STARKVILLE • Joe Moorhead’s tenure as Mississippi State’s head coach came to an end on Friday.
The school fired the 46-year-old Moorhead after only two seasons in which he posted a 14-12 record on the field.
“In consultation with president Mark Keenum and after a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of our football program, I have decided that a change in leadership is in the best interest of our team and university,” said MSU athletic director John Cohen. “I want to thank coach Moorhead for the hard work he has done with our football program. I wish Joe and his family success in the future.”
Moorhead’s win total is the most by any MSU coach in his first two seasons since 1941. He also guided the Bulldogs to two Egg Bowl victories and was only the second coach in school history to go to a bowl in each of his first two seasons.
“I coached long enough myself to know that wins and losses matter and Joe did win 14 games,” Cohen said. “In this case, it goes a little bit beyond just wins and losses. Wins and losses matter, but there were some other issues at stake here that we had to consider.”
All eight of Moorhead’s victories in 2018 had to be vacated after 10 football players were reprimanded by the NCAA for academic misconduct involving a former part-time tutor and an online chemistry class.
Those 10 players also served eight-game suspensions this season, one in which the Bulldogs went 6-7 and lost to Louisville 38-28 in the Music City Bowl on Monday.
The Cardinals scored 31 unanswered points after State had taken a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Starting quarterback Garrett Shrader was unavailable for the bowl game due a facial fracture sustained in a fight with teammate Willie Gay Jr. at practice on Dec. 20.
“It is clear the time has come to change the leadership of our football program,” Keenum said. “Coach Moorhead is a good man, and I have nothing but respect for him.”
Moorhead’s initial four-year contract was extended following the 2018 season, along with a raise. His salary increased from $2.7 million to $3.05 million this past fall and was set to make $3.15 million in 2020, $3.25 million in 2021 and $3.35 million in 2022.
Sports Illustrated reported that Moorhead’s buyout is around $7 million but could be mitigated to as low as $4 million through offset language in his contract if he is hired elsewhere.
The Pittsburgh native was hired as State’s head coach on Nov. 28, 2017 after being named the national offensive coordinator of the year for the 2016 and 2017 seasons at Penn State. He was also tabbed the No. 1 rising assistant coach in college football entering the 2017 season by both Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.
However, Moorhead’s offense underachieved for much of his tenure in Starkville. MSU featured the nation’s No. 1 defense in 2018 and three future first-round NFL Draft picks, but its offense ranked 71st averaging 397.4 yards per game.
With the bowl season still underway, the Bulldogs’ offense is currently rated No. 70 nationally at 400.1 yards despite featuring the SEC’s leading rusher Kylin Hill.
State produced 28.5 points per game in 2018 (68th) and 27.6 this season (75th). The Bulldogs were also held to seven points or less five times during Moorhead’s tenure, including one shutout.
Moorhead did fare well on the recruiting trail, signing two-straight top 25 classes and his 2020 class is currently ranked No. 26 nationally by 247Sports.com with 21 players already signed last month.
“We have now contacted every one of our signees and we know this was a bit of a bombshell to those guys,” Cohen said. “You don’t sign with one coach, you sign with Mississippi State University and we’re willing to help those folks in any way that we possibly can.
“We look forward to our head coach having an opportunity to sit down and having a great conversation with every one of those young men.”
Tony Hughes will serve as the Bulldogs’ interim head coach until Moorhead’s successor is hired.