It’s 2 a.m. in the quiet lobby of the Holiday Inn Express off U.S. Highway 75 in Dallas. No one should be up at this hour, but four newly hired coaches are up busily planning their recruiting strategy.
It’s early December, only two months away from National Signing Day. The day when hundreds of the top high school athletes will make their college decisions final.
Former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and some of the first additions to his new coaching staff have no time to spare. Morris was just announced as the 19th head coach of the SMU Mustangs, a team that finished dead last in Division I in 2014.
Joe Craddock, a former graduate assistant with Morris at Clemson, is one of the four men sacrificing sleep on their first day on the job.
“I woke up the next morning at 7 a.m. and was at the school by 8 a.m.,” Craddock said. “We didn’t slow down for the next two weeks.”
Over the next two weeks, Morris, Craddock and the rest of the SMU coaching staff will visit dozens of schools and athletes in and around the Dallas area.
On the job training is a must in this business, as this is Craddock’s first time hitting the recruiting trail as a full-time member of a college coaching staff.
“It was a grind, it was unique, but I had a lot of fun doing it,” he said.
Craddock’s journey to this moment was indirect and unexpected.
His love for football was honed at one of Alabama’s top private school football programs, Briarwood Christian in Birmingham. There, the 5-foot-11 quarterback passed for 6,677 yards, rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 100 touchdowns as a three-year starter.
Craddock led the Lions to the AHSAA Semifinals all three years and brought home the program’s third state championship to end his senior season in 2003.
“Even after we won the state championship, we cried our eyes out,” he said. “We were so close as a unit and we knew that was our final game together.”
Jay Mathews, Craddock’s offensive coordinator at Briarwood, recounts the first time he knew the young quarterback would make a great coach.
“His first drive of his first varsity game he threw a touchdown,” he said. “We had practiced the play all summer and normally throw to one of two receivers. When Joe dropped back and hit a different receiver for the touchdown I asked him how he knew to throw the arrow route. ‘I saw the safeties roll strong side and knew the backside flats were uncovered,’ Craddock said. At that point, I knew he would be special.”
Craddock’s success as a quarterback was just beginning. He signed with Middle Tennessee State only months after the conclusion of his senior season.
He led the Blue Raiders to their third bowl game in program history and accounted for 4011 passing yards and 27 touchdowns during his time in Murfreesboro.
Craddock was the trigger man for one of the nation’s most exciting fast-paced offenses under Blue Raiders’ head coach under Rick Stockstill.
“Joe was a good player for us. He was not the most talented, but he became a really good player because of his work ethic and dedication to the game from a learning standpoint,” Stockstill said. “Those characteristics usually transfer to the coaching profession.”
After a short stint playing professionally in Italy, he returned home to coach at his high school alma mater. Craddock led the Lions to a 25-4 record and the state championship game in two seasons as offensive coordinator.
Following the 2012 season, he was offered a job as an offensive player development coach by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
“When I got the call from Coach Swinney I didn’t know much about Clemson and Coach Morris,” he said. “I was excited to get my first college job. I thought I knew a little bit about football heading up there, but the amount of knowledge I gained just in that first year was unbelievable.”
Over the next three years, Craddock would be promoted to an on-field graduate assistant role and his relationship with offensive coordinator Chad Morris grew.
“I loved having Joe on our staff. I watched him in high school and followed his career at MTSU. He worked my camp one summer and impressed me greatly with his work ethic,” Swinney said. “I hired him to be a graduate assistant for me and he did a great job for three years. He grew each year and greatly impacted our program during his time here. Chad Morris, just like myself, realized that he was a special young coach.”
As their relationship flourished, so did Morris’ coaching reputation, and by 2011 he would become the highest paid assistant in the country earning $1.3 million per year.
During their years at Clemson, Morris’ offenses were known for their fast-paced attack, consistently leading the country in plays per game.
After a 10-3 finish to the 2014 season, Morris was named the head coach at SMU bringing Craddock with him to be his first offensive coordinator.
“I essentially got my Master’s or PhD in football during my time at Clemson,” Craddock said.
Despite an indirect journey to Dallas, Craddock is the third-youngest offensive coordinator and one of the most inexperienced in major college football, but that doesn’t phase him.
“Coach Morris and I know what Coach Swinney brought to Clemson and we are ready to bring that to Dallas,” he said. “We want to bring a family mentality. We will be a true family and live it everyday.”
Craddock and Morris join a long list of successful high school coaches to make the jump to college and he still considers his high school coach, Fred Yancey, his biggest mentor.
“He is everything you want to be as a man,” he said. “Coach Yancey told me one time that we wouldn’t know if we had a winning season at Briarwood until 10 years down the road. I’ll never forget that.”
It’s now mid February, three weeks after National Signing Day. Deep in the heart of Dallas, a first-time head coach and offensive coordinator are once again working long hours. Though the journey was indirect and unexpected, Craddock wouldn’t have it any other way.