Mississippi college football in twilight zone

By RICK CLEVELAND - MISSISSIPPI TODAY,

This is surreal. Mississippi college football, that is.

Little more than a month ago, Matt Luke was the Ole Miss head football coach, trying to win the Egg Bowl with a fresh vote of confidence from the university’s administration. Thirty-three days ago, Joe Moorhead was the Mississippi State head coach, having just defeated Ole Miss for the second year in a row to go to a second bowl in a row.

Good heavens, how things have changed. If you tuned in the Sugar Bowl you saw TV cameras focused on Luke, the new Georgia assistant head coach, helping the Bulldogs defeat Baylor. Lane Kiffin, one of college football’s leading lightning rods, is now the head coach at Ole Miss and he made big national news when it was announced he has hired former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin to join his defensive staff.

(Durkin was fired in 2018 amid controversy after the death of a Maryland football player from a heatstroke suffered during off-season workouts.)

Yes, and if you tuned into the SEC Network you saw Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen explaining why Moorhead – “a terrific man and an outstanding coach” (Cohen’s words) – is no longer Mississippi State’s coach.

Surreal? You bet.

Now we can argue all day – and State and Ole Miss fans surely have – about whether Luke deserved another year, about whether or not Kiffin is the right guy, about whether or not Durkin should have been hired, and about whether or not Moorhead should have been fired after two seasons, two Egg Bowl victories and two bowl games.

What can’t be argued is this: Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State athletic departments have spent millions and millions of dollars over the past month trying to fix what they obvious believe to be past mistakes.

It is as if they are paying with Monopoly money.

Luke and Moorhead are owed huge buyouts. Luke was owed $6.5 million, Moorhead around $7 million, which could be mitigated downward depending on where he coaches next and for what salary. Several assistants had multi-year contracts. Best estimate: Firing Luke will cost Ole Miss as much as $17 million. Moorhead’s firing will also be costly, though not nearly so much.

So, if you were wondering where the annual $40 million-plus cut from TV and bowl money goes, you now know where much of it will go.

There are parallels between the State and Ole Miss situations. In both cases, discipline issues appear to have pushed the decision makers over the edge. I’ll always believe Luke would still be the head coach at Ole Miss had not wide receiver Elijah Moore imitated a dog peeing in the end zone near the end of the Egg Bowl. Moorhead might still be the head coach at State had not linebacker Willie Gay rearranged quarterback Garrett Shrader’s face. (Read this paragraph again and tell me if the last month of Mississippi football was not surreal.)

Cohen stopped short of saying the well-publicized post-practice fight was the paramount reason for Moorhead’s firing but he did indicate the incident was “one of a series of events we had to evaluate.” And when asked what he is looking for in a new head coach, Cohen said it would “begin with discipline and a hard edge.”

He said he was looking for the “best fit,” adding “Mississippi State is a unique place…a blue-collar, competitive, hard-nosed football program.”

“We carry a chip on our shoulder and we have to out-work other people,” Cohen said.

Cohen and State will have plenty interest in the job. Even at this late date, current and former head coaches will pursue it. After all, the job comes with a guaranteed, four-year contract worth probably 15 or 16 million bucks. And as we have seen, you are going to get paid whether you win or not. (Since this column was written, State has hired Mike Leach form Washington State).

We also should keep in mind that it also comes with a place in the most competitive division of the most competitive conference in America. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are the two poorest members of a seven-team Western Division of the SEC. Every year, you must play Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas (which won’t be down forever). Even with the annual SEC pay day, you have fewer resources than your peers.

So we began this column talking about what Mississippi football was like a little over a month ago. Let’s go back five years. State was ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the 2014 season. Ole Miss was ranked as high as No. 3. When the first College Football Playoff rankings of all-time came out, State was No. 1.

In 2014, already high expectations were raised to a level that the Mississippi teams just cannot begin to reach. That’s not surreal. That’s a fact.

•••

Contact Mississippi Today sports columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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