While most of us were in the back end of the tour bus watching Beverly Hills Cop and re-runs of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Joe Moorhead sat at a table in the front of the bus right next to a window, behind the driver, and underneath a 32-inch TV screen. I don’t know if they were recruits, signees or current players he was on the phone with, but after getting into his spot, Moorhead made a round of phone calls to multiple someones to congratulate them on their good grades and offer encouragement as he reminded them of their GPA goals for the upcoming semesters.
Then he settled in to watch the History Channel. Hours and hours of the History Channel. From Starkville to Tupelo, from Tupelo to Memphis, and during the full afternoon layover in Memphis before his final Road Dawgs event of the day, Moorhead’s TV never changed.
The first time I met Moorhead, he told me one of his family’s favorite pastimes is watching the History Channel, so I shouldn’t have been surprised as the front of the bus rotated through re-runs of American Pickers and a bevy of other popular shows, as well as a few programs of the actually-historic variety. I also shouldn’t have been surprised that Moorhead’s speech at each stop of Mississippi State’s annual tour of Mississippi and the southeast included quotes from famous men of history.
Moorhead managed to quote both JFK (“The best time to build a roof is when the sun is shining.”) and Ben Franklin (“Better well-done than well-said.”) in a short speech about MSU football. Between that and his cable TV loyalties, it seemed clear that MSU’s new football coach had an appreciation for the past.
“I’m starting to get the impression you’re a history buff,” I mentioned to him on the bus to Memphis.
“I wouldn’t say ‘buff,’” he replied. “But if I had time to cultivate a hobby, that’s what it would be.
“Well,” he amended, “that and more fishing. And by that I mean doing any fishing at all.”
But even without more time to dedicate to his interests – the Civil War and the Knights Templar are two of the subjects he’d like to delve deeper into – history has found a way to wind itself into Moorhead’s daily life. Those who follow him on Twitter will regularly see him tweet pictures with a quote included, often coming from a famous leader of the past or present.
That’s nothing unusual for a football coach, of course. What makes it unique in Moorhead’s case is that is wasn’t a quote picked at random by someone on his recruiting or graphic design staff. It wasn’t a nice saying he found by Googling “quotes about leadership” or Asking Jeeves for something inspirational.
The quotes are handpicked, literally, by Moorhead himself. Sitting on a shelf in his office right now, there is a binder full of catalogued quotes that he has been assembling for years, adding to it whenever he reads or comes across a quote he likes. The binder is nearly encyclopedic in its organization, sorted by categories so he can flip right to something relevant whenever he needs it.
A picture of the notebook he showed me included the heading at the top of the page, “Little Things.” Presumably, quotes in that section are about getting the details right. Precision, Moorhead has often said, is the difference between good and great.
“My dad always said, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’”
In a day on the road with him, witnessing three variations of the same general speech, I learned Moorhead doesn’t just appreciate history’s great leaders; he emulates them.
People don’t follow leaders because they’re told to; or if they do, there’s little loyalty involved. The best leaders, the ones people will follow anywhere on their own volition, engage, then inspire.
Joe Moorhead took an interesting tact in speaking to Mississippi State alumni across the southeast this week. He told the truth.
“Let’s be honest here,” he said. “Let’s get some things out in the open. I know y’all had some questions about me. You were worried a guy from the north wasn’t prepared for the SEC. Hey, I know y’all said it, but don’t worry, it’s OK.”
At this point he typically received a few relieved laughs.
“We’re family now. We can talk about this stuff.”
From there, Moorhead’s speech went on to outline his beliefs that good football coaches are just that – good football coaches. Good recruiters are good recruiters. And likewise, bad coaches and bad recruiters are going to be bad, no matter where they are or aren’t from.
Moorhead also opened up about the transition to the south on a personal level, joking about the “language barrier” as he’s learned the difference between “you guys” and “y’all,” “going to” and “fixin’ to,” and the more subtle difference of having a picture “made” instead of “taken.”
“Y’all are going to be proud of me,” he told the crowd. “I managed to use all three at once when I was meeting some people before one of these stops. I sound like a real southerner now.
“I asked them, ‘Y’all fixin’ to get your picture made?””
Laughter and applause tended to ensue after that one.
And truly, Moorhead said, the welcome he and his family have received has been overwhelming in its kindness.
“The term southern hospitality isn’t a concept,” he said. “It’s a reality.”
Of course, there was more to discuss with MSU fans than his personal transition. More than anything, Moorhead knew, they wanted to hear about the football team. Perhaps no question is more frequent than, “How we lookin’, Coach?”
So MSU’s head coach shared his timeline for how he’s building the team ahead of his first season. The approach, he said, is much like a building a house.
Phase I is laying the foundation, and that came January through March under strength coach Anthony Piroli. It involved building strength, obviously, but with an emphasis on functional football movements. More importantly, that was the time when the culture of toughness was established.
Phase II: putting the walls up. This phase was spring football practice when an identity was developed, confidence was built, competitiveness was cultivated and the drive to dominate situational football was learned.
Phase III begins in a couple weeks – putting the roof on. From the beginning of June to the end of July, the players are on their own for summer workouts. This is when team leadership steps up. Championship teams, Moorhead has learned, must have strong leadership in the locker room.
Phase IV may seem unimportant, but to Moorhead it’s the difference between a good team and a great one: interior decorating. In preseason camp in August, the pictures will be hung. The furniture will be arranged. Fall camp is all about getting the details right and mastering the precision required to win SEC football games.
Phase V is simple: the season itself. Move-in day. Once the season begins, you live in the house you built, and that’s why preparation is so important.
And such was Moorhead’s build-up to the final point of his speech, the last annual goal he set for the team: win the Southeastern Conference. Take home the conference championship.
Certainly, that’s the goal of all 14 SEC football teams when the season begins. But how many truly think they can do it? According to Moorhead, MSU does.
“I know we have the requisite talent,” he said.
The key will be culture and belief, he said, and to emphasize that, he asked the audience to repeat after him.
“We can win the SEC,” he said.
“We can win the SEC,” they repeated back to him.
“Not good enough,” he replied. “I need you louder. I need you to believe it. Let’s try it again: we can win the SEC!”
“We can win the SEC!” the crowd roared, followed by raucous applause and cheering.
“There we go, that’s it!” Moorhead encouraged them.
“I hope y’all believe that, because I do,” Moorhead continued as his voice began to rise. “We can and we will win the SEC here. It’s gonna happen. We are no longer the Little Engine That Could. We’re past moral victories. Moral victories are for losers.”
A behind-the-scenes note illustrates Moorhead’s dedication to the idea of expecting the best. A minor hiccup in the Road Dawgs Tour came as a result of the table set up at each stop where a few trophies from the world of MSU athletics were displayed – the Governor’s Cup from the baseball team’s victory over Ole Miss, the SEC Championship trophy won by the women’s basketball team, and the Taxslayer Bowl trophy from the football team’s bowl win back in December.
That last one is what gave Moorhead pause. He doesn’t like showcasing that trophy. It’s not that he isn’t proud of the players who won it, and he certainly harbors no animosity or ill will toward those who coached the team. He just thinks the program should have its expectations higher than bowl wins. He wants to win championships. He expects to win the SEC.
“Don’t be scared to talk about it,” he said. “We talk about it with our team every day. Attitude reflects leadership. If we want them to believe it, we have to believe it, too.”
In fact, Road Dawgs wasn’t the first time Moorhead had given the brief Little Engine That Could speech. On the last day of spring practice, in the locker room after the Maroon-White Spring Game, Moorhead said the exact same thing to the team. As he announced the team captains, he sent them into Phase III where the culture required to win an SEC Championship would be established, and he did so by reminding them what they should expect to accomplish.
Instead of a quote from the depths of history, Moorhead chose a more modern exhortation as he explained to MSU fans at each stop why they need the type of confidence he wants them to have.
“Scared money don’t make money.”
Though he also shared the more traditional, “It’s not what you wish for. It’s what you work for.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he reminded the crowd before adding a personal caveat. “But I wasn’t the foreman on that job.”
At each stop, nearly all of them with crowds at or over capacity, Moorhead received a standing ovation. In the span of 20 minutes, he not only connected with those in the room, but he inspired them. If he hadn’t yet seemed like “their” coach before, he certainly did after they heard him speak.
For all the quotes in his binder, it was a simple one from a young MSU alumnus that summed up the reaction to Moorhead. Walking through the parking lot after hearing Moorhead’s speech in Memphis, he turned to a friend to express his feelings on the night.
“That guy is awesome.”