How Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead went from sports writer to SEC head coach

The former English major once designed the agate page of box scores before lucking into a coaching gig.
No longer a writer, Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead still gets to use his words (and pens). (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
No longer a writer, Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead still gets to use his words (and pens). (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Published Dec. 26, 2018

TAMPA — When Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead thinks about the 20-year journey that has brought him from the other side of high school press boxes to the Outback Bowl against Iowa, he sounds like the English major he once was.

Serendipitous. Surreal.

"I'd certainly categorize it as unique," Moorhead said.

Of all the words in Moorhead's thesaurus, that one might be the most fitting.


His rise started predictably enough. Moorhead, like Dan Marino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High and wanted to follow Marino to the NFL.

"I wanted to be the next Dan Marino," Moorhead said earlier this month before the Outback Bowl's contract signing ceremony. "Fought tooth and nail to try to make that happen."

It didn't.

After a season playing in Europe, Moorhead moved back to the States and got some local free-agent tryouts. Those didn't stick, either, so Moorhead needed something to pay the bills while he pursued his football dream.

Moorhead — who studied English and wrote for the school paper at Fordham —decided on writing.

He got a job at a small weekly newspaper in Pittsburgh, where he followed Penn-Trafford High on its road to the state championship game. The team's title hopes ended with a missed extra point.

"Covering that team and those kids and getting to kind of know (them), that was pretty neat to follow them for a whole season," Moorhead said.

But Moorhead wanted to be participating in the season instead of chronicling it. He kept throwing and spent a month with the Arena Football League's Milwaukee Mustangs.

"One preseason appearance later," Moorhead said, "I was cut from that."

So Moorhead got another job in journalism, this time at a small daily newspaper in Ohio.

Hey, you're hired. You're laying out the pages for the paper tomorrow.

Moorhead said the staff taught him the design software, QuarkXPress, in a day. The worst part? Laying out the agate page full of box scores.

"The agate was a pain," Moorhead said.

Fortunately, he didn't have to design them very long.

As he was working at the paper, he was also sending out resumes to every Division I-A and I-AA program in the nation. Eventually one wrote back.

Pitt was adding a new recruiting-centric graduate assistant program. The Panthers liked that Moorhead was a former quarterback who was from the area (his high school was on Pitt's campus). In an industry built on connections, those traits, apparently, were enough.

Moorhead gave his one-day's notice and bolted the newspaper.

The career change has worked out better than Moorhead could have reasonably expected.

He rose through the ranks from grad assistant to full-time Division I-AA assistant (Georgetown) to full-time I-A assistant (Akron and UConn). He took over as Fordham's head coach in 2012 and had just lost to Tennessee-Chattanooga in the I-AA playoffs three years ago when Penn State hired him away to be its offensive coordinator.

His offenses were explosive enough in Happy Valley to get him an SEC head coaching job after Dan Mullen left the Bulldogs for Florida. Now Moorhead has a top-20 team with a chance to end the season even higher.

"Crazy, I know," Moorhead said. "Hollywood would throw that script away because it was unbelievable."

Maybe. But at least Moorhead knows how to write it.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.