Sources: Mississippi State fires coach Joe Moorhead

Mississippi State has fired coach Joe Moorhead after two seasons, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports. He ends his tenure with a 14-12 record, including a 6-7 season in 2019 that ended with a 38-28 loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl.

Moorhead had been on shaky ground in Starkville toward the end of the regular season, but appeared to be safe to return for 2020 after beating rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. But a flurry of off-field issues surrounding the team during bowl preparations gave Mississippi State administrators pause.

That included – but was not limited to – starting quarterback Garrett Shrader missing the Music City Bowl after getting into a fight with teammate Willie Gay. (Gay played in the game.) A source said there were multiple off-field issues that never emerged publicly.

This added to a rocky season in which NCAA issues stemming from an academic scandal led to a spate of player suspensions this season. Through it all, Moorhead has never been a cultural fit in the Deep South, as the Pennsylvania native famously declared after the Egg Bowl win this year: “You’ll have to drag my Yankee ass out of here.”

At the most, Mississippi State will owe Moorhead $7 million in a buyout. That number is tightly mitigated, and could end up around $4 million if Moorhead lands a high-profile coordinator job. Moorhead was a successful offensive coordinator for James Franklin at Penn State and will be in demand to call plays.

Considering Mississippi State’s multi-generation status as the doormat of the SEC until the past decade, the move comes as a departure from the norm in Starkville. Since 1978, only two coaches at State have finished their tenures with records over .500: Moorhead and Dan Mullen (69-46 from 2009-17).

Joe Moorhead watches players warm up before the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Joe Moorhead watches players warm up before the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mississippi State officials were widely expected to fire Moorhead if they lost to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. State officials did a lot of legwork on potential replacements for Moorhead prior to the Egg Bowl. But that victory appeared to be enough to save Moorhead until the issues and poor performance that surrounded the Music City Bowl.

In a state where both SEC programs are in constant comparison, the momentum that Ole Miss has put together since the hiring of Lane Kiffin weighed on State’s decision. It will be interesting to see if Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen can match the buzz of Ole Miss’ hire, as making a move this late means that the coaching ranks have been picked over.

The candidates to replace Moorhead include Lafayette’s Billy Napier, Washington State’s Mike Leach, Army’s Jeff Monken, Tulane’s Willie Fritz, UAB’s Bill Clark, former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, former Southern Miss coach Todd Monken (Jeff’s cousin), and Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Moorhead was a poor cultural fit in Starkville, where he failed to connect with the fan base. His offensive schemes, which sizzled during his days as offensive coordinator at Penn State, also didn’t translate. Mississippi State never found a linchpin quarterback to thrive for Moorhead. That resulted in issues scoring points, as Mississippi State finished No. 75 in scoring offense (27.6) in 2019 and No. 67 last season (28.5).

Moorhead inherited a talented team in 2018 that underachieved, as the Bulldogs had three first-round picks on defense and finished 8-5. In most decades, an 8-5 season at Mississippi State would be celebrated. But the successful tenure of Dan Mullen, who left for Florida after the 2017 season, reset the expectations in Starkville.

Now it’s up to Cohen to find a coach who can live up to those expectations.

Stadium first reported Moorhead's firing on Friday.