Mississippi State University's football team's first season under new head coach Joe Moorhead ended with winning the most important trophy for MSU and the players getting to smoke their victory cigars.
Moorhead said he learned the importance and pride of the Egg Bowl victory as soon as he arrived to Starkville.
“When I got off of the plane and started shaking hands, there were a few people who relayed the importance of the game,” Moorhead said. “That happened pretty quick, and President Keenum in his office after my press conference–really everyone you see in town and around the state. There is a lot of passion.”
After the Egg Bowl, MSU President Mark E. Keenum celebrated in the locker room with the team. Moorhead said in regards to the victory, it meant more to him to see his players happy than anything else.
“At the end of the day, it is not about me, it is about those kids in the locker room,” Moorhead said. “I have been a coach for 20 years and when they do well, it is because of them, and when we do bad it is because of me. The most joy that I have got was seeing those guys grab that trophy and celebrate in the locker room."
While the game was not exactly a hateless affair as the teams clashed once at the end of the third quarter and after the game, Moorhead said he wanted his team to play with poise and class, and he wanted the quality of play and win to be the take away, not the fighting.
“We want our play to be in between the whistles,” Moorhead said. “We want our execution and our effort to be what is talked about. I do not think that this game, or any game that (fighting) is a necessity. It does not take anything away from it, but it is certainly not what we want as a team.”
Moorhead stepped into a situation where his starting quarterback was injured in the last game of the previous season's regular play. As a matter of fact, Moorhead was shopping for a birthday present for one of his sons when the injury happened, but he said Nick Fitzgerald, a senior quarterback from Richmond Hills, Georgia, had really battled to get back to full health and lead the Bulldog team to eight wins.
“When your ankle is facing the direction where it is not supposed to be, that takes a physical and mental toll on the person it happens to,” Moorhead said. “I think Nick (Fitzgerald) and our training staff did a great job to fight back and get ready to play. Certainly the things he has been able to accomplish this year on top of that is a credit to him and our training staff.”
Moorhead inherited a defense that gave up an average of about 20 points a game, and under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s leadership, they only gave up 12 touchdowns in total all year. The amount of growth impressed Moorhead, as he said the defense had definitely exceeded expectations for the season.
“The amount of talent and experience we had on the defensive side of the ball, I had a high level of expectations,” Moorhead said. “They have probably exceeded those expectations. That is hard to do because we have very high standards.”
The victory over the University of Mississippi gave Moorhead the most wins for a first-year head coach since Allyn Mckeen in 1939 with eight wins. The team has a chance to get to nine wins in their bowl game.
“I think it is incredibly positive momentum to finish the season 8-4 with a chance in a bowl game to get to nine wins,” Moorhead said. “I know in a lot of ways this was the year we were building towards. No one gets more disappointed when we lose than me.”
While Moorhead set a pretty high expectation with a championship standard, he believes it is his mission to get this team to a championship. It should be noted that after Mckeen’s first season, the Bulldogs went 10-0-1 tying an Auburn team and winning the orange bowl, and yet somehow, did not win the National Championship in 1940. Moorhead said he knows how to get to that championship level.
“I’m trying to get this program off of the Halley's comet and get it to be a little more seasonal,” Moorhead said. “One championship every 76 years. I know we did not play up to standard in four of those games, but I know what it takes to get there.”
Moorhead has won championships at the University of Connecticut, Penn State University, the University of Fordham and the University of Akron. He recognized MSU did not meet their championship standard, but he said the team made good progress this season.
“I will fall back on the four championships that I have won,” Moorhead said. “We are going to do things in order to continue to improve. Although it did not meet our standard, because we did not win a championship, we did make a lot of positive strides this season, and it is a lot to build on for a bowl game and next season.”