Before he got too far into describing how he plans to rebuild the Southeastern Conference football program at Mississippi State, Mike Leach had one last parting message for the school he just left, and a sincere one at that.
“I will forever be proud and if I’m not careful, get emotional about my time at Washington State and the opportunity to coach there,” Leach said during an introductory news conference in Starkville Friday. “Because I’m very proud of that team and very proud of the Cougs.”
Apparently not being a Coug will take some getting used to for Leach, who accepted the coaching position in Starkville on Thursday after eight wildly successful, and potentially even more wildly entertaining, seasons at Washington State.
So, Leach inadvertently mixed his future with his past as he continued to deliver an opening statement to an audience of Mississippi State reporters, boosters and football players.
“I’m excited about this next step, this next chapter to be a Washington … err, to be a Mississippi State Bulldog,” he said. “And I think, I’ve heard for years about the family atmosphere.”
The coach later informed MSU fans, “With that said, I’m not a big opening statement guy and this may be the longest one of the year. Does anybody have any questions?”
There may be an adjustment period for Leach as he settles into the SEC over the next few months, but in a nearly 40-minute news conference, the Bulldogs got a decent sample of the wacky offensive genius who was tasked to take over a MSU program that’s long lived in SEC West obscurity, similar to the way WSU did in the Pac-12 and Texas Tech in the Big-12.
Leach rang a pirate-branded cowbell, both to open and close his news conference, as is customary for MSU fans to doing Bulldog games, he greeted an actual Bulldog — “You don’t want to get bit by him, I’ll tell you that,” Leach said of Jak, the school’s live mascot — and he went on a fairly long soliloquy about the visitor’s locker room in Starkville, which he once labeled as the nation’s worst during a news conference at WSU.
“Just the thought that went into it. The malicious intent,” Leach said. “The ‘hey, it’s tough to play on the road attitude.’ Yep, I counted them right, 37 nails in a concrete block, two toilets with no seats and no lids in the middle. One roll of toilet paper in the middle.”
Official terms of Leach’s contract at MSU were revealed Friday. The coach didn’t, and surely wouldn’t, suggest that better compensation was one reason to flee Pullman for Starkville, but it’s worth noting Leach will be receiving $5 million annually, on a four-year contract, as opposed to the $3.75 million he was receiving at WSU. Leach has $4.7 million to distribute among 10 assistant coaches and his new deal is packed with incentives: $50,000 if he wins SEC Coach of the Year, $100,000 for an SEC championship game appearance and a whopping $500,000 if he manages to reach the national championship.
A good start in the eyes of most MSU fans would be to beat Ole Miss and first-year coach Lane Kiffin in the Egg Bowl. Leach noted his relationship with Kiffin, who he met while the coach was a graduate assistant for Pete Carroll at USC, and claimed “I’ve always liked Lane” before qualifying that with, “and I know you’re not supposed to like anything Ole Miss.”
WSU fans also took notice of another comment their former coach made, stating the significance of the MSU-Ole Miss rivalry, largely because of Leach’s perceived nonchalance toward the Apple Cup against Washington — a game the Cougars lost in seven of the coach’s eight seasons, often by large margins.
“I think it’s huge and I think everywhere you kind of have your rivalries,” Leach said. “ … Ole Miss is important right down the road, Ole Miss is a place that Mississippi State’s always taken a great deal of pride in beating and we want to elevate that. It’s very important to all of us to win the Egg Bowl, but the best way to play in that Egg Bowl is to get better every day.”
The coach offered another hint as to why a job in Starkville pulled him away from a comfortable situation in Pullman.
“Just to be perfectly honest, the recruiting base here is hard to resist,” Leach said, “because a 300-mile radius of here just has outstanding recruits and it all starts with the commitment on the high school level and the great job the high school coaches do here.”
The SEC had six of the country’s top-10 recruiting classes and 12 of the top 20. Even in a down year, MSU did a more than admirable job on the recruiting trail, checking in with the nation’s 27th-ranked class. By comparison, WSU’s latest class ranked 61st.
Still, Leach assured throughout his introductory presser that it wasn’t an easy decision, or an easy departure from the school that grew to adore him.
“You’re always really conflicted because you create great relationships with your previous team,” he said, “and coaches, fans and some things like that.”
Ultimately, it was Leach’s curiosity, coupled with the opportunity to create another life experience in a different part of the country, that caused the coach to walk away from the Cougars.
“But then the other side of it is, you’re going to be dead in 100 years anyway, so you want to try to have as many experiences as you can,” Leach said, “and everybody’s got goals and things they want to accomplish.”