In the South, there may not be a more exalted position than that of a head football coach of a Southeastern Conference football team.
The moment a coach ascends to that pinnacle, he is an instant millionaire with his own team of representatives – lawyers, accountants, sometimes even agents. He is a brand unto himself and his image is carefully crafted, nurtured and protected.
Against that backdrop, Joe Moorhead shuffled onto the scene in Starkville in December, hands jammed in his pockets, moving comfortably among the hundreds of curious fans who had turned out to see the SEC’s newest celebrity coach.
At 6-foot-5, he could be an intimidating figure, but his nature gives him away. There is something in his mannerisms, his speech, the way he connects with people that puts folks at ease. To the degree that anyone in such a position can be a regular guy, Joe Moorhead fits the description.
If being a celebrity is part of the job description, Moorhead accepts it, even if he doesn’t necessarily embrace it.
“Yeah, I’m not much into all that,” Moorhead admits. “Obviously, the coaches are central figures and faces of the program to a certain extent, but I always prefer for it to be about the players.”
Joe Moorhead, 44, grew up in the Penn Hills area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a middle-class neighborhood known for producing good athletes in a town where sports – especially football – is embraced with a passion that even football-obsessed Southerners can appreciate.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, Pittsburgh was evolving from the days when the steel industry dominated the city. Even so, the city’s ethos is still shaped by the stoic shot-and-a-beer, roll-up-your-sleeves, mind-your-business steelworker. These are not flashy people. They are not self-promoters. As a rule, they don’t set trends; they dutifully follow tradition.
“You work for what you want and get what you deserve,” is the way Moorhead describes his hometown. “You roll your sleeves up every day and try to eliminate distractions and, hopefully, your body of work speaks for itself.”
For Moorhead, it certainly has.
His 20-year journey to Mississippi State follows the usual script – a series of low-paying graduate assistant positions to assistant coaching spots at small schools, steadily building his resume with methodical, roll-up-your-sleeves persistence. His first head coaching job, at his alma mater Fordham in the Bronx, New York, was hardly a high-profile job, which seems not to have bothered Moorhead in the least.
In fact, if Penn State head coach James Franklin had not dropped into a coaching clinic where Moorhead was speaking, Moorhead might still be at Fordham.
Franklin was mesmerized by Moorhead’s command of the subject matter, offering him the decidedly high-profile job of offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2016.
That is where Moorhead’s story departs dramatically from the script.
In two years, Moorhead transformed the team’s plodding, dismally dull offense into a Juggernaut, relying on a revolutionary scheme he had developed at Fordham. The college football world sat up and took notice, including Mississippi State Athletics Director John Cohen, who hired Moorhead to replace Dan Mullen, who had left MSU for the Florida job.
When you consider the influences that shaped Moorhead as a kid – especially the no-frills orthodoxy of his hometown and the people in it – it’s hard to imagine what would emerge was a revolutionary approach to football.
But even as a teenager, still waters ran deep for Moorhead.
Rick Capretta is the athletics director at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School. Prior to this year, he coached football at Central Catholic, whose most famous alumnus is NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino.
But there is another quarterback that Capretta remembers well – Joe Moorhead.
“Joe was a big, skinny lefty who could really throw the ball,” Capretta recalls. “He was another one of those tough kids from Penn Hills that we had a lot of success bringing into our school.”
In the early 90s, Central Catholic’s offense mirrored the community – a grind-it-out, run-up-the-middle offense in a grind-it-out city. At the time, Capretta was the team’s receivers coach.
“Joe was a frustrated 17-year-old,” Capretta says, laughing. “He wanted to throw the ball. We would sit around and talk about how to throw the ball more.
“That’s the thing I remember about Joe the most: Even then, he was always thinking about the game, thinking of how the flow of the game could be more open and the pace faster,” he added. “He wasn’t satisfied.”
Moorhead’s innovation is the widely-known – and now, widely-emulated– run/pass option or RPO. In its simplest form, the RPO is an offense that relies on the quarterback “reading” the reaction of a specific defensive player, then running or passing the ball based on that reaction. Moorhead’s innovation isn’t so much the concept as it is refining it and perfecting it.
Both at Fordham and Penn State, Moorhead’s offense produced yards and points in dazzling quantities.
That reputation is what landed Moorhead the job at Mississippi State, but there are other qualities that will likely determine his success or failure in the position.
And that is what brings Moorhead’s story full circle.
Those qualities – sacrifice, hard work, consistency – he learned from his parents, especially his father. “Murph” Moorhead worked two jobs – steelworker by day, bartender by night – to make sure his three kids had the kind of opportunities he never had.
Even as a kid, Joe – the youngest of the three – recognized the sacrifice.
“It was a sacrifice to send my brother, my sister and me to Catholic elementary school, Catholic high school, and college,” he said “I don’t know too many people who had three or four mortgages on their houses, gave up personal things, vacations, pretty much everything, to do that for us. He always said that it was the parents’ responsibility to make their kids’ lives better than their own. My parents didn’t just say it. They lived it.”
Moorhead may have learned his football in dozens of places from dozens of people, but commitment, hard work and sacrifice he learned at home.
“He’s a Pittsburgh guy through and through,” Capretta said. “He was never boastful. He kept to himself, very focused. He had a plan and followed it through.”
For a while, as Moorhead pursued his coaching career in anonymity, Capretta lost track of Moorhead.
“We didn’t know where he was bouncing around to until he took the Fordham job,” Capretta said. “But what I did know was that wherever he was, he was going to have some tough kids. That’s the way it’s going to be. That’s just Joe.”