Way back when, on Dec. 18, 2019, Joe Moorhead conducted video conference calls with all 22 Mississippi State football signees. Right next to him was the Egg Bowl trophy, spoils of victory in the annual rivalry game with Mississippi. Winning that game helped the embattled Moorhead keep his job, which in turn allowed State to keep a national top-25 recruiting class intact.
Sixteen days, one fight, one upset bowl loss and one abrupt administrative about-face later, the school dragged Moorhead’s yankee ass out of Starkville. And if Mississippi State has a shred of conscience, it will offer all those new recruits a release from their signed National Letters of Intent.
The players didn’t sign up for this.
In a sport full of bait-and-switch recruiting tactics, signing almost an entire class and then firing the head coach is about as sketchy as it gets. It certainly belongs in the same scam-artist sentence as what Mississippi did with its recruiting class of 2016, misleading prospects regarding the details of an NCAA Notice of Allegations shortly before signing day.
Several players from that Ole Miss recruiting class successfully appealed for immediate eligibility as transfers, citing the school’s duplicity. Unless Mississippi State wants to avoid a similar PR beating, it should do the right thing now before being forced to later — release any and every new signee who requests it.
That is especially and urgently the case for the handful of early enrollees who are likely arriving on campus in Starkville this weekend. Spring semester classes start Monday. Can you imagine enrolling with no idea who your coach will be?
Those players deserve the chance to make the same, last-second change of heart that the school made with Moorhead.
For those who aren’t enrolling early, the fair thing would be to give the new coach—whoever he is, and whenever he’s hired—a chance to meet and retain the 2020 signees. But if they want out of their letters after hearing the new guy’s pitch, neither the school nor the NCAA should stand in their way.
Athletic director John Cohen said at his Friday press conference that State has contacted all signees to inform them of the news, adding, "We're willing to help those folks any way we can." That's not the same thing as offering them a release, which would be the right thing to do.
This is an unusual circumstance, created by the combination of the relatively new early signing period and a rare late firing. But it may not be the only coaching change this month that occurs after most of a class is signed—Baylor coach Matt Rhule is in demand at the NFL level, and there may be other college head coaches coveted by the pros.
But Baylor would be far less in control of the circumstances than Mississippi State is in this instance. Cohen made his decision after the Egg Bowl to retain Moorhead—thanks, in no small part, to Ole Miss’s Great Fake Dog Pee Fiasco—and that undoubtedly was communicated to every recruit. They were given every reason to believe Moorhead would be their coach in 2020.
This situation is another reminder that National Letters of Intent can be one-way streets—good for the school, restrictive for the player. Even in an era of increased willingness to allow athletes more freedom of movement between schools, the rules skew in favor of the institutions.
While rare, situations like this are why waiting until the traditional National Signing Day window in February can be the smarter option—in theory. Schools are cynically adept at applying pressure to both commit and sign early, saying that scholarship space is limited and there may be no room at the inn after the December signing period.
Ultimately, signing non-binding financial aid papers is the smarter way to go—if something changes, there is some wiggle room. But that is often only realistic for the most elite recruits, who can dictate the terms of engagement to the schools while knowing they won’t lose their roster spot.
If John Cohen and the Mississippi State administration want to salvage their recruiting class, they have some explaining to do. Namely, what happened—the reported fight between teammates and breakdown of discipline leading up to the Music City Bowl loss to Louisville—and why it necessitated the firing of Moorhead after all of two seasons.
Frankly, it would seem to be a tough sell. Fact is, State just fired the only coach who didn’t have at least one season of fewer than six wins on his resume since Darrell Royal in 1954-55.
Moorhead’s two-year record of 14-12—while playing in the most difficult division in college football—leaves him with a winning percentage of .539. Of the 10 full-time head coaches State has had in the last 60 years, that percentage ranks second only to his predecessor, Dan Mullen.
When .539 gets you run out of Mississippi State, perspective has indeed been lost. But this is par for the warped course in the most dysfunctional and delusional college football state in America.
Up the road in Oxford, where Ole Miss is emerging from major NCAA sanctions dating to Hugh Freeze’s scandal-scarred tenure, baggage-laden Lane Kiffin is being treated like a conquering antihero. Kiffin’s hiring this week of D.J. Durkin—fired two years ago at Maryland after the death of a player and subsequent investigation found that Durkin was tolerant of bullying and degradation by his staff—is the latest signal that Ole Miss is desperate to return to relevance.
Scroll back far enough on Ole Miss message boards—back to Nov. 1, 2018, when Durkin was being fired—and you can find Rebels fans criticizing Maryland fans for wanting to keep their coach. Scroll through the same boards today and there is some radical revisionist history.
The ultimate bottom line is actually pathetic. These two schools—so willing to cut each other’s throats in pursuit of meager football glory—have won a combined zero Southeastern Conference titles in the last 55 years.
If the only way to change that is to go full rogue in Oxford and sign a bait-and-switch recruiting class in Starkville, well, they’re willing to try it. Knock yourselves out, boys.