Through third parties, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had an idea he could be a candidate for head coach at Mississippi State before the Bulldogs were technically even in the market for one. MSU athletic director John Cohen, who took the position barely one year ago after a long and successful career as a baseball coach, had known well in advance that he may need a new football coach, so he had been consistently researching and preparing for some time when the moment to act finally came.
The whirlwind began Sunday when MSU’s coaching vacancy became official, and over the next 48 hours, neither Cohen nor Moorhead had more than seconds at a time to let their minds stop racing. In their first interview, Cohen came away impressed enough to ask for a second sit-down with Moorhead. Meanwhile, Moorhead was researching players, recruits, history and anything else he could find on MSU as he worked to impress Cohen.
To Moorhead’s surprise, the second interview very quickly turned into a job offer. That offer was followed by contract discussions, conversations on his coaching staff and their compensation, a storm of trying to find printers to print a hardcopy of the deal they had struck and a quick review of the particulars to make sure everything was fully in order before pen hit paper. When Moorhead lifted his hand, fresh ink marking his signature as MSU’s 33rd head football coach, he could relax for the first time in what surely felt like weeks.
Though no one outside the room knew it at the time, Moorhead had just become the SEC’s newest coach, and once that moment hit, once his mind was able to go back to normal, Moorhead pulled his phone out of his pocket, swiped away the hundreds of notifications and pulled up a video he had saved of his 10-year-old son playing baseball, turning the screen so Cohen could see it.
“What do you think about his swing?” Moorhead asked his new boss.
4:15 p.m., Wednesday, Bryan Airfield, Starkville
“This is unbelievable.”
When Joe Moorhead steps off the plane, it’s his first time to touch ground in Starkville, and on the other side of the fence lining the runway, there are over 1,000 people he’s never seen in his life screaming his name, clapping their hands and shouting in general admiration and excitement for someone they, too, have never met before. In that moment – the one right before he diverts from the cleared path to his transport van and walks the length of the fence shaking every hand, signing every cowbell and even picking up the dog someone randomly hands him through the bars of the fence – Moorhead realizes for the first time what he’s in for. And he loves it.
“I held a dog. I’m covered in Sharpie. Can’t make that stuff up,” he muses afterward. “It was incredible.”
5:30 p.m., Annabelle Condominiums
In the condo graciously lent to his family to stay in while they search for a house, Moorhead is either scrambling or relaxing, depending which moment you catch him, though his mind is running whether he’s working the phone or working the room. A few alumni, several members of the support staff, Moorhead’s wife and three kids, and a few others fill the living room and porch of the spacious condo.
Taking a moment to relax his legs, Moorhead sits on the porch swing as he maintains at least three different conversations in any given moment. In one breath he’s talking about recruits with staffer and Mississippi high schools expert Brad Peterson. Moorhead called every offensive commit MSU has before he even left Pennsylvania that afternoon, getting all but two of them on the phone for an extended conversation.
“Fantastic,” he says when asked what their response has been like. “They’re all fantastic.”
In the next breath, he’s going back and forth with MSU CFO Jared Benko as they discuss reaching out to potential assistants.
“We’re going to have a great staff,” Moorhead tells Ben Nelson, the owner of the condo. “I could make 10 calls and have a staff done like that, but I want to take my time and get the best people. I’ve learned this much: measure twice, cut once. We’re going to do this right.”
In another breath, he’s talking with Jay Perry, his player personnel man and tour guide for the first couple days on the job, about the players he met at the airfield after he landed.
“You know your ring size?” Moorhead had asked them when introduced that afternoon. “You better find out.”
As Moorhead rises to leave for a meet-and-greet with the head coaches of all of MSU’s other sports, Nelson steps over to say his final words.
“Alright, coach. Honeymoon is over. Let’s get to work.”
“No one around here has low expectations,” Moorhead assures him. “We’re about to get after it.”
6 p.m., Davis Wade Stadium
For the first time, Joe Moorhead steps into Davis Wade Stadium and onto Scott Field. His family beside him, his 16-year-old daughter Kyra yells with glee when she walks out of the tunnel and sees MSU’s live mascot Bully being led around the endzone. While she hurries off to pet him, Moorhead’s 10-year-old son Donovan looks to midfield as he tells dad, “time my 40,” and promptly runs out onto the field.
Moorhead turns to MSU’s Associate A.D. for Communication Bill Martin: “Is he allowed on the field?”
“Of course,” Martin replies. “It’s your field now.”
Inside the Gridiron Club after a few pictures on the field, Moorhead is approached by a muscle-bound man and his pregnant wife.
“Hey, Joe,” MSU’s baseball coach begins, “I’m Andy Cannizaro. I’m the baseb- “
Right there, Moorhead interrupts him.
“Oh, I know who you are,” Moorhead says. “I remember you. You played for the Yankees. I used to live in the Bronx.”
Cannizaro immediately breaks into an appreciative laugh as he discovers something about this big-time football coach: Moorhead is a huge baseball fan. Technically, he’s a huge fan of his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates (he can name every member of the 1979 World Series Champion team, according to John Cohen), but baseball is actually the first sport Moorhead ever played before going on to be an all-conference quarterback in college.
And in fact, this isn’t even his first random Yankees interaction, as Moorhead’s 15-year-old son Mason used to play on the same little league baseball team as former Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s daughter.
“I’m a big baseball guy,” Moorhead will later tell a group of assembled reporters and fans.
That he was hired by a former baseball coach is mere coincidence, of course.
10:30 p.m., Starkville Cotton District
Late at night after hours of meeting with staff members, calling recruits and continuing work on the hundreds of little things required to start a coaching regime, Moorhead goes to the bar. Well, bars, plural, and he’s not there for himself. In Starkville’s central area for nightlife, Moorhead is out to meet and give away cheese fries to hundreds of students who are celebrating the last day of classes.
On his way down the street, Moorhead is mobbed by jumping, whooping and selfie-taking 18-22 year olds who are amazed that their new head coach is there and that they get to meet him. Immediately, a line forms, snaking down the street, with hundreds of them ready to take a picture with Moorhead and accept his offer of free cheese fries. Working the kitchen window, Moorhead’s limbs are constantly in motion as he passes trays over the counter, shakes hands with students and poses for pictures.
“Hey, sugar!” The high-pitched, southern, female voice rings into the kitchen. “We’re so excited! Can we have a picture?”
“Of course,” comes the reply.
“He’s an angel!” she yells as she turns to her friend and asks her to take the picture.
When the clock hits 11, Moorhead is still going, slinging fries and smiles and handshakes despite the lack of sleep and the long list of things he must do in a short period of time.
“Our head football coach is serving us cheese fries right now,” one awestruck student says as he tries to savor the moment. “I love this man.”
9:02 a.m., Wednesday, Seal Football Complex
Joe Moorhead is waiting outside the door of MSU’s team meeting room where athletic director John Cohen is in the process of introducing him to the team. Everyone else is outside in the hallway as Moorhead has made it clear he wants only himself and his team in the room when he has his first meeting with them. No other coaches, no support staff, no one but Moorhead and his players. He wants to speak directly to them, and he wants them to understand that they are now in it together.
While he waits, Moorhead is chatting with people in the hallway about how wild the last 18 hours had been, confessing that he didn’t get much sleep due on one hand to the fact he woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t stop thinking about how much he needed to do, and on the other hand because they eventually had to pry his youngest son’s new cowbell out of his hand when he wouldn’t stop ringing it while the rest of the family was trying to sleep.
“We’re going to have to take the ringer out or something,” he jokes.
Moorhead admits that his 10-year-old has an endless internal supply of energy, sharing the story from the weekend about the first morning after the regular season for Penn State ended. Moorhead thought he would be able to sleep in, but early in the morning, he was woken up by his son poking him and begging him to go outside with him to do quarterback drills. Every day at PSU football practice, Moorhead explains, his son goes through drills right alongside the quarterbacks, and Moorhead expects he’ll do the same at MSU. So just because the regular season is over is no reason to stop practicing.
“You out of your mind?” Moorhead recalls asking his son, who by then had shoulder pads strapped on over his sweatshirt while they threw the ball in the backyard. “It’s 20 degrees out here. We’re going to get frostbite.”
The anecdote comes to an end as, inside the team room, Cohen’s voice continues to rise in volume, finally reaching a peak when the door is thrown open and Moorhead walks in to thunderous applause, greeting his Bulldogs for the very first time.
Half an hour later, the meeting ends. The details of Moorhead’s speech will remain between he and the team, but their impact is crystal clear when one player is stopped by a staffer and asked how it went.
“We’re going to win a championship,” he says, a deadly-serious look on his face. “Guarantee it.”
10 a.m., multi-purpose room, Seal Football Complex
At last, Moorhead is ready to address his final constituency. He’s gone through the job interviews, called the recruits, met the team and even started talking to future members of his staff. But he hasn’t yet spoken directly to Mississippi State fans. Now, the moment has arrived.
Reporters will focus on many of the things Moorhead says, as well as several of the things Cohen and MSU President Mark Keenum say about him in their introductory remarks. His offensive prowess and innovation will certainly be discussed, and the decisions to be made on staffing and recruiting will be expounded upon, as well.
But one story – a story that is shared twice, once each by Moorhead and Cohen – offers more insight than any other answer that either person gives to the many questions asked. The story of Murph Moorhead, Sr., is the origin of everything that has Joe Moorhead in this moment now.
Murph, Joe’s father, often had as many as three jobs at a time in an effort to provide for his family, and for 35 years his primary job was as a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh. The sacrifices he made helped to create the man his son has become.
One day when Joe was young, his dad brought him with him to the steel mill, and what happened that day is a story that helped sell Cohen on his new football coach.
“He said his dad took him to work,” Cohen remembers Moorhead telling him, “and the movie scenes of fire and this lava-like steel – it’s real. He was right in the middle of it. He asked, ‘Why are you taking me to work, what are we doing here?’ He said, ‘I wanted you to see this. I’m doing this so that you won’t have to.’”
Murph wanted a better life for his children than he had, wanted them to have opportunities, and thanks to his sacrifice, Murph’s children are first-generation college graduates.
“I really think my formation as a person and what I stand for was understanding what a blue collar work ethic meant,” Joe Moorhead tells the crowd early in his speech. “It didn’t matter how cold it was, didn’t matter how warm it was, didn’t matter how early in the morning it was or how late at night. He got up every day and went to work, came home and got something to eat, and whether his second job was a bartender or janitor, he did whatever he needed to do to put food on the table and provide for his family and make sure that they were well-educated. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to make sure that our children’s lives are better than our own. I can’t be more appreciative of my father.
“He told me,” Moorhead finishes, “’I do this so you don’t have to,’ and that meant a lot to me.”
He likely didn’t realize it at the time, but sharing that story with Cohen is a big part of why he stands at the podium now.
“I loved it. I’m always trying to write a movie script in my mind, and that’s a beautiful script,” Cohen says. “For him to talk about how he was parented was really important to me, because in some ways, he’s going to parent 100 football student-athletes here. I wanted to know that he had that club in his bag, and he certainly does.”
Moorhead’s background also helped convince Cohen that Moorhead, despite having minimal ties to the south, was a perfect cultural fit for MSU’s program.
“We were looking for someone who had a blue collar personality, but an intellectual personality at the same time. We were looking for someone who had to overcome adversity at some point in their life. Because wherever you find people who are incredibly successful, you usually find that they had some type of adversity that they had to overcome.
“If they’ve never had that moment where life kind of punched them in the face, then how are they going to react when it happens for the first time in the Southeastern Conference? There’s no question, when you talk about Joe Moorhead, he’s had that moment and he can reflect on that.”
When the press conference ends, Moorhead is minutes away from his 18-hour blitz of interviews and introductions coming to an end. He takes pictures with his family before they leave to fly back to Pennsylvania, hugging his kids and kissing his wife goodbye after the final snap of the lens.
“Good luck,” he tells his wife Jennifer. “Let me know if you buy a house!”
After a quick interview with MSU radio play-by-play announcer Neil Price, Moorhead is done. Walking out of the team room for the second time today, Moorhead’s gait picks up as he strides to his office in the back of the building. There is a job he was hired to do, and he can’t wait to get started.
Moorhead’s last words as the team filed out of the meeting room Thursday morning were directed at star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the first person on the team Moorhead had reached out to Tuesday when he took the job, having texted the redshirt junior and told him to get ready for a big senior year. Looking Fitzgerald in the eyes as they shook hands Thursday, Moorhead reminded him of that.
“My family is about to fly back home,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere. Come by the office and let’s talk. We’re going to do big things.”