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Penn State’s Moorhead Part of a Big Ten East Trend to Hire Ex-Head Coaches as Assistants

by on December 27, 2015 10:00 PM
University Park, PA

Heads-up. The Big Ten East Division is becoming top-heavy with head coaches.

And not just at Penn State, which added former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to its staff as the offensive coordinator two weeks ago. 

Maryland’s new head coach D.J. Durkin recently hired three former college head coaches with a combined 26 years of experience -- Pete Lembo (Ball State), Mike London (Virginia), and Scott Shafer (Syracuse).

With lots of fanfare, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer signed former Rutgers and NFL head coach Greg Schiano to his staff after the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, left for Rutgers and his first head-coaching job. 

And Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh recently added veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown to replace Durkin. Brown was the architect of Boston College’s 2015 defense, which ranked No. 1 in the FBS in total defense (254 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (15.3 points). Brown was also a successful head coach at UMass and Northeastern, going 43-19 with the Minutemen.

The addition of Moorhead now gives Penn State’s James Franklin a total of five head coaches, past and present, on his staff.

The others are defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, the boss at Columbia for three seasons; team consultant Jim Haslett, who was a head coach with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams; and cornerback coach Terry Smith, who was 101-30 in from 2002-12 as head coach of Gateway High School in Monroeville.

Moorhead was 38-13 as the head coach at Fordham from 2012-2015, implementing a fast-paced spread offense that took the Rams from 1-10 in the year prior to his arrival to 12-2 in 2013 and three consecutive FCS playoffs. His allure was obvious to Franklin. He has the potential to do for the Nittany Lions offense -- which averaged just 22 points per game over the past two seasons -- what Shoop and linebackers coach Brent Pry have done for the Nittany Lions defense.


“I’m excited to see what Joe can do when he is focused on the thing he is probably the most passionate about -- which is offense and X’s and O’s and motivating your players to fit the system,” said Franklin.

Moorhead was an offensive coordinator at Akron and UConn prior to Fordham, and admittedly had an eye on a position at the FBS level, including a head coaching spot. He was mentioned as a candidate for the recent Syracuse opening, but didn’t get it. The offensive coordinator’s job at Penn State could be his pathway to a top spot at an FBS school. For now, though, Moorhead is excited about what he brings to the table as a former head coach.

“I think having the perspective of a head coach will make me a better assistant in the sense that I can anticipate what coach [Franklin] is looking for and to see some of the things that he wants,” Moorhead said. “Until you have sat in that chair, sometimes as an assistant you really don’t understand until you’ve been there. So I think I can offer coach perspective if he needs it on anything. I certainly think my head coaching experience, like I said, will help me be a better assistant the second time through.”

When Moorhead and Penn State’s offense meet Maryland in Beaver Stadium on Oct. 8, 2016, the Terps defense will be guided by three past and present head coaches. Durkin, who led Michigan’s highly-ranked defense in 2015, will be joined by London (as defensive line and associate head coach) and Shafer (as defensive coordinator). Both were fired after this past season.

Even though he’s a Pittsburgh native and his new job was a jump up from the FCS to the FBS, Moorhead was torn about making the move. But that doesn’t mean Moorhead, whose 2013 Fordham team passed for 5,052 yards and 2014 team averaged 40.6 points, isn’t up for the challenge.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision because of the success we had the past four years, and that’s certainly attributable to our players and our coaching staff,” Moorhead said. “There have been opportunities for me to leave Fordham. I had an offer after last year at the FBS-level, and had some other things the years before. As I told our players and the kids we were recruiting, for me to leave Fordham, it was going to have to be a special, special opportunity at the FBS level. And obviously the offensive coordinator job at Penn State is one of those opportunities.”


Of course, it’s not all about having former head coaches on the staff. Experience, especially as coordinators, and cohesion and continuity, especially at the same school, are vital as well. Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State went a combined 32-5 in 2015 (three of the losses came in round-robin play among the three), and their coaching staffs are made up of nearly all the right parts.

Michigan State, 12-1 and in the College Football Playoff, has four assistant coaches who have been with head coach Mark Dantonio since he arrived in East Lansing from Cincinnati in 2006. Dantonio’s is a veteran staff, with co-coordinators on both sides of the ball. Co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was offensive coordinator at Ohio State for 11 seasons, while his colleague Dave Warner was also a coordinator at UConn (prior to Moorhead’s stint there). Spartans co-defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was a head coach at Marshall and a coordinator with both Texas A&M and South Florida.

At Michigan, Harbaugh’s offense is run by passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, a former offensive coordinator with Miami (Fla.) and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and offensive coordinator Tom Drevno, who was with Harbaugh on the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and in the college ranks, at Stanford and San Diego State. Veteran defensive line coach Greg Mattison, 66, headed the Wolverine defense in two separate stints, as well as serving as defensive coordinator with Florida, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, and the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

At Rutgers, Ash may have an older go-to guy in 60-year-old special teams coordinator Vince Okruch, who’s coached at four Big Ten schools and served as a defensive coordinator at Colorado. But Ash’s offensive coordinator is 28-year-old Drew Mehringer, who was wide receivers coach for Houston in 2015 under former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman. In 2014, Mehringer was the play-caller for James Madison, where 37 of JMU’s 70 scoring drives lasted less than two minutes. Ash, who is still constructing his staff -- as is Durkin -- has zero assistants thus far with any head coaching experience.


Here’s how the tally of current and former head coaches on Big Ten East staffs shapes up across the division:

Indiana (3) – head coach Kevin Wilson (Indiana), Brian Knorr (Ohio University), and Deland McCullough (high school).

Maryland (5) – head coach Durkin (Maryland), Lembo (Ball State), London (Virginia), Shafer (Syracuse), and Aazaar Abdul-Rahim (high school).

Michigan (2) – head coach Harbaugh (Michigan, NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, Stanford, San Diego State) and Brown (Northeastern, UMass).

Michigan State (3) – head coach Dantonio (Cincinnati, Michigan State), Brad Salem (Augustine), and Snyder (Marshall).

Ohio State (7) – head coach Meyer (Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, Ohio State), Luke Fickell (Ohio State), Schiano (Rutgers, NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Tim Beck (high school), Kerry Combs (high school), Tim Hinton (high school), and Larry Johnson Sr. (high school).

Penn State (5) – head coach Franklin (Vanderbilt, Penn State), Haslett (NFL’s New Orleans and St. Louis), Moorhead (Fordham), Shoop (Columbia), and Smith (high school). 

Rutgers (1) – head coach Ash (Rutgers).

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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