Mississippi State has made a change at its head coaching position, a source told Sports Illustrated on Friday morning, as Joe Moorhead has been fired. The school officially announced the dismissal later on Friday. School officials were in deep discussion about coach Moorhead’s future since the 38-28 loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl in Nashville.
Mississippi State begins the spring semester Monday, and Moorhead, the 46-year-old former Penn State offensive coordinator, just completed his second season in Starkville. Events over the last month—off-the-field issues and the ugly bowl loss—have shifted an original plan to keep Moorhead following a 21-20 win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night. Moorhead’s buyout is about $7 million, a source said, but that can be mitigated to as little as $4 million through off-set language in his contract, assuming the coach finds other employment.
Moorhead lasted just 26 games in Starkville. He finished with a 14-12 record. His team’s bowl loss guaranteed just State’s second losing season since 2009, Dan Mullen’s first year as coach. On-field performance wasn’t the only factor here. There were disciplinary problems within the team that boiled over publicly into a fight during one bowl practice, for instance. Moorhead is a Pennsylvania native who spent most of his career coaching in the northeast, a somewhat peculiar fit in the Deep South. Some might describe his tenure as underachieving, unfolding in the shadow of the most successful coach in school history. Now at Florida, Mullen took the Bulldogs from SEC West doormat to a consistent winner, using quarterback Dak Prescott in 2014 to guide State to its first-ever No. 1 ranking.
In Starkville, grumblings about Moorhead began just a few games into his tenure. Last September, he lost at home to his predecessor, with Mullen’s Gators winning a sloppy 13-6 game. The Bulldogs finished a disappointing 8-5 that year with a talented squad that Mullen left, including senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and three eventual NFL draft first-round picks on its defense. Moorhead’s second season included losses to rebuilding programs like Kansas State and Tennessee and an embarrassing outing at Auburn. All of it came amid troubling circumstances. Ten players missed eight games this season while suspended for academic fraud involving a tutor, and starting quarterback Tommy Stevens missed four games with an injury, forcing Moorhead to start true freshman Garrett Shrader.
More off-the-field issues crept up in December. A group of players missed bowl practice, and Shrader was involved in a fight during one practice. He sustained serious enough injuries that he was unable to start the bowl game, giving way to Stevens. The December problems washed away the good feelings of State’s Egg Bowl victory. In fact, two days after the Egg Bowl, State athletic director John Cohen expressed his future commitment to Moorhead in a meeting the two had. Cohen and Moorhead talked for roughly four hours, an expansive meeting about the future of the program. In his post-Egg Bowl news conference, Moorhead delivered a terse message amid the rumblings of his job security. “This is my team. This is my school. This is my program,” he said. “You’ll have to drag my yankee ass out of here.”
Five weeks later, Cohen is now tasked with hiring a second coach in two years, and an array of candidates exist for a job that is both attractive yet difficult. Mullen’s tenure galvanized a fan base and resulted in sparkling new facilities, but the Bulldogs are members of the nation’s toughest division, having yearly matchups with powerhouses LSU, Alabama and Auburn. The program will be conducting a search after all others are finished. The first portion of the coaching cycle has ended, with three SEC brethren already making hires in Missouri (Eli Drinkwitz), Arkansas (Sam Pittman) and, most notably, Ole Miss. The Rebels made a splash, hiring Lane Kiffin from FAU.
Cohen, a State alum and the school’s former baseball coach, is somewhat unconventional in his approach. His hire of Moorhead in December 2017 was praised nationally as an ingenious and swift move, plucking a northern-bred offensive guru whose acumen is heralded in the coaching industry. His next move could go in multiple directions. Louisiana’s Billy Napier is a strong Group of 5 coach with southeast ties who in his second year led the Cajuns to a school-record 10 regular-season wins. Cohen could go unorthodox with a coach from a military academy, hoping to bring to Starkville an option scheme with spread concepts, captained by a disciplinarian like Army’s Jeff Monken.
State’s quick hook with Moorhead could potentially scare off candidates. After all, this is a program that historically has struggled with sustained success in such a tough division. Before Mullen’s arrival, State had qualified for one bowl in eight years. Moorhead joined Chad Morris (Arkansas) and Willie Taggart (Florida State) as coaches to be fired in Year 2 on the job, somewhat unprecedented in major college football. From 1990-2018, six Power 5 coaches were fired for on-field performance before beginning their third season.