Giger: Moorhead drawing heavy interest
LOS ANGELES — It’s a wonderful feeling being wanted, having others covet you professionally or personally and being able to take pride in knowing you have something very good to offer.
Right now, Joe Moorhead is a hot name in college football. That’s what happens when, in less than a year, you transform one of the nation’s worst offenses into one of the most explosive attacks around.
Make no mistake about it: Moorhead is a terrific offensive coordinator and playcaller, something he has proven in his first season at Penn State.
The good news is that, by all indications, he will have a second season with the Nittany Lions.
The bad news — and this seems pretty obvious — is that Moorhead is not long for Happy Valley. With everyone back on offense next season, the Lions should be outstanding again, then Moorhead’s name will pop up for some really good head coaching jobs around the country.
Not the likes of Purdue. Or UConn. But a good job where he can go and have success.
It will be up to him to sit back, be patient and wait for the right opportunity.
“First and foremost, it’s a testament and a compliment to our program and our players that you perform well during the season and other people have interest talking to you,” Moorhead said of his name coming up for job openings in recent weeks.
“There were people who were interested in speaking to me about their head coaching positions, and I was willing to listen. (I) ultimately made the decision that, personally and professionally, my family and I wanted to be at Penn State.”
Moorhead interviewed for the opening at Purdue prior to the Big Ten championship game. This past weekend, UConn fired its head coach, and immediately Moorhead’s name surfaced as a leading candidate, since he already had spent three seasons (2009-11) there as an assistant.
The speculation ended in a hurry when it was reported Moorhead wasn’t interested in the job.
Still, having his name come up must have been somewhat surreal for the 43-year-old who came to PSU after being head coach at FCS-level Fordham for four years.
“In some ways it’s hard to ignore,” Moorhead said of all the attention he’s been getting. “I don’t want to say the good and the bad, but the truths, the half-truths and kind of the speculation of things like that. But ultimately, it’s part of the profession, and like I said initially, when your program does well and the offense does well, those are things that happen and you just deal with them on an individual basis.”
Just so everyone is clear, Moorhead loves his current job.
“Being the offensive coordinator at Penn State’s a pretty good job,” he said during Rose Bowl prep Thursday. “When I was at Fordham, I had a an FBS job offered to me and turned that down to stay at Fordham. And the things I said to the people at Fordham is it would take a pretty special opportunity for me to leave there, and obviously, Penn State was that opportunity.”
Moorhead is from Pittsburgh. He noted his wife is a couple of hours away from her family. His kids love State College. He enjoys working for James Franklin. Penn State is on the rise.
Given all of that, he probably could be very happy at PSU for a long time.
But Moorhead does want to be a head coach again. So the big question is: What type of opportunity would it take to lure him away from Penn State?
“If an opportunity presents itself, at worst I think it’s best to listen,” he said. “Once again, you utilize the criteria, personal and professional. I’m very entrenched here, and to me, my professional success is not determined on becoming a head coach again. If it happens and it’s the right situation, fantastic. If not, that’s not going to lessen or diminish anything from my end.”
Franklin has acknowledged that his top assistants will get opportunities from other teams, and he believes that’s a good thing. It means they’re doing a great job.
Turnover on the staff will be inevitable in the coming years, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it will put pressure on Franklin to continue to hire outstanding coaches to replace the ones who leave. Who knows, maybe there’s someone out there better than Moorhead who will come to PSU next.
Still, too much turnover too quickly can lead to problems if there’s always a new guy bringing in different philosophies. If Moorhead leaves, there’s a chance the next guy might not be anywhere near as good.
Moorhead was asked if he and Franklin discussed staying put for at least a couple of years once he got the job at PSU. They did not, so no such assurances were made.
“I don’t think any of us were looking that far into the future, to be honest,” he said.
Which is understandable, because absolutely no one could have predicted the Lions would have this kind of offensive success, improving their stats in every major category over a year ago and upping scoring by nearly 14 points per game (to 36.7).
“We’re happy for him that he’s getting all this recognition, just high demand for him,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “He’s a great coach, and we’re very happy he came here.”
McSorley is probably happier than anyone else. He gets to chuck the ball deep down the field numerous times per game, something quarterbacks love, and has been wildly successful at it as he leads the nation in yards per completion (16.31).
“It’s been a ton of fun,” McSorley said. “I think you can kind of see that through our offense with guys out there having a lot of fun.”
For so long — and with a few exceptions — Penn State has been about defense. That has changed by and large this season under Moorhead, who is exceptional in the Lions’ no-huddle scheme.
Whatever is going on in his head in the few seconds it takes to initially read the defense, decide on what play to call and then communicate it to McSorley has to fascinating. I attempted to probe into that with him and truly get into ultra-specific components of the playcalling process, but it was impossible in the limited time available Thursday.
The short version is this: He loves the cat-and-mouse game with defensive coordinators on each play and the challenge involved in trying to get into the perfect play. The Lions run no huddle but don’t go at a fast pace, because Moorhead prefers to read the defense first and make the right call as opposed to merely running a play quickly.
PSU defensive coordinator Brent Pry enjoys that challenge with Moorhead every day in practice.
“I love it,” Pry said. “It’s made me better as a coach. I’ve definitely grown this year working against Joe and those guys in practice every day. From a scheme standpoint, from a management standpoint, our practices (are) highly competitive. And Joe and I are both highly competitive people.”
Moorhead and Pry are outstanding coordinators, and the longer they both stay at PSU, the better the program will be.
But given the demand for both, and especially for Moorhead, don’t be surprised if next season is their last one together.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.