There are now billboards all throughout the South with Joe Moorhead’s face on them. Seventy of them, to be exact, from Memphis, Tenn. — where there are a whopping 11 of them — to the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Miss.
In between the two cities, Moorhead took to the podium on Thursday morning in Starkville, Miss., to be introduced as Mississippi State’s new coach. He started it off by ringing one of the program’s ubiquitous cowbells before laying out his plan for the Bulldogs.
Yes, the former Penn State offensive coordinator is beginning to assimilate to his first extended exposure to SEC country. The Pittsburgh native even remembered to throw a “y’all” in there instead of a “yinz.”
It doesn’t hurt that Mississippi State’s marketing department, which provided those billboard numbers, immediately went to work selling its new coach to a fanbase that could potentially be skeptical of Moorhead’s lack of ties to the region.
There’s already, in fact, a slogan — “Moor Cowbell,” a riff off the famed “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken.
The Bulldogs certainly like his confidence and his results after transforming the listless post-sanctions Nittany Lions offense into one of the nation’s best.
“Our goal here is not to just maintain this program,” Moorhead said. “It’s not to insult these guys or this school or this state with low expectations. We’re going to do everything we can to bring an SEC championship home and be a program that competes for a national championship on a yearly basis.”
Moorhead’s contract will pay him an average of $2.75 million over four years.
If it all seems like it happened quickly — especially compared to the ongoing circus sideshow that is Tennessee’s coaching search — that’s because Mississippi State brass had been planning for this well in advance.
Though Moorhead’s predecessor, Dan Mullen, didn’t finalize a deal to return to Florida until Sunday, athletic director John Cohen said he was aware that Mullen could leave earlier in the season and began to do his research.
“And it is amazing how often Joe Moorhead kept coming up,” Cohen said.
Eventually, Cohen called Moorhead’s boss in State College, James Franklin.
“I know this guy can call plays,” Cohen said, recalling the conversation. “I know this guy has an incredible grasp for offensive football, maybe moreso than anybody in college football. But I need to ask you this — how about defensive football?
“And I’ll never forget for the rest of my life what coach Franklin said. He said, ‘John, this guy is a ball coach. This guy can coach any position on the field. We could put him on the defensive side of the football at Penn State, and we wouldn’t miss a beat.’ “
Cohen, a self-described “ball coach” himself who used to lead the Bulldogs baseball team, loved to hear that.
As it was, Moorhead landed a face-to-face interview on Monday, impressed enough to earn a second interview on Tuesday and the hiring was made official on Wednesday.
Accordingly, when listing people he wanted to thank on Thursday, Moorhead saved some of his strongest praise for Franklin, who hired him two years ago out of Fordham.
“I’ll be forever indebted to coach Franklin,” Moorhead said. “Because two years ago, he was in need of an answer at the offensive coordinator position, and he had the vision and foresight to roll the dice and take a chance on a 44-year-old coach of a I-AA school who needed to come in and help a Big Ten offense. Help a team achieve its goals.
“Coach Franklin deserves a ton of praise and credit. And I’m indebted to him for giving me this opportunity.”
Since the news began spreading that Moorhead was leaving Penn State late Tuesday night, Penn State players on both sides of the ball took to social media to wish him well, including quarterbacks Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec as well as defensive captain Jason Cabinda, among others.
The feeling was mutual.
“I love my kids at Penn State,” Moorhead said. “They were awesome.”
Huff may follow to MSU
While Franklin and the Lions mull over their next offensive coordinator, they may also have to replace their special teams coordinator as well.
Charles Huff, who also coaches Penn State’s running backs, is expected to join Moorhead at Mississippi State, likely with a promotion as at least co-offensive coordinator.
The Athletic first reported that Huff was bound for Starkville. No other assistant coaches are expected to go along with him.
As of Thursday night, the Bulldogs had announced no new staff additions.
“I can make 10 calls and have the staff filled before this press conference ends,” Moorhead said. “But I want to measure twice and cut once — make sure we do it right.”
Aside from the All-America play of Saquon Barkley, Penn State’s special teams saw a noted uptick this season under Huff.
Huff also has a strong reputation as a recruiter and has been one of the lead coaches recruiting blue-chip verbal commitments from the DMV area — P.J. Mustipher, Daniel George, Nana Asiedu and star running back Ricky Slade.
Slade, however, took to Twitter after the report came out to say he remained “100 percent committed … (and) it’s staying that way.”
One school that won’t be coming after the Lions recruits is Mississippi State.
“I’m not gonna do that,” Moorhead told reporters in Starkville after his main press conference, adding that he will focus on the Bulldogs’ committed players.