Mississippi State fired Joe Moorhead after just two seasons Friday, making the unusual decision to dismiss a coach after a bowl game.
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.
This season, with a rebuilding team, Mississippi State (6-7) made it to the postseason with a one-point victory against rival Mississippi in the regular-season finale. The Bulldogs then lost 38-28 to Louisville in the Music City Bowl.
”It is clear the time has come to change the leadership of our football program,” Mississippi State President Mark Keenum said in a statement. ”Coach Moorhead is a good man, and I have nothing but respect for him. I sincerely wish the very best for him and his wonderful family.”
Mississippi State scheduled an afternoon news conference.
Athletic director John Cohen said associate head coach Tony Hughes will serve as interim head coach while the school searches for a permanent successor.
”We look forward to finding an outstanding leader both on and off the field who connects with our Bulldog student-athletes, coaches and fans to the fullest,” Cohen said in a statement.
Keenum said the school is looking for a coach who will ”demonstrably reflect our shared expectations for a consistently competitive football team that displays discipline, pride, and preparation in all facets of the program.”
The coaching change will be the 18th in the Football Bowl Subdivision 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. He was fired despite being just the second Mississippi State coach ever to reach bowl games in each of his first two seasons, matching a feat that Jackie Sherrill accomplished in 1991-92.
But he couldn’t quickly build on the momentum established by Mullen, whose 69-46 record in nine seasons at Mississippi State included a 33-18 mark over his last four years.
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.
The loss at the Music City Bowl game 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 didn’t confirm a fight or details of Shrader’s injury, but said before the bowl game the two players had spoken to each other and the issue was addressed internally. Shrader had been slated to start, but didn’t play against Louisville.
Mississippi State also had 10 players withheld from eight games this season because of NCAA violations involving an academic tutor. That same NCAA investigation also resulted in Mississippi State vacating all eight of its wins from 2018.
”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 an odd geographical fit when 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 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 coach Matt Luke and then hired Lane Kiffin to replace him.
Now Mississippi State is looking for a new coach, too.
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