Mississippi State has agreed to terms to promote defensive coordinator Zach Arnett to head coach, sources told ESPN on Wednesday. He will replace Mike Leach, who died Monday night.
Arnett agreed to a four-year deal that has yet to be signed but is expected to be formalized in the upcoming days, sources said.
The move was made quickly in the aftermath of Leach’s death as a way to stabilize the program and keep the on-field momentum going after Mississippi State finished 8-4 this season.
“The school wants to give the players a strong leader to help them through the grieving process and give them stability,” a source told ESPN. “Zach is the guy for that. Zach embodies MSU and understands it, and he’s going to build on the foundation that Coach Leach set.”
Arnett has spent three seasons as Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator, bringing a successful 3-3-5 scheme that has proven difficult to face in the SEC. The unit finished No. 39 nationally in total defense this year, an impressive number considering how offense-centric State’s program is running Leach’s famed Air Raid offense.
Arnett had immediate success his first two seasons in Starkville, as his aggressive defense finished in the top five in the SEC in total defense both years. He remained loyal to Leach and Mississippi State when wealthier schools courted him in recent seasons, a loyalty that’s been reciprocated.
Arnett’s leadership through the tidal wave of emotions that have come from Leach’s hospitalization and death also have impressed. His message to the team has been consistent in upholding the standard that Leach set for the program.
State will play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2, which will mark Arnett’s head-coaching debut.
“He’s been a leader in our program,” a source said. “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.”
The continuity is expected to allow Mississippi State to keep together a strong core of players that shined on defense this year. The program’s two leading tacklers, Nathaniel Watson and Jett Johnson, have both said they will return to school. Watson was the SEC’s leading tackler (108).
Starting defensive linemen Jaden Crumedy, Jordan Davis and Nathan Pickering all also have stated publicly that they’ll return next year. That should give Arnett an experienced corps of talented returners and help them keep a strong defensive identity for next season.
Arnett also has proven a stout defensive recruiter, as Miami transfer Khamauri Rogers committed to MSU earlier Wednesday.
Arnett is a New Mexico graduate, where he originally committed to play baseball before earning a football scholarship and starring in its 3-3-5 defense. He coached under Rocky Long, the modern godfather of the 3-3-5 defense at San Diego State, starting as a graduate assistant there and working his way up to assistant coach and eventually defensive coordinator.
Beyond his schematic background, Arnett earned the State job because of his presence in the program. That leadership was especially needed this week.
“The way he addressed the team, he was unbelievable,” a source said, referring the meeting to announce Leach was taken to the hospital. “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.”
Also Wednesday, Mississippi State announced that it will hold a public memorial service Tuesday honoring the life of Leach at Humphrey Coliseum.