Zach Arnett not trying to 'duplicate' Mike Leach at Mississippi State

Remembering the life and legacy of Mike Leach (2:46)

Gene Wojciechowski chronicles the life of two-time national coach of the year Mike Leach, who died at age 61. (2:46)

STARKVILLE, Ms. -- Zach Arnett is a 36-year-old, first-time head coach replacing an icon at Mississippi State, but he's already shown a willingness to change directions and make the program his own.

Arnett was Mike Leach's defensive coordinator from 2020 to 2022. In December, he was promoted to head coach shortly after Leach passed away due to complications from a heart condition.

Leach, 61, was a pioneer in coaching. He helped to popularize the now ubiquitous Air Raid offense -- a pass-happy style of play that spread the field with multiple receivers.

"Who's going to duplicate Mike Leach?" Arnett told ESPN on Monday. "There's no chance in hell."

Arnett, like so many in the coaching profession, revered Leach for his football acumen, his willingness to push boundaries and his commitment to his craft.

Leach was 158-107 in his three head-coaching stops, including Washington State and Texas Tech. He won AFCA national coach of the year in 2018 at Washington State. He was 19-17 in three seasons at Mississippi State.

Arnett said to even try to imitate Leach would risk coming across as fake.

While pieces of Leach's offense remain, the Air Raid as Mississippi State knew it is gone under Arnett, who is already 1-0 after leading the Bulldogs to a 19-10 win over Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2.

The entire offensive staff has changed from a season ago, led by former Appalachian State and Central Michigan offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay, who features a more vertical passing game and more traditional run concepts.

"We're not running the pure Air Raid that we ran then," Arnett said. "And I don't think [Leach] would necessarily have a problem with that because he would want me to run a program that's in the vision that I see as best fit for its future."

Bracky Brett, Mississippi State senior deputy athletics director, said the administration took a hands-off approach when they offered Arnett a four-year, $12 million deal in December.

Brett said Arnett was told there would be no interference and, "Total control of the program is on you."

"And I think he knew he was going to have to make some changes," Brett said. "He knew as a defensive coach and from being in the conference for three years that maybe [the Air Raid] wasn't the best way for Mississippi State to do it."

Helping Arnett and the offensive shift under Barbay is the return of starting quarterback Will Rogers.

A veteran with 33 career starts, Rogers already holds the SEC record for career completions (1,159) and the school record for career passing yards (10,689) and career passing touchdowns (82).

Mississippi State opens the season Sept. 2 at home against Southeastern Louisiana.