TAMPA, Fla. — Joe Moorhead was on the phone, again. A pad of paper, a notebook and a binder in his lap, even more on the floor in front of him. There wasn’t really enough room for all of this but the world doesn’t adjust itself to the whims of a new head coach. And the work certainly never slows down.
But eventually he needed a break, or rather, one of his sons needed some coffee.
So Moorhead relented, unfolding his surprisingly tall frame from an airport terminal seat and the two walked the halls in search of something — anything — to drink.
“Hey, Ben!” Moorhead shouted from across the terminal. I was on the back end of a long overnight flight from Phoenix, not 12 hours after Penn State’s win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Moorhead was a month or so removed from being named Mississippi State’s new head coach.
Both of us were removed from a good night of sleep.
But neither of us had much of choice, our flight from Philadelphia to State College delayed, our own personal Sisyphus tale unfolding.
Moorhead’s family, a roster of two sons, one daughter and a wife, sat like everyone else squeezed into Gate 39, except they each wore their own form of Mississippi State apparel.
Where all of the Penn State clothes went, is a fact unknown to me. Perhaps they’re boxed up in a large warehouse next to the Ark of The Covenant. Nevertheless, if they were hoping for some amount of anonymity, the uniformed branding did little to help that cause. And if that didn’t tip you off, a tall man muttering into the phone about football certainly did.
The plane would eventually leave, with the family about to say a final few goodbyes to friends in town, packing up the last things from home.
Whatever home is exactly.
“I think there is where you’re from and there is where you call home,” Moorhead said a year later, once again folded into a seat, but this time in Tampa, a few days prior to a Mississippi State and Iowa rendition of the Outback Bowl.
“And each place you go to you try and make that environment as comfortable as you can for your family and give them the best sense of consistency and normalcy as you can. My daughter has been in three high schools in four years. The most difficult part to me is having to say goodbye to friends and families that you’ve gotten to know and been acquainted with.”
It is hard to argue with Moorhead’s trajectory, or that the moves haven’t been worth it. In four years he has gone from being effectively unknown to being regarded as among the great minds in the sport. If his kids were looking for a reason to resent their father’s career choice, any alleged lack of success won’t be the one they latch on to.
In fact, a bowl victory over Iowa would make Moorhead the only Mississippi State coach to win nine games in his first season at the helm. It might be a small piece of history for a program that doesn’t have endless amounts of it, but in today’s SEC, it’s not nothing.
And it sure has all happened fast.
“I was thinking that on the stage,” Moorhead said, leaning back in his chair after his press conference. “Ken O’Keefe, who is the quarterbacks coach [for Iowa], I actually interviewed with him for an assistant job at Allegheny [College, in Meadville]. I was kind of thinking, that literally four years ago at this time I was losing an FCS Playoff game to Tennessee Chattanooga and not knowing I was going to become Penn State’s offensive coordinator.”
There is a question though, or a curiosity, if it happens too fast.
For all of his success, Moorhead has been a head coach for 63 game, soon to be 64. If James Franklin’s 105 games spent on the sidelines as a head coach seems like a small number compared to the so-called “greats,” then Moorhead has plenty of room to make up.
Which brings him to the question everyone has at some point in their lives. Can they actually do what they were hired to do? Have they bitten off more than they can chew? Can you fall upwards?
“I think there is a part that is intrinsic from a playing or coaching perspective that there is a little ounce of doubt or uncertainty that drives you even more to make sure you’re doing everything possible to be successful,” Moorhead said.
“I’ve never gone into a week of preparation, a game day calling plays as a coach or into a new job saying ‘I got this and this is going to be easy.’ I think that little bit of a worry and that little bit of edge, I think it’s something that people who have found success for extended periods of time always have that little thing in the back of their mind: ‘Is someone working harder than me? Is someone calling this game better? Is someone operating their program better?’ So I think it’s always healthy to have that little bit of doubt or motivation that you’re not doing it to the best of your ability which allows you to strain to be even more productive.”
For Moorhead, his current legacy is two-folded and ongoing. For one, there is his current job where he has put together a successful 8-4 season so far in Starkville with an Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss to go with it. His offense has only slowed four times, albeit at bad moments, but has scored more than 30 points on six occasions already this season.
But those four losses — scoring seven points against Kentucky, six against Florida, three against LSU and nothing against Alabama — those flutter in the back of the mind of a man who has made his money scoring points, and scoring lots of them.
“Outside of those four, we’re doing what we’ve done at just about every stop I’ve been,” Moorhead said, somewhat in his own defense.
And then a pause.
“For an offensive-minded head coach that has gotten to this position through production and performance on that side of the ball, to have the reason you lost the four games you did be against four top-15 teams be the inability to put points on the board, I take that personally. But you look back and say ‘Hey man, if we had been playing in those games like we have been at the end of the season, could it have gone a little bit differently?’ and I think it would have but that’s unfortunate part of it. The ones you lost early on, you don’t get to put them on the back end of the schedule, but I do think we’ll be better for it.”
The other part of the legacy is one already set in motion, playing out this week just over an hour from Tampa as Penn State takes the field in Orlando. It’s an offense manned by friend and protege Ricky Rahne, an internal promotion by James Franklin that was, at least in part, justified and sold because of his proximity to Moorhead. Continuity and familiarity can be resume boosters.
It’s something Moorhead in which takes pride. Even if his fingerprints are slowly fading, the oil is still there, sliding around on the surface of the playbook.
“First and foremost, anytime you’re part of something special and successful there is a unique bond created amongst the people involved,” Moorhead said.
“And from an overall context from James and what we achieved in two years at Penn State, but what we did from the offensive perspective, from Josh (Gattis) moving on to Alabama to being a part of that, which is awesome, Charles (Huff) coming with me and Tyler Bowen moving into that spot after he was with me at Fordham, and Matt Limegrover, who grew up probably less than a mile from each other.
“I think anytime you’re involved with something special and successful and there is a legacy to be left and continues to be successful, I take an incredible amount of pride that I was involved with the staff from an overall construct. But particularly… when I turn on a game on a bye week I can see what is happening and know the plays and know the calls and see Ricky has tweaked some things and put his own stamp on it. I consider Ricky a personal friend of mine and we text all the time and certainly I’m proud of the job that he has done.”
Moorhead keeps in touch best he can with his former players, more specifically quarterback Trace McSorley. He keeps in touch with Rahne as well, continuing to support a friend in a year where Penn State’s offense has sputtered between what it was and something at least not always as aesthetically pleasing even if still ultimately effective.
Predictably, he is unfazed by those moments, unconcerned that Rahne isn’t the guy. In a practical sense, Moorhead can’t dedicate too much of his time to what Penn State is doing. He has a program of his own to run after all.
Even so, the remote always seems to still float toward the Nittany Lions when it gets the chance. That connection and investment is still as strong as ever.
“There’s going to be bumps in the road and trials and tribulations,” Moorhead said. “And I think that’s the great part, if we had a tough one you hear from (Rahne) and hear ‘keep your head up.’ Likewise, if things didn’t go the way they planned for him, you want to boost up a guy you believe in. Ricky Rahne is a guy I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.”
Moorhead leans into his words a little more as he gazes down the empty hall in thought. Even if prompted to think about it, he already knows the season Penn State has had, the criticism Rahne has taken, the pressure everyone is under to perform. The expectations fans put on Penn State’s offense to be something it might not be capable of right now. Maybe ever.
And in those words, a message.
“It’s not plug-and-play,” he said after a pause. “When I took over the team here at Mississippi State that won eight regular season games and won a bowl game and had a bunch of returning starters… immediately the expectation level is that you’re going to perform better than the year before. It takes time for a coach to learn the players. It takes time for the players to learn the coach and it takes time for a staff to embed its culture and have that permeate through the team.”
“It’s not as simple as ‘Ricky is running Joe’s offense so he’s going to come in the same way Joe did.’ that’s not fair to Ricky, that’s not fair to me or the kids. I think that for him stepping in and doing the job that he has done, Ricky is not me nor should he want to be. Ricky has got to be Ricky Rahne and I think he has done a very successful job at that.”
As he prepares to leave, Moorhead puts one final thought on the record, one that might ignore more than a few important details, but a truth nevertheless.
“They’ve scored a bunch of points.”
And if Penn State can do it against a stingy Kentucky defense, it’ll go a long way toward proving both Moorhead and Franklin right.
Check back in a year.