Mississippi State fires Moorhead after 2 seasons

Published 10:40 am Friday, January 3, 2020

Mississippi State fired coach Joe Moorhead after just two seasons, two people with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press.

They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because an announcement had not been made by the school. Athletic director John Cohen informed Moorhead of the decision at a meeting Friday.

The dismissal was first reported by the online sports network Stadium.

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The Bulldogs went 14-12 under Moorhead, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Penn State. He was hired after the 2017 season when Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida.

Mississippi State’s coaching change will be the 18th in FBS this season, fourth in the Southeastern Conference — after none last season — and third in the SEC West. All the previous FBS openings were filled before the start of the early national signing period for high school recruits on Dec. 18.

Moorhead is the third Power Five conference coach to be fired since November after only two seasons in the job, joining Florida State’s Willie Taggart and Arkansas’ Chad Morris.

Moorhead took over a team with high expectations in 2018, but the Bulldogs finished a disappointing 8-5 despite having a defense that featured three first-round draft picks and allowed the fewest yards per game of any Football Bowl Subdivision team.

This season, with a rebuilding team, Mississippi State (6-7) slipped into the postseason with a one-point victory against rival Mississippi in the regular-season finale.

The Bulldogs lost 38-28 to Louisville in the Music City Bowl, but the result was only part of the problem for Moorhead. Leading to the game, there were reports of a post-practice fight between freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader and starting linebacker Willie Gay that left Shrader injured.

Moorhead did not confirm a fight or details of Shrader’s injury, but did say before the bowl game that the two players had spoken to each other and the issue was addressed internally. Shrader had been slated to start, but did not play against Louisville.

Mississippi State also had 10 players withheld from eight games this season because of NCAA violations involving an academic tutor.

“Sometimes at the end of your career, you think you’re going to write a book and talk about a season, talk about your career, and each season is a chapter,” Moorhead said after the Music City Bowl. “This season was a book in and of itself. Certainly 6-7 was not the outcome we desired.”

Moorhead, a Pittsburgh native who had mostly worked in the Northeast, seemed like an odd geographical fit when he was hired by Cohen. But Moorhead was considered a coach on the rise, with a creative offense and a reputation for developing quarterbacks. In Moorhead’s two seasons with Penn State, the Nittany Lions finished in the top two in the Big Ten in yards per play.

Before that he did a four-year stint as head coach of Fordham, his alma mater. and went 38-13 with three FCS playoff appearances.

The offensive success never came in Starkville for Moorhead, and the Bulldogs struggled for consistency at quarterback.

The Egg Bowl win against Ole Miss seemed to ensure another season for Moorhead, even though it was anything but an ordinary victory. Mississippi State nearly blew a late lead on Thanksgiving night, but Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore was flagged for pretending to urinate in the end zone after scoring a potential tying touchdown in the final minute. Ole Miss kicker Luke Logan then missed a longer-than-usual extra point.

Three days later, Ole Miss fired its coach, Matt Luke, and hired Lane Kiffin less than a week later to replace him.

Now Mississippi State is looking for a new coach, too.