STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s been a pretty good football program for most of the past decade, rising from a doormat in the Southeastern Conference to earn a streak of eight straight bowl appearances.
New Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead doesn’t believe that is enough.
“Our goal here is not to just maintain this program,” Moorhead said at his introductory news conference on Thursday. “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.”
That statement drew hearty cheers from the several hundred fans who gathered on campus for Moorhead’s introduction. The 44-year-old Moorhead replaces Dan Mullen, who left Mississippi State after nine seasons to become the Florida Gators’ new head coach.
Moorhead has been at Penn State the last two seasons, calling plays for one of the best offenses in the country.
He thanked his former head coach at PSU, James Franklin.
“I’ll be forever indebted to Coach Franklin,” Moorhead said. “Two years ago, he was in need of an answer at the offensive coordinator position. He had the vision and foresight to roll the dice and take a chance on a 44-year-old head coach of a I-AA school who needed to come in and help a Big Ten offense.”
The new coach was also quick to praise Mullen, saying the “foundation is laid” for football success at the school. The 24th-ranked Bulldogs have an 8-4 record this season and should return most of their starters for next season.
Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said Moorhead has the background necessary to capitalize on the talent of the current roster and maintain that success into the future.
“He’s here to make us better,” Cohen said.
Still, Cohen had one concern. And so he talked to Franklin.
“I know this guy has an incredible grasp for offensive football, maybe more so than anyone in college football,” Cohen said, recalling a conversation with Franklin. “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 ball at Penn State, and we wouldn’t miss a beat.’ Pretty powerful stuff.”
Moorhead reportedly will take at least one PSU assistant with him to PSU. Chris Vannini of The Athletic is reporting that PSU running backs coach Charles Huff will be Moorhead's co-offensive coordinator at MSU. Huff has been on Franklin's staff at PSU for the last four years.
Salary is $2.75 million per year: Moorhead will earn an average of $2.75 million per year over the next four years, starting with $2.6 million in 2018. There are also various incentives in his contract for accomplishments like bowl appearances. Moorhead said he won’t coach in Mississippi State’s upcoming bowl game, but will be around the program evaluating talent.
The Mississippi State coaching search was smooth and drama-free — Moorhead accepted the job about 48 hours after Mullen informed the Bulldogs he was leaving. Cohen said Mullen’s departure wasn’t totally unexpected and he’d been doing research for several months about up-and-coming coaches.
In all his conversations, Moorhead’s name kept coming up.
Cohen said he isn’t worried that Moorhead doesn’t have any head coaching experience at the FBS level. Mullen didn’t have head coaching experience at any level when he was hired by the Bulldogs nine years ago.
“We weren’t looking for a coordinator, we weren’t looking for a head coach, we’re looking for the best fit for Mississippi State University,” Cohen said. “And if you’re looking for the best fit, you can’t exclude anybody. You can’t take anybody off the table.”
Excelling at PSU: Franklin hired Moorhead after the 2015 season to bring his creative spread offense to State College, and it has helped the Nittany Lions post a 21-5 record over the last two seasons.
Several Mississippi State players were at Thursday’s news conference. Moorhead met with the team before being introduced and running back Kylin Hill said the connection was instant.
“The entire offense, they’re ready to go,” Hill said. “We’re really excited about this hire.”
Before arriving at Penn State, Moorhead was head coach at FCS Fordham University in New York. He went 38-13 at his alma mater with three playoff appearances in four years. The Rams have made only two other playoff appearances since moving up to Division I in 1989.
The Pittsburgh native also has been offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Connecticut and Akron.
Gets warm welcome: Moorhead received a warm welcome when he arrived in Starkville on Wednesday night and was greeted by several hundred fans at the airport. He even went downtown to one of the student hot spots and served some cheese fries to patrons.
He said the passion of the fans in Starkville was one of many reasons taking the job was an easy choice.
“They were pretty fired up — getting some fries and having a good ol’ time visiting with the head ball coach,” Moorhead said.
The Centre Daily Times contributed to this report.