For three straight days, Joe Moorhead’s trademark green tea and bag of chips were always within arm’s reach. He wouldn’t leave Fordham’s football offices, and his assistants couldn't leave.
For three days at the start of his tenure, Fordham’s head coach -- who officially became Penn State’s offensive coordinator on Saturday -- would sit in a bare-bones meeting room for 18 hours at a time, literally rolling up his sleeves and plotting out Fordham’s playbook and installation tapes. Some assistants would type on their laptops while standing so they wouldn’t fall asleep. Others paced between their seats and the printer. It was the same thing he did upon first arriving at UConn in 2009 as the Huskies' offensive coordinator.
“He will not stop working until the job is done and the job is done the right way,” said Fordham offensive coordinator Andrew Breiner, who also worked with Moorhead at UConn. “I was given the best lesson I could ever receive on what being thorough really means.”
Moorhead’s work ethic, coupled with his track record, has left those closest to him wondering why it's taken so long for a Power 5 program to take a flyer on him. Moorhead interviewed for three FBS head-coaching jobs -- Buffalo, Syracuse and Central Florida -- but never made the final cut. He has, however, left his mark -- from helping UConn reach the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, to inheriting a 1-10 Fordham team and leading it to four straight winning seasons and three straight playoff berths. All with an offensive playbook that fits into a 1.5-inch binder.
“Probably, he’s not a household name. He’s not a name that blows you out of the water,” said longtime friend and current Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who also worked with Moorhead at UConn. “But he’s put up big numbers and big points everywhere he’s gone. He’s no one-hit wonder. ... I thought this would’ve happened much sooner.”
When Moorhead met with his team Saturday -- after the Penn State move had already circulated on Twitter -- Fordham players gave him a standing ovation. Moorhead choked back tears and stumbled over his words until the clapping subsided about a minute and a half later. They were sad to see him go, but they understood. He was capable of more. He deserved more.
He opened his office to his players for the rest of the night. “You aren’t mad at me, are ya?” he’d ask. Most, if not all, just shook their heads.
“Personally, it’s something I wasn’t surprised about because Coach Moorhead deserves the opportunity,” Fordham running back Chase Edmonds said. “It’s sad to see him go -- but it’s exciting, man. I believe he’ll turn this Penn State offense around.”
Moorhead has inspired fierce loyalty among his players through the years. Edmonds was overlooked by everyone but Moorhead, and went on to win the Jerry Rice Award last season as the FCS Rookie of the Year. Quarterback Michael Nebrich followed Moorhead from UConn to Fordham, turning down top-tier FCS offers to play for a team coming off a one-win season. Moorhead promised him they’d turn Fordham around; Nebrich believed him. It only took one offseason.
“I was honestly surprised it has taken him this long to get something else,” said Nebrich, who graduated earlier this year. “There’s no one in college football that deserves this more. I think Penn State got themselves an absolute steal.”
Nebrich even referred to Moorhead as “like a second dad.” He meshes so well with players because he tailors his approach to both the individual and the situation. He’ll yell at some players on the practice field, such as Nebrich, a self-proclaimed “smartass” who reacted well to criticism. Others he’ll call into his office for a private chat.
On game days, Moorhead remains level-headed and stone-faced whether there’s an 80-yard touchdown pass or a pick-six returned the other way. But at practices? “He always says that we don’t say we ‘work football.’ We say we ‘play football,’” Breiner said.
Moorhead will often pull out a corny dad joke, or a quirky phrase (“Don’t tell me how rough the waters are, just bring the ship to port!”) to loosen his players up. Even at 42 years old, he’ll sometimes play quarterback during 7-on-7 drills. And he will listen to the same rap music as his players. During one Fordham practice, Moorhead walked over to Edmonds and told him matter-of-factly, as Drake blared in the background: Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour? I know that you gotta be a thug for her. Edmonds cracked up; it was the lyrics to the song that was playing, Drake’s “Back to Back.”
Moorhead jokes around when he can. But he’s also serious when he needs to be. Orlando can still remember Moorhead painstakingly dissecting hours of film and going through the same 40-question checklist every week. Moorhead tried to devise a solution for everything that might go wrong with his game plan, and -- just like that marathon three-day Fordham meeting -- Moorhead wouldn’t quit until it was perfect. His Fordham offenses never ranked below No. 20 nationally.
Moorhead is a walking contradiction in some ways. He’s serious but laid-back, a perfectionist with a sense of humor, and a coach with a simple offensive scheme that’s incredibly effective. He’s proven himself over and over again, and someone finally took notice.