SEC Media Days Football

Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead speaks during Southeastern Conference media days Wednesday in Hoover, Ala. 

HOOVER, Ala. — Joe Moorhead said he somewhat regrets stepping into his first year at Mississippi State "guns blazing, talking about ring sizes and Heisman Trophies."

The strong talk sure sounded good, and the words did align with the high expectations Moorhead had for the Bulldogs.

The talent and the structure was there in Starkville, which former coach Dan Mullen had built up in nine seasons before leaving for Florida. And Moorhead was the offensive guru, one of the founders of the run-pass option offense, who helped bring Penn State back to national prominence as the program's offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017.

But his bombastic approach lacked tact and context, Moorhead said, for a program that had only recorded three 10-win seasons in school history and only been to two conference title games in 1941 and 1998.

Once Mississippi State's 8-5 season in Moorhead's first year concluded, it was difficult to create a sense of accomplishment.

"I think what I may have done is elevated the expectation level to a point where nothing that we did short of a championship was going to make people happy," Moorhead said Wednesday at Southeastern Conference media days. "I wouldn't have changed the goals, but I probably would have kept it a little bit more in house. I think that was on me."

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Moorhead is one of the five guys in the SEC entering his second season as head coach, and each of them are trying to answer the same question coaches have faced since the beginning of football: How do you build a sustainable and successful program?

And the SEC is a heck of a place to try and build one, and the conference's media days are a heck of a place to ask how it's done.

Most of that talk always goes back to Nick Saban, winner of five national championships at Alabama, whose coaching tree has produced four head coaches currently in the SEC (Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M; Will Muschamp, South Carolina; Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee; Kirby Smart, Georgia).

Saban's former assistants are 0-16 against their former mentor, a fact of which Fisher said Tuesday "I'm well aware."

"I think that's not a very fair stat," Saban said. "They don't take a program over that has the established talent, culture and all that we have at Alabama. So when they get the opportunity to establish those things in their program, they're going to beat Alabama and compete with Alabama."

"Most of the time," Saban added, "when you get a job, it's because the guy that was before you didn't do a very good job. So you have lots of work to do to bring that team to that level."

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Of course, that's not just a problem for former Saban assistants.

Chad Morris, the former star offensive coordinator for Dabo Swinney at Clemson, took over an Arkansas program last year that had gone 29-34 in its five previous seasons under former coach Bret Bielema.

Under Morris, the Razorbacks went 2-10 in 2018, its worst record in program history.

"It wasn't a lot of fun when you go through tough times like that," Morris said. "But we know that building a program, there's a process that you have to go through. It's not fun. It's not always easy. But it's always necessary."

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Morris said he reflected on past experiences and "what got you through those tough times."

Southern Methodist had also gone 2-10 in Morris' first season in 2015, slowly climbing to 5-7 and 7-6 in the following years. Clemson had gone 6-7 in 2010 under Swinney, the season before Morris was hired, and the Tigers went 10-4 in 2011, which started the program's streak of eight consecutive 10-win seasons.

It takes belief and patience, his players said, to trust such a process while going through such a reconstruction.

"It's kind of like golf," said Arkansas senior running back Devwah Whaley. "You've got to take one swing at a time; you have to take one play at a time. Put the negative behind you. Focus on the next play."

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Roster management is smack dab in the middle of building a sustainable program, and the health of programs vary.

On Arkansas' roster, 62 percent of its players are underclassmen, an indicator of high turnover, especially when compared to Mississippi State, a healthy roster made up 53 percent of underclassmen.

Matt Luke, entering his third full season at Ole Miss, said the program is entering the season with 85 full scholarship players for the first time since 2014 — a recovery from NCAA sanctions that stripped the Rebels of scholarships and banned them from bowl games in 2017 and 2018.

"It's fun to be able to walk into a living room of a recruit and not having to talk about any of that stuff," said Luke, who has a 11-13 record at Ole Miss in two seasons. "You have the opportunity to sell Ole Miss and Oxford for what it is and you don't have to worry about all of the other garbage."

But sometimes when you inherit a program, Morris said, "there's no getting around" the ugly processes of a rebuild.

"When you take a head football coaching job, you know that establishing and enhancing a culture is your top priority," Morris said. "It takes time and it takes consistency, and there's a certain process to follow to develop the results that you're looking for."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.