I’m not that hungry guy that’s out there needing my name in the spotlight. I’m just kind of low-key.’’
And low key, as unusual as it is in the football coaching profession, isn’t a bad thing.
Morrell doesn’t blare on a trumpet to inspire his players. He speaks to them softly, yet forcibly, about the right way and the wrong way to play football.
Player turnover at Butler, like every community college, is high. The Grizzlies’ roster turns over every couple of years, yet the consistency of winning has remained high.
Since Morrell took over for James Shibest in 2000, Butler is 136-16. The Grizzlies are 88-4 in Jayhawk Conference games and 27-3 in Region VI playoff competition. They won national championships in 2003, 2007 and 2008, and if they get past Hutchinson on Sunday afternoon at home in the Region VI championship game, they probably will have a chance to win another.
The Grizzlies thumped the Blue Dragons 40-7 just a couple of weeks ago in Hutchinson. Butler has outscored its 10 opponents 586-99.
Morrell says a lot of the success has to do with a coaching staff that he has been able to mostly keep together, although there are some new assistants among this year’s group. He praises Butler’s players, administration, boosters and everyone who lives in and around El Dorado.
He doesn’t do is pat himself on the back. That’s not his style.
That lack of ego and ability to be comfortable in his own skin is why he’s perfectly fine coaching at Butler as some around scratch their heads, wondering in wonder as to why he doesn’t go for the big bucks.
But there are no guarantees.
Shibest left after four outstanding seasons, that included two national titles, to join Houston Nutt’s staff at Arkansas as special teams coach. Hard to argue that decision, and Shibest was in Fayetteville for seven seasons before Nutt was fired.
Shibest moved with Nutt to Mississippi in 2008, where he spent four seasons with special teams before Nutt was again let go.
This season, Shibest, sans Nutt, coached special teams at Memphis, where the ice is once again thin.
Sure, Shibest coached in the SEC for 11 years. But he remained with special teams and has had to move his family three times.
Morrell doesn’t see that as a dream job. It’s more like a nightmare, especially given the stability at Butler. There’s a system in place and it’s almost guaranteed to work year after year.
The bottom dropping out at Butler is defined much differently than the bottom dropping out at Memphis or someplace like that.
“In 2009, we were 8-3,’’ Morrell said. “It felt like we didn’t win a game. We lost to Blinn (Texas) and Cam Newton that year. And we lost twice to Fort Scott – once by three points and another by one. But it didn’t feel good.’’
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Morrell talks to Division I assistants all the time as they pass through on the recruiting trail. He often senses their regret at being on the road so much, even though the money is good.
“I’ve known coaches whose wives say they’re done with this,’’ Morrell said. “Or maybe their wife and family stays in one place while they have lived in four or five different places. That would be really hard for me, bouncing from job to job every two or three years. Really hard.’’
Jessica Morrell is the family CEO. She runs the house, pays the bills, does the laundry and keeps track of the kids’ activities, Troy Morrell said.
She was a nurse until a couple of years ago. Now Jessica works at the El Dorado YMCA, where she will soon begin to train for her sixth marathon.
“People look at me,’’ said Morrell, a former offensive lineman, “and can’t believe I’m married to a marathon runner.’’
Jessica, who met Troy when they were high school students at Buhler, said her husband’s calm demeanor helps soothe what in so many coaching households is a difficult situation.
“He’s the same guy I’ve known since we were sophomores in high school,’’ she said. “He keeps all of us calmer. And especially me, because when I get worked up about stuff, I really get worked up.’’
That yin and yang works well for the Morrells, who are constantly on the move as they attempt to work out their hectic schedules.
Troy takes the kids to school every morning. Then – and this is new – he tries to spend 30 to 45 minutes on an elliptical machine at the Y, between all the people who want to get just a second of his time to talk about the latest game or the big one coming up.
“I think I could literally put my schedule down on paper hour by hour for about 300 days of the year,’’ Morrell said. “I tell that to my coaches and they’re like, ‘No, probably more like 360.’ ”
Morrell is able to rationalize the gym time because he uses his iPad to go through game film while he’s exercising, he said.
When he’s finished there, he goes to the office. After lunch, he hunkers down in meetings, then practice, then hours of preparation interrupted only by an hour at home to eat dinner with his family.
During the season, and during heavy recruiting times, Morrell usually walks out of the office after midnight.
“My wife is the one-person show,’’ he said. “Football wives have to be independent and they’ve got to be strong. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do this.’’
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What Morrell does is win.
He said he was just a so-so player, although he did play for two seasons at Butler under Tom Saia and later spent one year at Fort Hays State. But something about the game started to burn him out and he turned his aspirations toward another unidentified career.
“I changed my major about six times,’’ Morrell said. “I thought about becoming a doctor or a dentist or something like that,’’ Morrell said. “Then I shadowed a doctor one day and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t be inside this much.’ ”
Turns out, Morrell wasn’t ready to give up on football.
He took a job as an assistant coach at Thomas More Prep in Hays in 1994 while he finished his degree. Two years later he was at Butler, off and running toward a career as one of the most successful coaches in the country – at any level.
“He’s an awesome coach,’’ said sophomore offensive tackle John McClure, from Wichita Heights. “We focus on every little detail that puts us in the best position to win. He knows our positions because he was an offensive lineman. I wouldn’t want to be playing for anyone else.’’
Put Morrell in a room with a bunch of sweaty O-linemen, their bellies protruding just slightly, and he’s in heaven. He certainly understands the importance of quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and every facet of defense and special teams, but Morrell is all about blocking.
“I still coach those guys because it’s still my passion,’’ he said. “We’ve only played with in-state offensive linemen my whole time here. That’s just our system and something we do and feel like can work. We try to get the best guys we can get and work to develop them. It’s been a good recipe for us.’’
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Butler athletic director Todd Carter hears those questions about Morrell, too. They can be prickly.
“We’ve done a lot of things here to entice Troy to stay around,’’ Carter said, speaking of new facilities and a brand-new stadium, years in coming. “Butler is a great place for Troy. It’s fun when you win and we’ve been very successful.’’
People who know Morrell best know he’s not afraid of the unknown. But when the known is as rewarding as it has been for Morrell at Butler, why press it?
“He gets it,’’ Carter said of Morrell. “He’s put in a great system here. It’s a fine, well-oiled machine that just continues to win football games. When you’ve got all of that, why would you want to take a chance of uprooting your family and going to be an O-line coach at some mid-major Division I school?’’
Morrell and his family live in a nice home near El Dorado Lake. He’s not making a million dollars a year, but he and his wife and kids have everything they want, including a challenge.
“It’s hard to win football games,’’ Morrell said. “We feel like every game we play, no matter who it’s against, that there’s a target on the front of our jerseys, on the back and that there’s neon flashing all around.’’
Yet Butler wins, year after year. Winning makes Morrell happy. His wife and kids are happy, too. So are his administrators, coaches and players.
Why would he leave?