So intensive was the interview when Joe Moorhead talked with Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen about the open football head coaching position that he wound up sharing one of the most meaningful stories of his life with a man he barely knew. The day his father explained why he worked so tirelessly helped explain just what kind of person the younger Moorhead is.
That story is also what helped convince Cohen that Moorhead was the perfect person to become the Bulldog’s next head football coach.
“I loved it. I’m always trying to write a movie script in my mind and that’s a beautiful script,” Cohen said. “Pretty powerful stuff, to me.”
It wasn’t just that Moorhead was the product of good parenting, though. It was that he had grown to hold the same ideals as his father. It was that Moorhead, following the example given to him, was a tireless worker—a man with not just a willingness to work hard but with an appreciation for the act itself.
“We were looking for someone who had a blue-collar personality but an intellectual personality at the same time,” Cohen said.
In Moorhead, a brilliant offensive football mind who had grown up under the guidance and care of one of Pennsylvania’s many dedicated steel workers, Cohen found his man.
“I really think my formation as a person and what I stand for is understanding what a blue-collar work ethic meant,” Moorhead said. “It didn’t matter how cold it was, didn’t matter how warm it was, didn’t matter how early in the morning it was or how late at night. [Merv] got up every day and went to work, came home and got something to eat, and whether his second job was a bartender or janitor, he did whatever he needed to do to put food on the table, provide for his family and make sure that we were well-educated.”
Moorhead and his siblings became first-generation college graduates thanks to their father’s sacrifices, and when Moorhead decided to attend Fordham University as a quarterback, it was the first big step in a career that has taken him from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Starkville.
It turns out the two cities, and the lessons taught in both, are not so different. The industries of the regions are not the same, of course, but similarities are found in the one thing each is dependent on: hard work. Geography may change, but blue collar is blue collar no matter where you go. Pennsylvania’s steel mills are Mississippi’s farmlands. Early mornings, long days and too-short nights run rampant for all. Worn gloves, heavy boots and aching muscles, the shared hallmarks of their hard work.
And that’s why Moorhead, a man who has spent almost all of his life in the Northeast, fits in so well in the Deep South. Exchange “yins” for “y’all” and the rest falls naturally into place.
One of the first hires Moorhead made upon accepting the job at Mississippi State was Anthony Piroli, who he tabbed to be the head strength and conditioning coach. Like Moorhead, Piroli grew up in Pittsburgh. The two had been following each other’s professional careers for years, which included a previous stop in Starkville for Piroli as an assistant during the historic 2014 season when the Bulldogs rose to No. 1 in the country. Thanks to his experience with both parties of the new marriage, Piroli was as confident as anyone that Moorhead and Mississippi State would be a perfect fit.
“Coach Joe and I are kind of cut from the same cloth, just hard-working, blue-collar type guys from the same area,” Piroli said. “I told him right after he got this job that one of the things he would like the most about the players I know in this program is that’s exactly who they are.
Special thanks to Vic Latham and the Department of Mechanical Engineering for the use of The Factory’s welding facilities and BattleBells for providing the equipment and personnel for this photo shoot. In the photos, Jeffery Smith of Ackerman’s Moore Machine Works uses TIG welding to create one of BattleBell’s most popular items—the 11-inch, stainless steel “original” bell. The unique “flame-torched” bell is also pictured on page 2. Owned by Stephen Caples (’12), John Howell (’11) and Chuck Lovern (’97), the hand-crafted cowbell company began as part of the university’s entrepreneurship program.
“I know it might be the South and people might not see similarities between steel country up north and down here, but that’s what I saw in these players when I was here last and I already see it now,” he continued. “One thing you don’t have to teach Mississippi State football players is effort and how to work hard, because these guys go a million miles an hour all the time.”
The new coach’s fit with the Bulldog family has been natural and mutually beneficial in the early months of the Joe Moorhead Era. From his first day in town when he was giving out late-night cheese fries to hungry students in the Cotton District, to the day after national signing day when he did a radio interview while waiting in line at the DMV, Moorhead is proving to be something many people in athletics just aren’t. He’s down to earth and approachable.
He may also be Starkville’s newest millionaire resident, but despite all the trappings of the position, Moorhead is an Every Man. In his natural state, he’s not some celebrity or star. He’s a total dad.
Take his appearance with two of his three kids at an MSU women’s basketball game in January. Most coaches would have arrived decked out in pullovers, sneakers and apparel plastered with company and university logos. Moorhead showed up to his seats—after waiting in the lengthy line outside with every other fan trying to get into the game—wearing a collared shirt, sweater, pleated slacks and dress shoes, indistinguishable from anyone else in the crowd had his visage not been blasted on all forms of media for the last month and change.
For the Super Bowl, Moorhead went to Buffalo Wild Wings just off campus to watch the big game.
On signing day, when told the information he was looking for had already been texted to him, Moorhead asked for a hard copy rather than relying on his smartphone.
“I’m a print-things-off kind of guy,” he explained.
When he’s not working, Moorhead is with his family, either cheering on one of his kids at one of their athletic events or sitting at home watching TV. They’ve been on a big History Channel kick lately, he shared.
Still, his affability and relatable qualities wouldn’t have mattered much to Cohen had Moorhead not excelled for years as a football coach, earning a reputation as one of the brightest and most creative offensive minds in the college game today. But Cohen, a former head coach himself, knows there are far more things vital to coaching success than just Xs and Os acumen. In Joe Moorhead, the son of Merv Moorhead Sr., Cohen found those qualities.
“For him to talk about how he was parented was really important to me, because in some ways, he’s going to parent 100 football student-athletes here. I wanted to know that he had that club in his bag,” Cohen said, “and he certainly does.”