Zach Arnett Steadied the Mississippi State Ship in the Wake of Mike Leach Passing

    Following his dismissal as head coach, it's important to remember that Zach Arnett steadied the Mississippi State ship in the wake of Mike Leach passing.

    For the long term, Zach Arnett wasn’t the right man for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Yet, as news of his dismissal fills newspaper stands and social media timelines, it’s important to remember that for several weeks as December turned to January, he was everything that team needed and more.

    In the wake of the tragic death of legendary college football coach Mike Leach, Arnett steadied the Mississippi State ship once so majestically steered through choppy SEC waters by “The Pirate.” Rather than break up and sink in the immediate aftermath, he held the program together in the darkest of times.

    Zach Arnett Steadied the Mississippi State Ship

    In years to come, Arnett’s coaching record at Mississippi State will be ingrained in records books and stats sites as 5-6. After going 4-6 through 10 games of the 2023 college football season — including six SEC defeats — the university decided that wasn’t good enough. Yet, the one-game difference between those two records tells a story greater than the sum of his overall tenure.

    On Dec. 12, 2022, the news of Leach’s passing shook the college football world. Much beloved by fans across the globe, “The Pirate” had been an innovator, a comedian, a humble human in a sporting world that trends towards corporate characters. His loss was felt heavily wherever he had touched, but nowhere was it felt more than in Starkville, at Mississippi State, his final role.

    Leach’s passing had the potential to derail everything that he’d built at the program. When you take out the foundations, the rest of the building inevitably collapses. He was a head coach, but he was also a leader, a guide, a mentor, and for a team of young men, some far from where they called home, he was as close to a father figure as you can imagine.

    When my grandfather passed away in 2009, I drank three bottles of whiskey within two days and refused to go to work for longer than that. In the days and weeks after Leach had passed, the young men of Mississippi State needed to strap on their pads and helmets and face Illinois in the Reliaquest Bowl.

    In those dark moments following the passing of Leach, Mississippi State needed a leader. They needed someone to follow. They needed someone to hold it all together, to reassure them it was going to be ok. They needed a familiar face, a shoulder to cry on, but also someone who would remind them of their “why” as they stepped out onto the field.

    They needed Arnett.

    When Leach was taken to the hospital the day before his tragic and untimely passing, it was the then-Mississippi State defensive coordinator who was tasked with informing the Bulldogs players about the fate of their head coach. According to a report from ESPN, Arnett delivered the news as masterfully as anyone could have.

    “The way he addressed the team, he was unbelievable. The way he stepped up, it was like you were listening to the head coach talk to his team. He reminded everyone of all the things we’ve been through and what Coach Leach always demanded and expected. He shares those same expectations.”

    There was never any doubt that the former New Mexico linebacker, who cut his coaching teeth at San Diego State before coming to Mississippi State, was the man to lead the team through the troubled waters. While Mississippi State president Mark E. Keenum ultimately ended his tenure on Nov. 13, Arnett provided everything asked of him in the immediate aftermath.

    “It is imperative that we bring stability and continuity to our tram and our coaching staff as we move forward from this tragic event,” Keenum said via a statement announcing Arnett’s promotion to head coach last December. “I have tremendous confidence in Zach Arnett’s leadership.”

    MORE: Mississippi State Fires Head Coach Zach Arnett 

    Importantly for Arnett, the belief in his leadership ran deeper than just the president’s office. Taking to ESPN’s Pete Thamel in Dec. 2022, a source close to the Mississippi State locker room expressed their feelings over the now-former Bulldogs head coach.

    “He’s been leader in our program. He’s a guy that players on both sides of the ball respect. He has stepped up and led this team through this adversity, making sure that we continue to finish this season the way we started, and the way Coach Leach always expected.”

    “Finishing the season the way we started” is a key component to understanding how important Arnett was in that moment. It would have been easy for Mississippi State to cancel their participation in the Reliaquest Bowl. No one would have blamed them.

    Yet Arnett galvanized the team around him, and on Jan. 2, 2023, he made his debut as the Mississippi State head coach in circumstances as far removed from ideal as possible. And won.

    As the program honored their departed hero, the football team played a game that was more attuned to the gritty nature of their new head coach than to the high-powered aerial offense of “The Pirate.” The 19-10 win over Illinois was for Leach, but it was made in the image of Arnett and a testament to his leadership.

    Being the next man up after a coach like Leach was almost going to be a tough task, verging on the impossible, and less than 12 months later, that has proved to be the case. That shouldn’t detract from the fact that Arnett was exactly who they needed him to be for a short period of time: The man who steadied the Mississippi State ship.

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