fThe rumors started Thursday evening that Mississippi State was exploring options towards parting ways with head football coach Joe Moorhead. Less than 24 hours later, the MSU Football Twitter account made it official.
The original hiring of Moorhead to replace Dan Mullen in November of 2017 was a surprising move. As offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Penn State, he had directed one of the country’s most prolific offenses. That season, the Nittany Lions set school records for total offense (6,056 yards) and passing yards (3,650), and tied the mark for points scored (526). Penn State’s scoring output increased by 14.4 points from 2015 to 2016, the fourth-highest jump among Power 5 teams. Of course, it helped that his PSU team had the likes of RB Saquon Barkley, RB Miles Sanders, QB Trace McSorley, WR DaeSean Hamilton, and TE Mike Gesicki who were all drafted into the NFL.
A POOR MATCH
Even with that pedigree, the hiring of a “Yankee” to the deep south of Starkville did not seem like a good match. For beginners, knowledge of the area to appropriately recruit is a necessity. MSU is not the kind of school that can have coaches show up in Bully gear and have recruits fight each other to sign up. The Bulldogs have often needed to look for diamonds in the rough. To do that, relationships with high school coaches and familiarity of the area is vital. Moorhead had none of that. In addition, he really did not have a dynamic kind of personality to build relationships.
Another flaw was his lack of FBS head coaching experience. Coaching Fordham is nothing like coaching in the SEC.
The Bulldogs had a decent Year 1 under Moorhead, finishing 8-5 and fourth in the SEC West. The Bullies won at K-State, and at home against Auburn and Texas A&M. Additionally, they achieved completion of a high priority in winning the Egg Bowl over hated rival Ole Miss 35-3. Unfortunately, Missy State could not carry that momentum over to their bowl game and lost to Iowa 27-22 in the Outback Bowl.
Although 8-5 was a good record, many detractors pointed out that Moorhead had wasted a “generational” defense that included 2019 first round NFL draft picks Johnathan Abram, Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons.
With several upperclassmen departing, 2019 would need some reinforcements. MSU was able to sign 5-star OT Charles Cross but they redshirted him. Nathan Pickering also stayed home but it took awhile for him to get going. Of the top ten in-state players, three signed with Auburn, two each to Alabama and Ole Miss coming off probation and one went to UGA. Another opportunity wasted.
MSU won their first two games of 2019 before falling at home to Kansas State. They beat Kentucky before the Lynn Bowden express could taken flight. next, the Bulldogs would lose five of their next six to drop to 4-6.
The week before Cupcake Saturday, it was announced that MSU had suspended six players for the dreaded “violation of team rules.”
Senior defensive tackle Lee Autry
Junior linebacker Willie Gay Jr.
Sophomore safety Marcus Murphy
Senior offensive lineman Michael Story
Senior offensive lineman Tommy Champion
Junior offensive lineman Greg Eiland
Autry, Gay, Johnson and Murphy have been suspended for all but three of Mississippi State’s games this season. Story was suspended for the season-opener but has played in MSU’s nine other games. This was Champion and Eiland’s first time being suspended this season.
Willie Gay would return for the final game of the regular season but his story was not over yet.
As you may recall, Ole Miss had this season’s Egg Bowl momentum on their side until wide receiver Elijah Moore scored a touchdown and then infamously mimicked a dog urinating which drew a flag. The game-tying extra point was missed and Mississippi State survived.
After that final home game, there were rumors of Rutgers coming after Moorhead. He emphatically denied any interest in leaving Starkville.
“This is my team. This is my school. This is my program. You’ll have to drag my Yankee ass out of here.”
~ Joe Moorhead after the Egg Bowl.
Famous last words, huh?
In the following weeks, things began to deteriorate further. Reports surfaced that starting quarterback Garrett Shrader would miss the Music City Bowl in what was ridiculously reported as an “upper body injury.” The truth would come out that Shrader had gotten into a fight with the aforementioned Gay. Shrader was out but the junior linebacker was not disciplined. Not that it helped. Mississippi State was manhandled by Louisville 38-28 in a game that was not as close as the score indicates.
By all accounts, the book had been closed on the 2019 season for the Bulldogs. However, the splashy hiring of Lane Kiffin upstate ruffled some feathers in StarkVegas. Speculation has it that the MSU administration looked at Oxford and then looked at their own situation and saw the future. It was time to admit their mistake and make a counter move to the Kiffin ”check”.
In this age of loose lips and social media, it is amazing how fast this turned from a rumor to reality. The suddeness is curious and makes one wonder how and when this decision was made. Was it made with a candidate in mind?
I have never worked in an Athletic Department. However, I have put together what I think should be a criteria for AD John Cohen:
- Must have FBS head coaching experience.
- Must have ties and familiarity with the South.
- Must be younger than 54 or so.
Some believe that a fourth requirement should necessitate that the hire be a “splashy” one. It is true that this program needs a big name to excite the fan base, boosters, and recruits alike to jump start the program and keep up with Ole Miss. Moorhead’s hiring drew a lot of head-scratchings and echoes of “who?”
Some of the names being knocked around:
- LSU assistant Joe Brady (30) - No name is hotter right now than his. If you want splashy, this is a tidal wave. The Tigers passing game coordinator who turned Joe Schmoe into Joe Heisman will get a look, though he is very young and has no head coaching experience.
- UAB Head Coach Bill Clark (51) - The Blazers head man has performed nothing short of miracles in Birmingham. Since winning a stay of execution, UAB has gone 8-5, 11-3 with a C-USA title, and 9-5 with a division title. All this he has done with limited resources and no-name recruits. Clark has been described as a bit of a country boy, so he would fit in just fine in middle Mississippi.
- ULL Head Coach Billy Napier (40) - The former Clemson and Alabama assistant was an ace recruiter for the Crimson Tide. His Ragin’ Cajuns went 7-7 in Year 1 and 10-3 this season, winning division titles both seasons. He is very familiar with recruiting the South. He would be a solid hire but is it “splashy” enough?
- Clemson DC Brent Venables (49) - Like Brady, we have a guy with no head coaching experience, but he has coached under some pretty good teachers: Bill Snyder at Kansas State (1993–1998), Bob Stoops at Oklahoma (1999–2011), and Dabo Swinney at Clemson (2012–present). He can recruit really well and is a defensive mastermind.
- UCF Head Coach Josh Heupel (41) - One of the hot up and comers, Heupel took over UCF and has gone 22-4 in two seasons. He has done so while tuning down all the silly trash-talking trolling of Scott Frost who preceded him. He was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000 while quarterbacking Oklahoma and later became an assistant in Norman after injuries derailed an NFL career. Before UCF, he served as OC at Mizzou (2016–2017) tutoring Drew Lock.
- Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze (50) - This is a longshot, but what a gut-punch this would be to Ole Miss. It would take some strong convincing of SEC Commissioner Greg Stankey to let Freeze back in the conference.
Who else? Let us hear it in Comments.
If you were MSU AD, who would be your top candidate?
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