Coach Joe Moorhead Writing Next Chapter at Mississippi State
By Joey Johnston
He's an English major and a former sports writer. He pridefully composes his own talking points prior to press conferences and is always good for an eloquent postgame quote.
Clearly, words mean a lot to State coach Joe Moorhead.
But even he struggles to adequately describe the path that led him to the heart of SEC Country and now the Outback Bowl. That's where his Bulldogs (8-4) will face the Iowa Hawkeyes(8-4) on Jan. 1 at Raymond James Stadium.
"I would certainly categorize it as unique,'' said Moorhead, completing his first season at Mississippi State after two seasons as Penn State's offensive coordinator. "It's surreal in a lot of ways.
"I think I've been surrounded by great coaches and great players. Like anything, I just kept my head down,rolled up my sleeves and went to work. The results speak for themselves. I have been blessed with great opportunities.''
But how do you go from the Bronx to Starkville, anyway?
About three years ago,Moorhead was wrapping up at Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance with his alma mater, Fordham University, where he served as head coach from 2012-15.
Moorhead's offensive prowess drew the attention of Penn State coach James Franklin, who interviewed him following the annual National Football Foundation banquet in New York. At about 3 a.m., they were still drawing up ball plays in a hotel suite.
Moorhead helped the Nittany Lions to a 21-5 two-season record, a Rose Bowl appearance and an average of 39.4 points per game. Under his direction, quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley became Penn State superstars. After guiding Penn State to school records for total offense (6,056 yards), passing yards (3,650) and points scored (526) in his first season, Moorhead became a highly sought head-coaching candidate. And when Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for the University of Florida following last season, the Bulldogs quickly pursued Moorhead.
Many observers didn't think it was the right fit.
Moorhead did - instantly. "Mississippi State is a great place,'' Moorhead said. "Southern hospitality is a real thing. This program has such potential. The sky is the limit.''
Mississippi State is contending for just the 10th nine-win season in the program's 119-year history.But it would be the fourth nine-win season in the past five years, so the Bulldogs are on the upswing.
And even though Mississippi State resides in the SEC West - the home of traditionally powerful Alabama, Auburn and LSU, among others - Moorhead sees a world of opportunities.
"We have an unbelievably passionate fan base,'' Moorhead said. "Coach Mullen built a solid foundation. When we initially got to meet the team, they felt comfortable and confident that we cared about them as people and students. That (trust) laid the foundation of what we wanted to be as a program.''
From there, Moorhead has simply placed his imprint on the Mississippi State program, displaying the same characteristics that distinguished him at previous stops with Pittsburgh,Georgetown, Akron, Connecticut, Fordham and Penn State.
Moorhead always has been tabbed as the guy with gifted intelligence in breaking down an opponent's tendencies. He's a brilliant play-caller, thinking on his feet, attacking,finding the right play for the right situation.
On a personal level, he's described as charismatic and approachable. He finds a connection, usually with his ability to find the right words.
And that dates back to his beginnings, when he originally thought he would be the next Dan Marino (after playing high-school ball in the Pittsburgh area).
Nope. "I wasn't nearly good enough,'' said Moorhead, the son of a steel-mill worker. He gave it a run, though.
He was in training camp with the Arena Football League's Milwaukee Mustangs. He played in Europe for the Munich Cowboys. He went to free-agent tryouts, hoping to get noticed. Along the way, to pay the bills, he wrote sports for two newspapers.
Maybe he wasn't good enough as a quarterback, but he found his calling in football. Moorhead knows how to train quarterbacks. His offensive philosophy might seem ultra-involved and complicated, but he knows how to communicate and teach it to players. And for those who believe that Fordham to Penn State to Mississippi State is an unorthodox culture shock,Moorhead simply says that football is football.
"Mississippi State is a unique place, a real neat town and school,'' Moorhead said. "It's full of blue-collar people who really care about their school and their football program - not unlike State College (Penn State), when you really think about it.
"We want to get to bowl games and win them. We want to win championships. We have the talent and ability todo that here at Mississippi State and I couldn't be more excited about what's ahead of us. And the next thing ahead of us is enjoying a great experience at the Outback Bowl and finding a way to win that game. We can't wait.''