NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Several months later, Mike Leach’s influence is still very much at the front of Zach Arnett’s mind. The 36-year-old took the podium at SEC Media Days on Tuesday for the first time as Mississippi State’s coach and quickly referenced Leach’s often humorous encounters with reporters.
“Last year at this event, Coach Leach’s (opening statement) was seven words,” Arnett said. “I’ve already said too much. That, combined with wearing a tie, I’m sure I’ve disappointed him a little bit here today. In recognition of his tremendous impact and influence not only on the game of football but on myself, I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet.”
Jokes aside, Arnett has earned respect in his short time as the Bulldogs’ coach, especially from his team. The defensive coordinator in 2022, he was elevated to head coach full-time after Leach’s death in December and led the program to a win in the ReliaQuest Bowl over Illinois. Arnett is the youngest coach in the SEC and is tasked with pushing the Bulldogs’ program forward. According to junior quarterback Will Rogers, Arnett has done a good job of finding the balance between remembering Leach and looking ahead.
“You want to honor Coach Leach and respect everything that he did,” Rogers said. “At the same time, this is Coach Arnett’s team now. While he might do some things the same, he’s also going to do some things differently, and I respect that. I think Coach Arnett’s done a really good job of that, doing things his way and understanding that we have games to win this season.”
A few changes are apparent. Perhaps the biggest is that the Bulldogs are going away from the Air Raid offense in favor of a new system under first-year coordinator Kevin Barbay, who led a balanced and explosive offense at Appalachian State last season. What exactly the offense will look like is to be determined, but Rogers hinted at a few wrinkles, including an expanded emphasis on running the ball and run-pass option plays.
“One thing I’m excited for is just like the play-action aspect of it,” Rogers said. “We didn’t have a lot of that (under Leach), and we didn’t have a running threat that people really respected in the past couple of years. I think we can get a really good play-action in and hit some downfield shots.”
Arnett’s vision is clear for the program: taking Mississippi State to College Football Playoff contention in the new 12-team era. It’s a lofty goal, but Arnett points to history to deter any doubters.
He mentioned the successful run for the program in the 2010s, highlighted by the Bulldogs debuting at No. 1 in the inaugural Playoff rankings in 2014 led by quarterback Dak Prescott. Mississippi State had four nine-win seasons in a seven-year span from 2010-17, and returning to that level, combined with a tough, annual SEC schedule is a formula Arnett believes can be duplicated.
“You can look back to that (2014) season with Dak Prescott,” Arnett said. “If there’s a 12-team Playoff (that year), they’re in the Playoff. The proof is in the pudding. There is data to look back on and say if you can recruit and put a team on the field at that high of a level and have that level of success in this league, you’re in the expanded playoffs.”
The process to get there is in its early stages. Signs and slogans from the Leach era still live on inside the building, including “Don’t listen to the noise,” ”Play the next play” and “Control the controllables.” What also exists was the mutual belief between Leach and Arnett of what it takes to build a successful program.
That’s the big question for Arnett to answer in 2023 and beyond: What will be Mississippi State’s identity during his tenure? It’s less about the X’s and O’s and more about the attitude and culture he’s trying to build.
“I hope it’s a continuation of the identity that Mississippi State has always had as a football program: tough, hard-nosed, disciplined,” Arnett said. “That’s what Mike Leach wanted. When I first interviewed with him and talked to him about what he thinks are the important things about developing a winning football program, it’s not talking about schemes. It’s all about the effort with which you play, the physicality and the tenacity.
“Simply put, being the most excited, passionate team who lines up on the field excited to play the game. That’s kind of been Mississippi State’s identity forever. That’s who we are at Mississippi State. If you don’t have those things, it doesn’t matter what scheme you employ on either side of the ball, you ain’t got a chance.”
(Top photo: Johnnie Izquierdo / Getty Images)