Following the death of Mike Leach, Mississippi State has made a decision about the future of its football program.
The school announced Thursday that Zach Arnett will be its new head football coach. Arnett was Leach’s defensive coordinator for the three seasons Leach was in charge at Starkville.
Leach died on Monday of complications from a heart problem. He was 61 years old.
Arnett was handed the interim head coaching title Sunday when Leach was hospitalized. Less than a week later, he was given the full-time job.
“This is an extremely challenging time for both me and everyone associated with Mississippi State football,” Arnett said. “No one will ever replace Coach Leach and the impact he has had on MSU and all of college football. This team is filled with strong, resilient young men and we are committed to continuing to build on the foundation Coach Leach and continue to honor his legacy.”
Arnett, 36, has agreed to a four-year contract that will pay him an annual base salary of $3 million, the school said.
With the early signing period coming up next week and the transfer window wide open, the school has decided to move quickly in an effort to give stability to the schedule and help the players grieve.
“Our football program has faced a severe blow in the untimely passing of head coach Mike Leach,” said MSU President Mark E. Keenum. “It is imperative that we bring stability and continuity to our team and coaching staff as we move forward from this tragic event. I have tremendous faith in Zach Arnett’s leadership and believe he is uniquely positioned to continue the progress Coach Leach has brought to our program. It brings great drive and intensity to the task.”
Interim Athletic Director Bracky Brett added, “This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone at Mississippi State, especially our student-athletes and football staff. As we continue to help each individual through the pain that experience following the passing of Coach Leach, we felt it was vital to provide the team with a proven leader who will be able to help them continue to navigate through these challenging times and into the future. That leader is Zach Arnett.”
When Leach left Washington State to take the job at Mississippi State, he hired Arnett as his defensive coordinator. Arnett is a New Mexico graduate and a disciple of Rocky Long, the longtime New Mexico and San Diego State head coach known for employing a 3-3-5 defense.
Arnett was Long’s defensive coordinator at SDSU when Leach brought him to the SEC. Arnett coached with Long from 2011 to 2019, progressing from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator.
Now Arnett will have the opportunity to lead an SEC program as a head coach for the first time.
“[Arnett] he has been a pillar of support for everyone within the program during this difficult time and during his time in Starkville,” Brett said. “He is an amazing young coach who understands the culture of Mississippi State and will continue to elevate it in this new role.”
Under Arnett’s watch, MSU has ranked in the SEC’s top five in total defense for the past three seasons.
Mississippi State went 8-4 in the regular season, culminating in beating rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. The Egg Bowl win, Leach’s first, was the 158th and final victory in his historic and influential career.
The Bulldogs, No. 22 in the final college football playoff standings, will play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 as scheduled, the school confirmed Tuesday.