AKRON, Ohio — For years, the University of Akron has funneled resources into its football program, including a $61.6 million stadium that remains a struggle to fill. But with the hiring of head coach Joe Moorhead, the school is hoping to turn things around quickly.
Moorhead's football journey
Football has been ingrained in Moorhead's entire being since he was in diapers, really. Growing up in Pittsburgh, football was a way of life. The youngest of three, Moorhead's dad coached at St. Bartholomew School during his elementary years.
Moorhead played quarterback at Fordham Unversity in New York before a stint with the Munich Cowboys in Europe and a game with the Milwaukee Mustangs arena football team.
“Starting playing in fifth grade, continued all the way through college and a little bit of arena ball, and when they cut you from arena ball you you know it’s time to move on with your life’s work," Moorhead laughed.
With his playing days behind him, Moorhead decided to find a way to keep football in his life moving forward.
“Once the opportunity to play ended I thought the next logical progression was to get into coaching," he said.
Moorhead began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, moving his way up the ranks to running backs and quarterbacks coach at Georgetown University in 2000-2001 before getting the job of offensive coordinator in 2003.
After Georgetown, Moorhead made his first appearance at the University of Akron. From 2004-08, Moorhead was a member of the Zips coaching staff and served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Akron from 2006-08. His five years in Akron made it more of a home than any of his other destinations outside of Pittsburgh.
"We had an awesome staff, a bunch of great players, and we were able to win the only conference championship in school history," Moorhead said. "One of my children was born here, so we've got a lot of great memories from our time in Akron."
Moorhead left Akron and took a role as the offensive coordinator for the University of Connecticut before finally landing the dream role of head coach at his alma mater, Fordham. Moorhead spent three years there before moving on to offensive coordinator at Penn State, head coach of Mississippi State and offensive coordinator at Oregon, his last stop before returning to Akron.
Proven track record
Akron's hiring of Moorhead was major news. While a Division I school, Akron's football program has struggled mightily over the past few years, winning just five of its 25 games over the past three seasons and seeing coaches Terry Bowden and Tom Arth both get the ax in that time.
The most recent success Akron has seen was in 2015 when Bowden led the Zips to a win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2015 after going 8-5, and then to a loss in the Boca Raton Bowl in 2017 after going 7-7.
Ever since, the team has been starved for wins—something Moorhead feels confident he'll be able to change. Not just because that's what any new head coach would say, but because he's got the experience to back it up.
During his time coaching, Moorhead has been a play-caller for five programs that have won a conference championship, including Oregon in 2020, Penn State in 2016, Fordham in 2014, Connecticut in 2010 and Akron in 2005. That track record, and more specifically his time at Fordham, makes him sure he's the guy for the job in Akron.
"Being a part of five different conference championships at five different schools as either a coordinator or head coach and knowing the ingredients that are necessary for success and how to either rebuild or sustain a high level of performance, and I think probably the situation at Fordham was the most analogous to the one that we're taking over here," Moorhead said.
In his first year at Fordham, the Rams were coming off a 1-10 season and desperate for a winning season. Under Moorhead's leadership, the team went 6-5 in his first year with the program and continued the winning ways, going 12-2, 11-3 and 9-3 while making the playoffs three years in a row.
Moorhead's Rams not only increased their winning, they earned a ranking in the Top 25 and beat high level competition including Matt Rhule's Temple University team, as well as Army.
Now that he's back with Akron, Moorhead has a plan to turn the football program around. He said it starts with one important thing before they can even worry about getting a win—culture.
“I think it all starts with establishing your culture and making sure the kids understand the tenets or pillars of success—discipline, accountability, work ethic, attention to detail, selflessness—you need to get all those things established before you talk about any X or any O," he said.
Moorhead had his own learning to do in regards to understanding how to impact a football culture. An altercation at a practice allegedly left Mississippi State's starting quarterback with an eye injury that took him out of the team's bowl game in 2019. That factored into Moorhead's firing from the position at Mississippi State but also presented him an opportunity to grow from it.
Fast forward to present day and just a few weeks into his new tenure at Akron, Moorhead is already busy building the right culture to get wins.
Moorhead recently held a team meeting with his Zips players to establish the philosophy and expectations with him at the helm, ordering the guys pizza and watching a national championship game while they all had the opportunity to bond. He also made sure to bring in staff that he is familiar with and confident can help him impact the players in a positive way—having worked with all of his coaches, aside from one, in the past.
"Hiring staff, making sure you get to form genuine relationships with your players because they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, and then every other single waking moment has been spent recruiting, I think we've done a pretty good job thus far," Moorhead said. “I’m incredibly confident that we’re going to win here, how quickly and to what degree is going to depend a large part on our ability to grasp on to the cultural things that are going to allow us to be successful."
Back to the roots
Moorhead's return to Akron isn't just the return to a city he used to work in—it's the return to an area he calls home, an area that loves football just as much as he does.
“There’s a difference between where you live and home, and through 24-25 years I’ve lived in a bunch of different places and found a way to enjoy it and not necessarily lay roots but find a way to make it a great experience, but it's different than home," Moorhead said. “The people we’re closest to and love the most are now within two hours of a drive.
“There were a bunch of other opportunities with a bunch more zeros, but to me you can’t put a price tag on why we made this decision and that’s to be back around family.”
Moorhead's excitement to be around his family may be equally matched by his excitement to shape Akron into a football school.
“I think that's one of the many reasons I decided to kind of spurn other opportunities at quote unquote bigger schools and take advantage of this job is the fabric of this region and this community," Moorhead said. "Growing up in Pittsburgh and having a tremendous amount of familiarity with the Canton/Akron area and Cleveland, that there’s a lot of pride in the cities, but there’s also a lot of pride in football.”
Yet, that pride in football hasn't reflected in the fans at games. InfoCision Stadium has a capacity of 30,000 fans, but last season, the highest attended home game saw just 48% of the seats filled. The highest attended game in the new stadium's history was on its opening night in 2009 when 27,881 fans were at the game.
Moorhead hopes to change that, by not only putting out a product fans want to watch on the field but also working with the community to generate a passion for the Zips football program once again. He plans to talk about his vision for the program as much as possible and the things the team needs from a fan standpoint as well.
"When I took over Fordham it was a 7,000-seat stadium and we could come to a game, and there were barely 1,500 people in the stands," Moorhead recalled. "We went and started winning a ton of games, and I think we sold out every home game for three years and actually had to get extra bleachers put in, and we were selling 10,000 tickets to a 7,000 seat stadium."
Moorhead understands his responsibly to put out a good product on the field and believes if they start there, the fans will come.
“The area’s just waiting for a spark and myself, our staff, our players, we’ve got to find a way to light the fuse,” he said. “This is an area that loves winners, so we’ve got to win, we’ve got to win games.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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