Consider it the end of the Air Raid era at Washington State.
Mike Leach’s flirtation with the Southeastern Conference – which began two years ago when Leach was in line to take the vacant job at Tennessee – finally became reality early Thursday afternoon, when the Washington State coach was officially hired to coach Mississippi State.
The Spokesman-Review confirmed a report from Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel stating Leach and Mississippi State had agreed on a deal just one day after it was reported the two parties met at the coach’s vacation home in Key West, Florida.
Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen tweeted a picture of Leach signing a contract at 11:15 a.m. PT, writing, “The deal is done. See you back at StarkVegas at Bryan Field at 3:15 p.m. with @Coach_Leach! #HailState”
The school officially announced Leach’s hire in a news release before noon and confirmed the school would announce its new coach at a 9 a.m. PST news conference Friday at the Leo Seal Jr. Hall Football Complex. The news conference will be streamed live via the SEC Network.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs,” Leach said in a Mississippi State news release. “I loved Washington State, but I am excited for the next chapter in the SEC. It’s a privilege to be a part of the MSU family, and we look forward to getting down to Starkville shortly.”
WSU President Kirk Schulz and Director of Athletics Pat Chun issued a joint statement Thursday afternoon: “On behalf of Washington State University, we would like to thank coach Leach for his eight years of service to the Cougars. Mike has transformed Washington State football into a national brand and we will be forever grateful. We wish he and (wife) Sharon nothing but the best in their next chapter at Mississippi State. Now we look forward to elevating the Cougs to the highest levels of college football.”
Leach was thought to be a candidate for the position in Starkville when the Bulldogs fired coach Joe Moorhead on the heels of a 6-7 season that saw the Bulldogs lose 38-28 to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. Former Washington coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was also considered to be a frontrunner for the job.
The Bulldogs are bringing in an offensive guru who’s widely considered one of two founding fathers of the Air Raid offense, along with Hal Mumme, and someone who regularly overachieved at a program with less pageantry, history and resources than many of its peers in the Pac-12 Conference.
Shortly after reports of Leach’s departure surfaced, Mississippi State’s Cohen tweeted a “Pirates of the Caribbean” video mashed up with a clip of a waving Mississippi State flag, referencing Leach’s affinity for pirates and tying it to Leach’s new employer.
Leach also updated his Twitter bio and image less than an hour after reports surfaced of the hire. It reads: “Husband; Father; Head Football Coach of Mississippi State University; Author of NY Times Best Seller, Swing Your Sword; #HailState.”
On Tuesday, radio host Paul Finebaum reported that Cohen had traveled to Key West, Fla., to interview Leach for the job.
In December, Leach and the Cougars agreed to a contract extension to keep the coach in Pullman through 2024.
In eight seasons at WSU, Leach notched 55 wins – third-most by a coach in program history – and took the Cougars to six bowl games. Leach also set a school record by taking WSU to four straight bowls, then extended that record in 2019 when he took the Cougars to the Cheez-It Bowl, losing 31-21 to Air Force.
Leach, who was hired by former athletic director Bill Moos in 2011 to replace Paul Wulff, led the Cougars out of the Pac-12 cellar after the program won just nine games in the four years prior to his arrival. The former Texas Tech coach broke a nine-year postseason hiatus in 2013, when the Cougars qualified for the New Mexico Bowl and WSU won at least eight games in four consecutive years, from 2015-18.
The Leach era in Pullman reached its peak in 2018, when the Cougars were projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North but wound up winning a program-record 11 games with graduate-transfer quarterback and current Jacksonville Jaguars starter Gardner Minshew. Leach was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year and Minshew Offensive Player of the Year as the Cougars came an Apple Cup win short of winning the Pac-12 North before defeating Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl.
WSU finished with a 55-47 record during Leach’s tenure, including a 43-22 record over the last five years.
One of Leach’s only shortcomings at WSU was his record against Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars beat the Huskies in an overtime thriller in 2012, but Leach was outcoached by Chris Petersen in the next seven rivalry games, losing each of those by an average margin of 21.2 points. UW was often the obstacle between WSU and the Cougars’ first-ever Pac-12 North title; the Huskies beat WSU in 2016, ’17 and ’18 to keep Leach out of the conference-championship game.
Still, those losses were largely overshadowed by Leach’s success against other opponents in the North division. The Cougars won four straight games against Oregon before losing to the eventual Rose Bowl champions by just two points in Eugene this season, and WSU secured a fourth straight win over Stanford, soundly beating the Cardinal 49-22 in Pullman in November. Leach also managed to string together six consecutive wins over Oregon State.
Leach’s quarterbacks at WSU broke a handful of conference passing records. Connor Halliday set the league record for yards in a game when he threw for 734 in a 2014 loss to California, while Anthony Gordon set the single-season mark, jumping Minshew by throwing for 5,779 yards for the Cougars this past season. Gordon also set the conference mark for touchdown passes in a game when he tossed nine in a 67-63 loss to UCLA. The Pac-12 mark for career passing yards is also held by a WSU QB, Luke Falk, who threw for 14,481 from 2014-17.