This column needs a disclaimer right off the bat. I have no idea if Mike Leach is going to be successful at Mississippi State.
But good lord am I excited to listen to him talk.
The former Washington State play caller committed to being the Bulldogs’ 34th coach in program history Thursday morning and will be introduced at noon Friday with a press conference at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex.
Maybe he’ll begin his introduction to the fanbase by talking about dragons. Or going over which Southeastern Conference mascot would be victorious in an all-out battle royale. Getting marriage advice from Leach won’t be off the table, nor is a long rant about the need for the College Football Playoff to expand out of the question.
These sound bites are all on his greatest hits list, and he might replay some Friday afternoon, but Leach also may just want to discuss his opinion on the latest Star Wars movie or something else totally new and unforeseen.
That’s the thing about Leach: every press conference is off the rails, entertaining and the amount of actual football talk fluctuates from day to day.
If his teams are losing, that kind of stuff might irk the fanbase. It probably did in Pullman, Washington, considering the Cougars had an identical record to MSU and finished 6-7 in 2019. But think of it this way: a down year will at least be entertaining, as opposed to constantly hearing about upper- and lower-body injuries every five minutes.
This is all to say, hiring Leach is the exact opposite of playing it safe. After dismissing the laid back and typically collected Joe Moorhead on Jan. 3, MSU Athletic Director John Cohen essentially put his future in the hands of college football’s biggest wild card. Is it going to work? Again, not a clue. But I can promise it will be incredibly entertaining either way.
Leach wasn’t Cohen’s first choice. Sources close to the situation have told The Dispatch that MSU was ready to move forward with former New England Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge, but then the MSU graduate signed a five-year contract for $7 million a year with the New York Giants earlier this week instead. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham seemed to be logical fallback options.
You have to give Cohen credit in one aspect, he wanted to make a splash. This is MSU’s answer to Ole Miss’ hire of Lane Kiffin. Think about that for a second. This Thanksgiving, Leach and Kiffin will be going head to head in the Egg Bowl. It’s only January, but I’m already thankful.
In what was essentially his state-of-the-program press conference a week ago, Cohen said he was determined to find the right fit for Mississippi State. From a fit perspective, Leach is a perplexing candidate.
Leach, a self-proclaimed pirate and the author of the book “Swing Your Sword,” is a walking Pandora’s box of charisma, but he’s also a loose cannon.
After his Cougars lost 38-13 to Utah last September, Leach didn’t hold back in his postgame presser, calling his players “fat, dumb, happy and entitled.” That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
On the field, his football teams score a lot of points. They also give up a lot of points. Look at two scores from a season ago: a 67-63 loss to UCLA, and a 54-53 win over Oregon State.
He’s been a two-time National Coach of the Year and won a WSU program-record 11 games in 2018 with mostly two- and three-star recruits. He’d have to follow a similar path in Starkville. Leach went 55-47 overall at WSU but compiled a 43-22 record over the last five years.
From a recruiting standpoint, it’s unclear how much success Leach will have. He loves the air raid offense, and will throw the ball anywhere from 50 to even 65 times a game. If you got annoyed with how little Moorhead ran the ball, do I have some bad news for you.
Now, I don’t know if you watched MSU’s receivers and quarterbacks play a year ago, but this type of offense doesn’t exactly project success with the team’s current personnel. So recruiting is going to be crucial in Leach’s first few seasons. The same can be said for what assistants, primarily what defensive coordinator, he surrounds himself with.
In the months leading up to his first season, there’s a good chance the narrative around the team will center on the Leach show 100 percent.
Some players might not like that, but ironically, I had a discussion about Leach about a year ago from someone who knows him well enough to have an opinion: Washington State legend and ESPN commentator Ryan Leaf (yes, insert your NFL bust joke here). When asked about how Leach runs his program, Leaf’s eyes lit up.
“He’s one of a kind,” Leaf told me last April. “Washington State needs individuals like that because it’s difficult to recruit there. For the longest time, people were talking more about Mike Leach than the team, but because they did, people now pay more attention to the team. And the team is doing really well. He’s taken it in the right direction.”
I’m fascinated by this hire. Time will tell how it plays out.
Noon on Friday can’t get here soon enough. Neither can August, for that matter. The pirate ship has arrived in Starkville, and it’s going to be an entertaining voyage.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.