Bulldog Coach Zach Arnett Looking to Build on Mentors Legacy
By Joey Johnston
Mississippi State's Zach Arnett hoped he would become a head coach one day. But even though it happened in a difficult manner - Arnett was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach following the shocking death of Mike Leach on Dec. 12 - he's carrying on with a routine that his mentor would approve.
"We have a job to do,'' Arnett said.
And that job is getting the Bulldogs (8-4) ready to face the Illinois Fighting Illini (8-4) in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 at Raymond James Stadium.
"It's a challenging time for us all, but this team is full of strong, resilient young men,'' said Arnett, who agreed to a four-year contract. "We're committed to continuing on and building on the foundation that Coach Leach laid and honoring his legacy.''
Arnett, a two-time nominee for the Broyles Award (given to the nation's top assistant coach), built a solid reputation in nine seasons at San Diego State before being hired by Leach in 2020. Arnett, 36, was considered a rising star in the profession and a major asset to the Bulldogs. With an attacking 3-3-5 style of defense, Arnett's units ranked in the SEC's top five in total defense, rushing defense and takeaways during his three seasons.
"It's crucial during this time to provide our team with a proven leader who can help them navigate through these trying times and into the future,'' Mississippi State athletic director Bracky Brett said. "That leader is Zach Arnett. He has been a pillar of strength during this difficult time and during his time in Starkville. He is a tremendous young coach who understands the culture of Mississippi State and will continue to elevate it in this new role.''
Arnett will continue to put his imprint on the Mississippi State program. But it's impossible to talk about Arnett's impact without also reflecting on the Leach's influence.
Following the 2019 season, Arnett was talking to Leach about becoming his defensive coordinator at Washington State. For whatever reason, the timing and circumstances weren't right. Arnett actually accepted the Syracuse defensive coordinator job. Then Leach shifted to Mississippi State and again pursued Arnett as the defensive coordinator. This time, Arnett said yes and was released from his commitment to Syracuse.
"I wasn't going to pass up the chance to work with Mike Leach,'' Arnett said.
Arnett said the Mike Leach known to the public - usually manifesting itself with humorous sound bites - is much different than the coach seen at practice and in meetings.
"It was always the way he saw the game, so different than most people in coaching,'' Arnett said. "I was always amazed by his ability to simplify everything down to its most basic. Us coaches are pretty good at turning football into calculus, right? He kept it simple for the players. That got them playing fast and flying around on the field.
"It was an incredibly successful formula for him. It worked over two decades, in different parts of the country, in different programs. His teams always produced. I'm really fortunate as a younger coach to get to learn from a guy who's going to be a first-ballot College Football Hall of Famer.''
Arnett's job is helping his players finish the season on an upward trajectory, something that occurred in what would become Leach's final game, an Egg Bowl victory against rival Ole Miss.
"I think our guys have done a good job all season of showing up every week and competing,'' Arnett said. "Maybe we let one or two games get away from us. But we went 8-4 and now we're going to our 13th straight bowl game. I have a hard time knocking that as a season.
"It's a lot easier to go into a home visit in the state of Mississippi after winning the Egg Bowl. We'd like to finish it off (by winning the ReliaQuest Bowl). Then we can move forward with a really good finish.''
It's what Mike Leach would've wanted. Arnett will be his own man, but he'll always carry on honoring the memory of his mentor.