The pirate is heading to Starkvegas.
Mississippi State hired Washington State’s Mike Leach as its new head coach Thursday, bringing one of the nation’s quirkiest and most successful coaches from the Pac-12 to the Southeastern Conference.
Leach will replace Joe Moorhead, fired last week after two seasons. Mississippi State announced it hired Leach with a social media hype video that included its new coach bellyflopping into a pool.
College football in the state of Mississippi has gotten a lot more interesting over the last month, with Leach joining new Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin.
The post-bowl game firing by Mississippi State was unusual, but the Bulldogs now have a coach with a long track record of winning at programs that have historically struggled. In 18 years at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach is 139-90, using his Air Raid offense to set records and consistently reach the postseason.
At Washington State, Leach took over a program that had been mired in the Pac-12 basement and went to five straight bowl games, including a school-record 11 victories in 2018.
He finished 55-47 in eight seasons with the Cougars. He produced a similar turnaround at Texas Tech, taking the Red Raiders to bowl games in all 10 seasons.
His style is anything but typical. Leach gets a lot of attention for his news conferences, where he has been known to dole out wedding advice, once pondered which Pac-12 mascots would survive a fight and told tales about his passion for pirates. He taught a class at Washington State last year about football and combat.
It has not all been fun and games, though.
Leach was fired by Texas Tech after being accused of mistreating a player, Adam Jones — the son of former ESPN announcer and NFL player Craig James — who had suffered a concussion. He then clashed with his bosses, and sued Texas Tech for wrongful termination. The school was protected by state law, but Leach is still trying to fight that case. He also filed a lawsuit against ESPN and Craig James that was later dismissed.
When his teams have struggled, his news conferences have been far less amusing. Leach has not been shy about calling players soft and making other disparaging remarks.
But on the field, his teams win more than they lose and his quarterbacks typically throw for more yards than just about anyone else. Washington State has led the nation in passing four times since 2014 and never finished worse than third over the period.
Leach, who has drawn interest from SEC schools before, including Tennessee a couple of times, is one of the godfathers of the modern passing game. He helped develop the Air Raid offense at Division II Valdosta State and Kentucky under Hal Mumme.
Leach brought that wide-open style to the Big 12 when he was hired by Bob Stoops to be offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1999. The next year, he landed in Lubbock, Texas. The Red Raiders had been mired in mediocrity for years, but under Leach never finished below .500 and had nine straight seasons with at least eight victories.
After the acrimonious end of his tenure at Texas Tech, he was out of coaching for two years before being hired by Washington State, another program that had been languishing. The Cougars won only 12 games in his first three seasons, but went 43-22 from 2016-19.
Washington State President Kirk Schulz and athletic director Pat Chun thanked Leach for his time at the school.
“Mike has transformed Washington State football into a national brand and we will be forever grateful,” they said in a statement. “Now we look forward to elevating the Cougs to the highest levels of college football.”
Washington State finished 6-7 this season, including a seventh straight loss to rival Washington. While Leach was regularly able to beat Pac-12 North rivals Stanford and Oregon at Wazzu, his only victory in the Apple Cup was in the first one he coached.
Mississippi State also went 6-7 this season under Moorhead, but that wasn’t enough for the former Penn State offensive coordinator who was hired after Dan Mullen left for Florida in 2017.
Mullen was one of the most successful coaches in the history of the program, raising expectations in Starkville — the small town in east Mississippi affectionately known as Starkvegas around the SEC — for a team that has usually finished near the bottom of the SEC West.
Mississippi State has reached a bowl game in 10 straight seasons.
Leach won’t face quite the rebuild at Mississippi State that he had at Washington State. The Bulldogs have won six of the last 10 Egg Bowls against Ole Miss and Moorhead went 14-12 in his two seasons.
But narrowing the gap on SEC West superpowers LSU and Alabama was something even Mullen could not do. Mississippi State will now turn to Leach to take that next step.