STARKVILLE • Midway through his introductory press conference as Mississippi State’s new football coach, Mike Leach peered down from the podium at MSU’s live mascot “Jak,” who was getting a little rambunctious in a room filled with reporters and fans.
“You don’t want to get bit by him, I’ll tell you that much,” Leach said on Friday. “That’s the dog version of like a leather jacket. That’s like the Fonzie of bulldogs.”
It’s that type of quick wit, charm and off-the-wall zaniness that has made Leach an unconventional legend within the coaching profession.
But none of those are the reasons MSU athletic director John Cohen chose Leach as the program’s 34th head football coach.
“We hired Mike Leach because he’s a disciplinarian,” Cohen said. “We hired Mike Leach because he’s a brilliant tactician. And most of all, we hired Mike Leach because he’s a proven winner. He’s won at some places where quite frankly that it’s difficult to win.”
Leach led Texas Tech to an 84-43 record and 10-consecutive bowls and went 55-47 in his eight years at Washington State and went to six bowls, including a No. 10 finish in 2018.
Due to all that success, the 58-year-old had plenty of job offers come his way over the years but said he believes he finally found a fit that matches his colorful character.
“I’ve kind of been searching for this before,” Leach said. “There’s a unique independence that exists at Mississippi State that doesn’t exist other places. They’re very direct and down to earth. They’re independent in the way that they do their stuff. Everybody is not running around in linen suits when it’s their casual time.
“There’s a gritty toughness here too that exists and allows achievement for people to get things done.”
This isn’t Leach’s first experience in Starkville, either. He came as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 1997 and complimented State for having the worst opposing locker room he’d ever been to.
Leach vividly recalled the all-concrete room which featured 37 nails on the wall (he counted), two seat-less toilets in the middle of the room and only one roll of toilet paper between the two.
Leach paid his respects to that room while on a tour of Davis Wade Stadium on Thursday night and admits that he is a little disappointed that it is no longer in use for opposing teams.
“The old visitor’s locker room at Mississippi State was literally a work of art and now it’s an office,” Leach said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s sacred ground. If you’re the home team you want to have the most advantageous visitor’s locker room that you possibly can. It was utterly outstanding. Just the thought that went into it and the malicious intent.”
Leach signed a four-year deal with the Bulldogs and will make $5 million annually along with additional incentives. There is also a $4.7 salary pool for Leach to build his assistant coaching staff with, something he deemed as a “top priority.”
Leach said he had several assistant coaches already in mind for positions, but did not rule out the possibility to retaining coaches from Joe Moorhead’s staff.
“I couldn’t have more respect for my predecessors and what they did and strived to achieve,” Leach said. “But with the force of that, there’s some coaches that I know and I’m familiar with that I think will best duplicate what we’re trying to achieve offensively and defensively so there will definitely be some that I’ve worked with in the past.”
One coach who will not remain on staff is offensive line coach Marcus Johnson. Johnson accepted a position on new coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s staff at Missouri on Friday.
Mississippi State opens the 2020 season at home on Sept. 5 against New Mexico.