As the middle-aged, grey-haired man arrives at the front of the line at the local Dollar General, he feels the second glance when the cashier reads the name on his credit card. It belongs to Joe Moorhead, AKA the Mississippi State football coach who earned $2.6 million in his first season in Starkville.
As he gets ready to pay for his cat food and litter, Moorhead reads the second look from the cashier. It says, what’s this millionaire coach doing in the dollar store?
“I say, ‘Oh, yeah. My cats go to the bathroom, too. We need to figure it out,’” Moorhead tells SDS.
Moorhead picked up a few things about southern living during his time in Starkville so far. Well, besides the fact that there are a ton of dollar stores where he can get the essentials for the family pets. He quickly realized that he doesn’t have to look very far to find foods wrapped in bacon. There’s a fried catfish wrapped in bacon that’s tough for him to lay off.
One of the challenges of Moorhead’s first season in the SEC was that the food was too good. He admittedly ballooned up a few pounds during the season, but has since worked his way back down to his normal weight.
“It has been a true, true struggle the last couple of months to push away some of those southern delicacies,” Moorhead says.
Call it part of his southern baptism, if you will. On the field, it was an up-and-down first season that typically would have been considered a resounding success at Mississippi State. After all, the program played in its first New Year’s Day bowl since 2014, it was ranked No. 18 in the final Playoff rankings, multiple Bulldogs earned All-SEC and All-American honors and in a few short months, MSU could tie its record of 6 players drafted.
Ultimately, though, Moorhead didn’t live up to his own high standards in Year 1. Despite what he asked his new players upon arrival, they didn’t need to learn their ring sizes in 2018. And the Heisman Trophy that Moorhead said Nick Fitzgerald needed to make room for on his mantel didn’t make its way to Starkville.
Still, that didn’t deter Moorhead from doubling down in Year 2.
“If I had the chance to do it all over, I’d do the exact same thing again because I truly believe no one rises to low expectations,” Moorhead said. “I didn’t take this this job to say, ‘We’re fired up about 8 wins and a good bowl game.’ If that were the case, I would have stayed 2 hours from home being the offensive coordinator at Penn State and continuing to try and have success there.”
There are parts of Moorhead’s identity that weren’t necessarily covered up when he was the offensive coordinator at Penn State, but they certainly weren’t as out in the open. “Confidence” is almost too boring of a word to describe the hip hop-loving, alley-oop tossing head coach. Moorhead has his own brand of swagger.
Hidden underneath his Mississippi State windbreaker on a given fall Saturday is a pair of tattoos. On Moorhead’s left bicep is the Superman emblem, and on his right bicep is an Irish cross with his family’s name around the 4 sides of it.
“Now I’m trying to convince my wife to let me get one more,” Moorhead said. “But she’s like, ‘45, grey hair, another tat? Not a good look.’”
For now, the “412” tattoo to pay homage to his Pittsburgh roots is on the back burner.
The hot topic of conversation after Moorhead arrived in Starkville was how his spread, run-pass option system was going to maximize the quarterback position, specifically Fitzgerald. Hopes that Fitzgerald would become Trace McSorley 2.0 were dashed following his slow start to the season. It probably didn’t help matters that the run-first quarterback spent the offseason rehabbing from major ankle surgery and he was suspended for the first game of 2018.
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead
Even though there were similarities to Dan Mullen’s system, there was a greater emphasis on the passing game with Moorhead. The passing game struggles reached a low against LSU when Fitzgerald threw 4 interceptions in MSU’s third SEC loss. Fans called for Fitzgerald’s benching and for Moorhead to overhaul the offense he was brought in to lead to the next level.
“The most disappointing part of it for me was being an offensive guy and I’ve scored points at every single place I’ve been and when we were good this year, we were very, very good, but when we weren’t, it was at critical times against quality opponents,” Moorhead said.
Whether the LSU debacle was a true turning point or not, Fitzgerald was a much more effective passer in Moorhead’s offense from that point on. In MSU’s final 5 regular season games, Fitzgerald completed 60 percent of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt and he posted an 11-0 touchdown-interception ratio. On the year, Fitzgerald’s 2018 passing numbers were similar to his final season with Mullen.
Despite the early struggles, Moorhead would double down on Fitzgerald, too.
“I truly believe that while it might not have been significant progress on paper in statistics, I think he grew as a player and as a quarterback and it’s going to help prepare him for the next level,” Moorhead said. “I truly believe that if we had another season with him, the growth would’ve been exponential.”
Moorhead’s new quarterback project is Keytaon Thompson. While the circumstances are different — Thompson has 2 years of eligibility left and is entering his second year in Moorhead’s system — the challenge is similar.
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead
Thompson showed flashes like beating Lamar Jackson in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl and racking up 7 total touchdowns filling in for Fitzgerald in Moorhead’s MSU debut. But Thompson is a career 48-percent passer, which Moorhead says must improve in order for MSU to reach his high aspirations.
And yes, as is always the case with Moorhead, aspirations are still high even though there will be less buzz entering Year 2 than Year 1.
“We did lose a lot of personality and a lot of production,” Moorhead said. “But we’ve got a lot of talented players returning at key positions. I think we’re strong on both sides of the ball in a line of scrimmage football league, and I think we’ve got a lot of young talent at the skill positions that maybe didn’t have a primary role but played a lot of important football last season.
“I think the transition from Year 1 to Year 2, you’re going to see incremental improvement.”
It’s cliché, but Moorhead believes MSU was really just a couple plays from getting that coveted 10th win (that would have tied the program record). The potential go-ahead touchdown pass that turned into an Iowa interception in the Outback Bowl was one of them. The misdiagnosed safety blitz in Mullen’s return to Starkville that ultimately spoiled Moorhead’s first SEC home game was another.
The hope is that MSU bucks its 2018 trend of wilting in close games. As Moorhead can attest to, great teams don’t just win when all things are clicking. All 8 of MSU’s wins came in games that they won by at least 14 points (and an average of 37 points), including a 35-3 drubbing of Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
That result turned out exactly as Moorhead hoped. He clinched the program’s second-largest Egg Bowl win since 1920. Off the field, well, let’s just say things got a little heated. Between the postgame verbal altercation with Ole Miss deputy athletic director Michael Thompson and Moorhead’s message to his team to “play with class, but don’t take s— off anybody,” one could have mistaken the MSU coach for a Magnolia State lifer.
“Yeah, it sure was (interesting),” Moorhead said of his first Egg Bowl experience. “I spent a whole year trying not to pour gas on the fire. It went well for about 3 quarters and then it kinda went off the rails … you talk about a ‘welcome to Mississippi’ moment or ‘welcome to the south’ moment, that was the ‘welcome to the Egg Bowl’ moment.”
Moorhead actually sees Ole Miss coach Matt Luke during the offseason because their sons both play travel baseball. They’ll also sit next to each other when their paths cross at functions.
Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead
But Moorhead hasn’t been shy about his desire to outshine his in-state rival. One of his goals upon arrival was “to be the best Power 5 team in the state of Mississippi.” Ole Miss is, of course, the only other Power 5 team in the state of Mississippi. In Year 1 of the Moorhead era, there wasn’t any question about who won that title.
There’s a bigger (cat)fish to fry, though.
“Certainly we’re not going to be satisfied until we compete for a national championship and win an SEC title,” Moorhead said. “… I think it was a good start, and I think we laid a solid foundation, but we’re nowhere near where I want this program to be or why I took this job.”
Much was made about Moorhead’s experience — or lack thereof — south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Questions about how he’d adjust to recruiting and coaching in the SEC were asked of the Pittsburgh native who spent the past 2 decades coaching in the northeast.
It’s too early to tell if Moorhead will improve on what Mullen, another northeast native, did in his 9 years at MSU. Moorhead did just sign a Top 25 class in his first cycle, and all but 1 recruit came from south of the Mason-Dixon (his 2020 class ranks No. 18).
Fitting in was never a concern for him.
“The people in the town have taken well to my family and I, the kids on the team love us and ultimately, it’s a results-driven business that if you can coach, you can coach and if you can recruit, you can recruit,” Moorhead said. “If you can build, forge and cultivate relationships off of a genuine nature, people are gonna take to you. They see through B.S. The biggest part of the assimilation down here is that people see me out, they see me at my kids’ games, they see me at Dollar General buying stuff.
“I’ve been who I am and I think that’s what’s made the transition a lot easier.”
Moorhead is who he is — your typical middle-aged Starkville resident with an affinity for tattoos, southern cooking and discounted cat supplies.
He’s ready for his second glance.