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Leach relishes chance to test himself at Mississippi State

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By PAUL JONES

Associated Press

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) The opportunity to coach in a talent-rich area helped persuade Mike Leach make the decision to leave Washington State and accept the Mississippi State job, giving him the chance to test himself in the Southeastern Conference.

"I know we've got a lot of work to do here, but we've got some great players here," Leach said Friday at his introductory news conference. "I'm really excited about this challenge. We've got plenty of hard work ahead of us but it's going to be fulfilling work. We're going to have a lot of fun and we're going to work harder than any team in the country to be a team that everyone in here can be proud of."

Leach agreed to a four-year contract that will pay him $5 million annually in base compensation.

He spoke in front of a standing-room-only crowd that filled the Seal Complex on Mississippi State's campus. Mississippi State President Mark Keenum gave Leach a taste of the Bulldogs' football tradition by providing the new coach with his own cowbell.

Leach made a couple of references to Mississippi State's athletic history in his opening statement.

He credited former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill for taking him under his wing early in his career. Leach also mentioned that he coached baseball as a teenager and relied on the "Baseball Playbook" written by former Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk.

"Although 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 because I'm very proud of that team and very proud of the Cougs. I'm excited about this next step, this next challenge and to be a Mississippi State Bulldog," Leach said.

He has earned a label as one of college football's most interesting personalities while also showing a knack for succeeding at places where it's considered difficult to win. Leech went 55-47 in eight seasons at Washington State after going 84-43 at Texas Tech from 2000-09. He does have SEC experience from a stint as Kentucky's offensive coordinator in 1997-98.

Leach replaces Joe Moorhead, who was fired last week after posting a 14-12 record in his two-year stay at Mississippi State.

Mississippi State's ability to lure Leach away from the Pac-12 comes after in-state rival Mississippi made its own attention-getting move by hiring former Southern California and Tennessee head coach and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin away from Florida Atlantic.

"We didn't hire Mike Leach because he's charismatic, but he is," athletic director John Cohen said. "We didn't hire Mike Leach because he has a great sense of humor, but he does. We didn't hire Mike Leach because he's exceptionally bright, but he is. We did not hire Mike Leach because of his dynamic personality, but he's got one. We did not solely hire Mike Leach because he's a visionary and a pioneer in the modern game of college football, but indeed he is.

"We hired Mike Leach because he's a disciplinarian. We hired Mike Leach because he's a brilliant tactician. Most of all, we hired Mike Leach because he's a proven winner."

Leach, 58, earned Pac-12 coach of the year honors in 2015 and 2018. Leach directed the Cougars to the program's first-ever 11-win season in 2018. Washington State went 6-7 this past season but made its fifth straight bowl appearance under Leach and averaged 437.2 yards passing to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Leach's teams have led the nation in passing in 10 of his 18 seasons as a head coach. He now takes over a Mississippi State team that averaged 179.5 yards passing per game this past season to rank 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC.

"In this business we want to attack as much space as possible," Leach said. "We should be able to install it pretty fast and it is not going to be perfect right away. The more people the defense has to keep up with over a wide area, the bigger our chances are."

Mississippi State is coming off a 6-7 season that included a Music City Bowl loss to Louisville. That team relied heavily on Kylin Hill, who ran for 1,350 yards and ranked second in the SEC with 103.9 yards rushing per game.

Hill initially declared for the NFL draft but hasn't finalized those plans yet and was among the Mississippi State players who greeted Leach at the airport Thursday.

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Updated January 10, 2020

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