NASHVILLE — Zach Arnett has the most challenging head coaching job in all of college football. Well, if not the most, it’s up there. Vanderbilt is still in the SEC, after all.
It’s unlikely Arnett would agree with that assessment of his Mississippi State Bulldogs. Listening to him at SEC media days on Tuesday was to hear a man brimming with understandable pride, unbound enthusiasm and a whole lot of confidence.
“I’m lucky,” Arnett said.
It’s that very ambition and positivity that makes this one of the easiest stories to root for in the sport, and it gives reason to believe that from a difficult start, this could actually work.
Acknowledging the challenges ahead is no shot at Mississippi State. It’s just the reality of a situation born out of tragedy, draped in historical trends and facing a conference expansion that makes life in the already brutally competitive SEC even more brutally competitive.
Start with Arnett, a 36-year-old New Mexico native who cut his coaching teeth at San Diego State. He now runs the show in little Starkville, Mississippi, as the first coach of Hispanic descent in league history.
He was promoted in December from his role as defensive coordinator after the sudden death of Mike Leach, the legendary, larger-than-life personality.
Ready or not, here Arnett was, dealing with grief, shock and a lot of emotion. The Bulldogs promptly beat Illinois in a bowl game.
Leach was an offensive guy and the program was built in his image. The Air Raid. The quirky news conferences. The healthy bit of irreverence. He was a force of personality. Arnett was there to hold down the defense, which Leach had almost no interest in.
“Being the defensive coordinator for Mike Leach, the freedom and the autonomy you have … to run it as [you] see fit, I think that’s the best defensive coordinator job in the country,” he said.
He’s a defensive guy now in charge of a program known for its offense.
Mississippi State has long struggled to match the resources and commitment of other SEC schools. Punching above its weight was a point of pride, but also a challenge when attempted over the long haul. Arnett notes the four nine-win seasons over the last decades, but there were also losing campaigns and a stretch in the 1990s where it failed to win more than three games for six years.
And that’s before the league welcomes Oklahoma and Texas to the fold next year. That’s two bigger, richer, and historically more successful programs to go with the parade of Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and the rest. And don’t forget Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss sitting up the road.
Arnett looks at it all as an opportunity. This may not be how he wanted to become a SEC head coach, nor the way Mississippi State wanted to hire Leach’s successor, but the guy that wound up with the job certainly appreciates it.
“I’m humbled and proud to be the head football coach at Mississippi State University, a place where you can compete at the highest level in the best conference in all of college football, you can get a world-class education, and your dreams can become a reality,” Arnet said.
He name-dropped prominent football alums such as Dak Prescott and Darius Slay. He reminded the program was ranked No. 1 in the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings and how an expanded field in 2024 offered more chances.
He spoke of “the most loyal fan base in all of college athletics” and promised the grit of the program wasn’t going anywhere.
“Tough, hard-nosed, disciplined,” he said. “It’s been acknowledged for a long time in this league, when you line up against Mississippi State, you’d better pack your lunch box and hardhat, because it’s going to be a physical game.”
Mostly he spoke of the promise of the place. All the returning talent from last year’s 9-4 team. The symbiotic relationship with the administration. And all of the possibilities in recruiting.
“We live in the most fertile recruiting ground there is for college football players, the state of Mississippi,” Arnett said. “And then you expand out from there, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia. If you can’t find players in this footprint then you ain’t going to be a coach very long.”
Arnett is said to have connected with local coaches during his few years as a MSU assistant. He has five four-star recruits committed from the Class of 2024 — a nice haul, although far behind the behemoth’s of the league.
“The players are all around us,” Arnett said. “We’ve got to do a good job in the evaluation process, and then the recruiting process and showing them that they can achieve all their dreams, everything is there for them at Mississippi State.”
Listen to the man with the most challenging job in the country talk, and it doesn’t sound so challenging.
Zach Arnett is a believer. In Miss State. In Starkville. In the future for everything.
It’s worth watching to see who he can get to believe with him.
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