Joe Moorhead is rolling with bigger dogs now and if history means anything he’ll be on the porch barking right along with them.
“Every day I walk in here I feel how fortunate I am to have this opportunity,” Moorhead said. “I’m sitting in my office overlooking the practice fields and understanding the magnitude of being a head coach at this level. It really is, in a sense, out of the frying pan and into the fire. You’re trading Ohio State for Alabama, Michigan for Auburn and things like that. Iron sharpens iron. I think my time spent at Penn State and in the Big Ten, the Big Ten East in particular, was a great proving ground and opportunity to prepare for something like this.”
The 44-year-old Moorhead brought the Penn State offense back to life in the two seasons he was there, and last August he was tabbed Sports Illustrated and Yahoo's No. 1 rising assistant in college football. He also led his alma mater, Fordham, to three consecutive FCS appearances and helped UConn reach its first and only BCS game. Recently, he became the 33rd head coach at Mississippi State.
While he goes from one of the premiere college football conferences in the country to the premiere conference you can count on two things making the move with him: that quiet confidence, of course, and his experiences at UConn, where he worked from 2009 to 2011.
“I look back on that as one of the best three-year periods in my coaching career, the opportunity to work with Coach [Randy] Edsall and the things he espouses and believes as a coach. Through the core values of the program… discipline, accountability, work ethic, attention to detail and selflessness we were able to take a group of kids and achieve things that had never been done, beating Notre Dame, beating South Carolina in the Papajohns.com bowl, wining the Big East and competing in the Fiesta Bowl,” said Moorhead who replaces Dan Mullen, who left the Bulldogs program for Florida. “Those are things I’ve carried with me to Fordham and to Penn State and now to Mississippi State.”
Moorhead learned how to deal with adversity in Storrs.
Edsall brought Moorhead to UConn from Akron, but when UConn’s coach left for Maryland, he did not bring Moorhead. When Paul Pasqualoni took over the program in 2011 he stripped the offensive coordinator title away from Moorhead, who remained quarterbacks coach.
“That was a crossroads in your career where you have to hunker down, stay at work and keep grinding away,” he said.
He also wanted a crack at the head coaching position that eventually went to Pasqualoni, but it didn’t happen.
“At that point you’re on the staff and you’re coming off a Fiesta Bowl appearance and there’s an opening,” Moorhead said. “There were good coaches on the staff, myself, coach [Todd] Orlando, coach [Hank] Hughes, guys that were all equipped to become a head coach. But things happened. Coach Pasqualoni was hired and brought in, and at that point there was really nothing you could do but go to work.
“There’s events you deal with in life,” he said. “Some are good, some are bad. It’s really how you respond to adversity, I think, that determines what your path is going to be ultimately.”
Proverbs 16:9: A man's heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps. Moorhead knows it well. He lives by it.
It’s taped to the computer in his new office.
Moorhead stepped into Starkville the same way he stepped into every opportunity he’s had — with a quiet confidence in his ability that spread throughout the units he coached.
“There’s an old adage that attitude replaces leadership and whether you’re the head coach in charge of an entire program or a coordinator in charge of a side of the ball or a position coach in charge of a position, I think the way you carry yourself and the way you conduct yourself and the level of confidence you have in yourself and your players is an intangible and it manifests itself on the field,” Moorhead said. “I think if the kids see me being excited and confident about the things I’m able to do as a coach and consequently what they’re able to do as players, I think that pays dividends.”
Current Nittany Lions associate head coach and defensive line coach Sean Spencer, of Hartford, always took notice of Moorhead’s calm, confident presence.
“He commanded the room and made the offense believe,” Spencer said. “Whenever he walked into the room you could see he was — and is — destined to be a head coach.”
In a game where offense is now king, Moorhead’s offenses performed with the best of them.
Penn State scored at least 30 points in 21 of the 26 games he coached, and averaged 39.4 points per game during that stretch. Penn State also ranked in the top 25 in five different offensive categories this past season.
In Moorhead's first season, the Nittany Lions smashed school records for total offense, passing yards and points scored, and improved their scoring average by 14.4 points from 2015 to 2016, fourth nationally.
Penn State finished 100th nationally in scoring and No. 105 in total offense the year before Moorhead arrived from Fordham, where he earned his first head coaching opportunity after leaving UConn.
Moorhead was the quarterback of the Rams from 1992-95 and then led them to a 38-13 record and three FCS playoff appearances in three seasons as their coach from 2012-15. Fordham was 1-10 the season before Moorhead arrived.
UConn’s offense was second in the Big East in scoring and rushing in 2010. It’ been quite a ride for Moorhead.
“I had a meeting with the offensive staff a few weeks ago and I said I was the head coach of a Patriot League FCS program three years ago and now I’m the head coach of an SEC West program,” Moorhead said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of fun times. I feel very fortunate.”
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