Video: James Franklin believes Joe Moorhead is 'the right fit' for Penn State football
After an estimated 35-40 conversations, one of which was in person in New York and lasted from 10:15 p.m. to 2:47 a.m. the next morning, Penn State football head coach James Franklin had his new offensive coordinator in former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead.
“We were supposed interview one day at 6 p.m.,” said Franklin on Wednesday afternoon, to a room packed with curious local media members. “And my flight got delayed, couldn’t get in. So we didn’t start interviewing until ... when was it?”
He looked to his left, where Moorhead sat, hands clasped, face relaxed, in a deep blue Penn State zip-up jacket.
“Ten-fifteen,” responded Moorhead, grinning.
“Yeah, we started interviewing at 10:15 p.m. and it ended at what time?” Franklin threw the attention right back to Moorhead.
“Two-forty-five a.m.,” Moorhead responded, shaking his head as the media laughed.
The more I talked to Joe (Moorhead), the more I believed in him, and believed he was the right fit for our players, our staff and for the university as a whole.
Head coach James Franklin
“It could’ve kept going,” said Franklin. The two spent two hours discussing the run game, and then moved into the passing game and, according to both, discussed at length the talent Penn State’s offensive returners have and where they could fit into Moorhead’s playbook and scheme.
“That’s part of the reason why he’s here,” said Franklin. “Me studying his style, and figuring out what he’s running, I think it fits the personnel that we have right now. We still are going to have some challenges and issues that we still are working through, but I think what he does offensively limits some of those things and allows us to play to some of our strengths (he later cited the running game and the team’s receiving corps as examples of those strengths).”
Added Moorhead, “Coach Franklin had his criteria of what he wanted in a coordinator, and I think I checked off those boxes of the things Coach was looking for ... I left a great situation at Fordham. I had a long-term contract, we had a tremendous amount of success, it’s my alma mater, I loved our kids, but when you look at the opportunity to come to Penn State and be the offensive coordinator … and do it two hours from home … I think it was mutual. I think Coach found out that I fit the things he was looking for in a coordinator, and for me to move from Fordham and come to Penn State, it all just fit.”
Franklin has talked often about a “list” of people he has, on which are the names of those he’d like to work with someday. He said he got a chance to hear a coaching clinic run by Moorhead last year, and noticed the latter was very detail-oriented and intelligent.
“You hear a lot about his background with Walt Harris and the West Coast offense, and you know my background in the West Coast offense,” he said. “So there’s some parallels there and some things about how we’ve both kind of grown up in the profession, those things help.”
Franklin also interacted with Moorhead a bit while Penn State practiced for the Pinstripe Bowl at Fordham University’s facilities.
“After that, for me, it was the data,” said Franklin. He said that while he had a “good feeling” about Moorhead, he wanted to put the then-head coach’s numbers to the test — and he kept coming up at the tops of lists like third down completion percentages, total offense, scoring offense, etc.
Moorhead also increased scoring percentage at Fordham by 61 percent during his time there, yards per play by 20 percent, rushing yards by 14 percent and passing yards by 25 percent, as well as scoring 30-plus points in 71 percent of games and 40-plus points in 59 percent of games played as the head coach of the Rams, according to SportSource Analytics.
“There’s a long list,” said Franklin. Included on that were non-numeric formulations, too.
“The fact that Coach is from western Pennsylvania, the fact that Coach played at Central Catholic, those things help. He’s got a lot of connections and networks in the area. The fact that he’s been a head coach, the leadership perspective was important, and the fact that he’s had a big impact (at Fordham) overall,” he said. “And then at the end of the day, you take your list, and you run all the data.
“... (And) the more I talked to Joe, the more I believed in him, and believed he was the right fit for our players, our staff and for the university as a whole.”
The feeling, said Moorhead, was mutual.
Moorhead’s previous offenses were no-huddle, 100 percent of the time. They were uptempo, ran about 80 plays per game, scored often, were explosive and very balanced within the run-pass attack. That is something he’d like to continue at Penn State, but with some clarification.
“In the tempo that we play, you hear the term ‘uptempo,’ ” he said. “And while that is true, you know, at times we’re going to play as fast as we can play. (But) to me, being able to play with different kinds of tempos, (where) it’s about getting the right play as opposed to running the wrong play quickly ... So we can run as fast as we need to go, but at the same time we’re running the best play to what the defense is presenting.”
Moorhead increased scoring percentage at Fordham by 61 percent during his time there, yards per play by 20 percent, rushing yards by 14 percent and passing yards by 25 percent, as well as scoring 30-plus points in 71 percent of games and 40-plus points in 59 percent of games played as the head coach of the Rams, according to SportSource Analytics.
He favors, he said, a quarterback with the most accurate arm over the biggest one, and one who can create play-action opportunities with his feet, and he loves using the run game to create those opportunities.
Moorhead is creative in doing these things, but first will have to evaluate Penn State’s offensive personnel to decide just how creative he can be.
“I mean, we have a basis, an offensive structure that we believe in, and ultimately when it comes down to offensive football, it’s about putting points on the board, specifically one more than the defense allows,” he grinned.
“We want to dictate the tempo. We want to be aggressive, we want to be attacking. We want to be physical in the run game and create explosive plays in the pass game, and do that by limiting turnovers, being successful on third down and scoring touchdowns in the red zone.”
The offensive coordinator is a Pittsburgh native and a graduate of Central Catholic High School, and his coaching style was influenced by both local and national connections.
“Really, the foundation of (my) offense was established when I was at the University of Pittsburgh with Walt Harris as a graduate assistant,” he said. “Coach Harris has had tremendous success in college football, both at Pitt and as a coordinator at Ohio State. So a lot of what I learned in the run game and the pass game is based on the West Coast (style).”
He also spent a year at Pitt as a defensive graduate assistant, and gleaned knowledge from defensive coordinator Larry Coyer.
“Being on the defensive side of the ball for a year, I think it was invaluable in developing as an offensive coach,” he said.
Moorhead said from there, he learned a lot as a graduate assistant at Georgetown University, and moved up to become a coordinator during his last year. Next, at the University of Akron, J.D. Brookhart was a big influence on him.
“He’s a guy who’s a really good receiver coach, had an opportunity to learn from him,” Moorhead said. “Had the opportunity to become the offensive coordinator there in 2007-08, and that’s where we started developing a version of the system we’re running now.”
Moorhead then went to the University of Connecticut and was a coordinator under Randy Edsall (most formerly of Maryland).
“Learned a lot about program building, and being able to win with the intangibles,” he said. “That’s why I would consider coach Ed a huge influence there.”
Moorhead will not have any part in the game plan of Penn State’s TaxSlayer Bowl appearance against Georgia on Jan. 2.
To me, it’s about sitting down and getting to know the kids and being out at practice, more observing the talent than anything else. I don’t think it’s fair for me right now (to coach in the bowl game), not knowing my personnel, not being here the whole year. That’s not something I think would benefit the team.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead
Instead, he will be sitting down with all the returning offensive starters to get to know them, and he will continue to evaluate all offensive personnel to figure out where pieces can work within his scheme.
“To me, it’s about sitting down and getting to know the kids and being out at practice, more observing the talent than anything else,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for me right now (to coach in the bowl game), not knowing my personnel, not being here the whole year. That’s not something I think would benefit the team.”
Franklin said he wanted the team to begin installing Moorhead’s playbook the day after the bowl game. Moorhead’s wife and three children, the youngest son of whom Franklin offered a scholarship at Penn State (he’s 8 years old), will move to the area in February.
Before Moorhead could be hired, former offensive coordinator John Donovan, who had been a member of Franklin’s staff for five years and was so tenured with the head coach that he did not even have an agent employed, as many Division I coordinators do, had to be fired.
“I think you guys know my personality now, after being here a year and a half, how loyal I am and how loyal the staff is,” said Franklin. “So that was probably one of the more difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”
Donovan and Franklin were not just coaches together, they were friends, too. The head coach looked a bit upset as he talked about his former coordinator, voice lowered and husky with emotion.
“I have so much respect for John and his family, and what we’ve been able to achieve together,” he said. “That was not easy at all ... I’m still kind of working through it, to be honest with you.”