TAMPA, Fla., — After the painful formality of a bowl news conferences, it was just two dudes from Pittsburgh on the stage.
Kirk Ferentz and Joe Moorhead started with “he lived across the street from” stuff. Of course, you know Ferentz’s “Pittsburghness.” He went to Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. His mom, Elsie Mae, was a high school journalism teacher and his father, John, worked as a fundraiser for the United Foundation, a forerunner to today’s United Way.
Moorhead also grew up in Pittsburgh, the Penn Hills area. He graduated from Fordham University with a degree in English. Ferentz graduated from UConn with an English education degree.
The two Pittsburgh natives will pit their football teams against each other in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl. Moorhead has his 18th-ranked Mississippi State team at 8-4 with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (12.0 points per game) in his first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
There might be mild familiarity on Pittsburgh people and places. They did not play against each other. Ferentz has 18 years on Moorhead. Still, the Pittsburgh ethos runs through their veins.
“I think that’s one of the funniest things about this game,” Ferentz said during Saturday’s final news conference before the game. “What are the odds that two guys from Iowa and Mississippi and we probably grew up 15 minutes from each other.
“We were joking about this earlier. In Pittsburgh, if you live on one side of the river, you might as well be in another state or country.”
Moorhead, sitting a few feet from Ferentz’s left, started laughing.
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“Pittsburghers are pretty (Ferentz made the international sign for “tunnel vision,” cupping his hands over his eyes),” Ferentz said. “I know I certainly was growing up, Penn Hills might as well have been in upstate New York.
“But yeah, I think all of us are part of products of our environment, certainly, and how you’re raised and who impacts and influences you.”
Fact of the matter is Western Pennsylvania is one of the country’s greatest cradles of football. From Dan Marino and Joe Montana to Mike Ditka and Joe Namath to Johnny Lujack and Johnny Unitas, the sport sank its fangs deep into kids like Ferentz and Moorhead.
“Western Pennsylvania prides itself in blue-collar, roll-up-your sleeves, shut your mouth and let the production speak for itself type of town,” Moorhead said. “I think any football program, that resonates. That’s what you want to see in your players.”
Neither Ferentz nor Moorhead were silver spooners, in life or in football.
“My dad worked in a mill for 35 years and worked a bunch of jobs to send three kids through college,” Moorhead said. “I think a lot of lessons I’ve learned, not just growing up in the city of Pittsburgh but playing high school football there for a bunch of great coaches against a bunch of great players, those are lessons you carry through life on and off the field.”
OK, that’s the comparison. Now for the contrast.
Ferentz is finishing year No. 20. He’s 63 and don’t ask about retirement.
“I’m not getting ready to retire, so I’m not going to get real reflective,” he said.
The challenges for Ferentz still vary, on the field and in recruiting. As a first-year Power 5 head coach, Moorhead was ready for this, but there’s also the seeing it firsthand factor in his first year.
Moorhead acknowledged that he inherited a sound program that had a lot of the right parts from Dan Mullen, who left MSU to become head coach at Florida. That’s always nice, but Moorhead knows he was hired to advance the program.
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“I think that’s the challenge,” Moorhead said. “You’re coming in and you’re not instilling a culture for someone that has not had success, you’re looking to build on it. I would say that’s the most somewhat challenging aspect.”
Moorhead was hired at MSU after a wildly successful run as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. Moorhead did engineer two victories over the Hawkeyes, a 41-14 blowout at PSU in 2016 and 21-19 thriller that came down to a PSU touchdown on the final play.
“Well, we didn’t play defense in 2016,” Ferentz said probably jokingly but maybe not. “Throw that one out of the window. That could’ve been a thousand yards instead of whatever it was.” (It was 599 yards, for the record.)
Now in the SEC, Moorhead said he believes the conferences are more similar than dissimilar. Both conferences will eat you alive.
“I think the consistent thing that you see is on a weekly basis in both leagues, you know, there are very few off weeks where you can take a breath and gather yourself,” Moorhead said. “It’s literally out of the pan and into the fire. You play a team in the western part of the conference or cross over to the east or the west, the margin of error is negligible.
“You have to be on top of it every single week on the field and in recruiting.”
Moorhead wasn’t the main recruiter at Penn State. PSU head coach James Franklin eats that for breakfast. Having gone through a season as an SEC head coach ...
“Certainly now in this season, you get a dose of reality and a quick understanding of what you need to do to be successful and that’s attract great players,” he said.
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