STARKVILLE, Miss.—Shortly after he had accepted the job of being Mississippi State’s 33rd head football coach, one of Joe Moorhead’s first calls was to his quarterback.
“This first question he asked me was my ring size,” said rising senior Nick Fitzgerald. “I asked him why he wanted to know.
“He said it was because we were going to win an SEC championship.”
“That got me fired up,” said Fitzgerald, who is recovering from an ankle injury in the final regular season game with Ole Miss on Nov. 23. “He hadn’t even met us but already he had confidence in us.”
That, in a nutshell, is Joe Moorhead, the 44-year-old former Penn State offensive coordinator and Fordham head coach who said he couldn’t “yes” fast enough when the opportunity came to replace Dan Mullen. He inherits a program that is going through the most consistent period of success in the school’s history with eight straight bowl appearances.
Earlier this spring I sat down with Moorhead in his new office, where we touched on a number of topics:
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**--Why he jumped at the job at Mississippi State, which plays in the toughest division in college football (SEC West): “There were other opportunities but there was just something about this one in the SEC, playing against great teams every week. And there was talent on this roster. This is not a complete rebuild. It was an opportunity to take a team that had had success that Coach Mullen and his staff established and to do something that had not been done.”
**--There IS talent on this roster: The Bulldogs have 19 scholarship seniors including Fitzgerald who needs only 461 yards to become the best rushing quarterback in SEC history. Defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons was an All-SEC player last season. Linebacker Leo Lewis will be an All-SEC player this season. With 18 starters (10 offense, 8 defense) returning this was, in many respects, the team Mullen had been building since the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 for six weeks during the 2014 season.
“We knew this team had a chance to be pretty good,” said Fitzgerald.
**--Despite Mullen's success, there is room for improvement: In our conversation Moorhead took every opportunity to recognize the work of Mullen. In addition to the eight straight bowls, the Bulldogs have won nine or more games in each of the past three seasons. But it should also be noted that only once in Mullen’s nine years did Mississippi State post a conference record better than 4-4 (6-2 in 2014).
“I can’t speak for the past but I can talk about the future. You can’t shy away from expectations. No one rises to low expectations. If I didn’t come here with the thought of winning an SEC championship then I should have stayed up there (Penn State).”
And this is the line that has folks fired up in Starkville:
“We didn’t come here to hold serve.”
**--The Fordham turnaround: Moorhead, who played at Fordham, made coaching stops at Pittsburgh, Akron, and Connecticut before returning to his alma mater as head coach in 2012. He inherited a 1-10 team and over the next four seasons went 6-5, 12-2, 11-3, and 9-3 with three straight trips to the FCS playoffs.
“We had some success at Fordham. We made the playoffs and we beat two I-A teams (Army in 2015 and 2016),” said Moorhead.
**--Transforming the Penn State offense: After James Franklin struggled in his first two seasons at Penn State in 2014 (7-6) and 2015 (7-6), he hired Moorhead to put some juice into the offense. Building the offense around quarterback Trace McSorley and running back extraordinaire Saquon Barkley, Moorhead built one of the most explosive offenses in college football. In 2015, the season before Moorhead arrived, Penn State averaged 348.6 yards and 23.2 points per game (100th nationally). In 2016, Moorhead's first season at Penn State, the Nittany Lions averaged 432.6 yards and 37.6 points. Last season they averaged 460.3 yards 41.1 points.
“We were very fortunate to get on with Coach Franklin,” said Moorhead.
Franklin would tell you that he was the lucky one.
“He has been a great mentor and coach to our student-athletes and friend to me and our staff,” Franklin said on the day Moorhead left for Mississippi State. “We wish Joe nothing but success at Mississippi State.”
**--How Fitzgerald, who has been primarily a running quarterback, fits into his offense: “He’s smart. He can make all the throws from the pocket. He can run the RPOs (run/pass option). He can beat you with his legs. He can make plays through design and improvisation.”
Then he said this: “I don’t know that we’ll run him as much.”
**--On how many people have told him that the SEC is “a line of scrimmage league:” “It started with Coach Franklin. And I agree with that. But what league isn’t a line of scrimmage league? If you can’t run the ball and stop the run you might as well take the pads off and play flag football. If you can’t get it done up front it’s going to be a long day at the office.”
The folks in Starkville are obviously buying what Joe Moorhead is selling as a record 36,789 fans turned out for the spring game.
Two final nuggets on Joe Moorhead and the Mississippi State program:
Moorhead appeared on Chuck Oliver’s radio show in Atlanta said this about pressure: “You can either feel it or apply it. And we’re fixing to apply it down here.”
I told him that it was refreshing to hear an old Southern saying like “fixing to” come from a Fordham grad.
“Not only a Fordham grad but a Fordham English major,” he said.
Mark your calendars for Sept. 29. That’s when Dan Mullen returns to Starkville as the head coach of the Florida Gators. If Moorhead’s team can handle Stephen F. Austn, Kansas State (on the road), Louisiana-Lafayette, and Kentucky (on the road) the Bulldogs will be 4-0 when the Gators arrive.
“It will be fun to see Coach Mullen again,” said Fitzgerald with a smile.
And loud. Plenty of cowbell to be sure.