STARKVILLE – One of the most brilliant minds in college football, Mike Leach was introduced as the 34th head coach in Mississippi State history Friday in front of hundreds of fans at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex.
“We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he is charismatic, but he is,” Director of Athletics 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 is exceptionally bright, but he is. We didn’t hire Mike Leach because of his dynamic personality, but he’s got one. We didn’t 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 is a two-time national coach of the year and three-time conference coach of the year. He has compiled a 139-90 (.607) record, guided his squads to 16 bowl games, produced seven seasons of at least nine victories, captured two division titles, became the winningest coach in Texas Tech history and set school records for bowl appearances at both Texas Tech (10) and Washington State (6). During 10 of those 18 seasons, Leach’s passing attack led the FBS – six at Texas Tech and four at Washington State.
“We’ve got some great players here,” Leach said. “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. We’re going to work harder than any team in the country to be a team that everyone in here can be proud of. I really appreciate that.”
Leach arrived in Starkville on Thursday afternoon and was greeted by fans at the airport before meeting with his new team for the first time later in the evening.
“I want you to know how proud I am to be a part of the Bulldog family,” Leach said to his team Thursday night. “At Washington State, a place I love with people I love, I turned down a number of jobs there to stay there. But this one, I couldn’t turn down.”
Below is the full transcript of head coach Mike Leach’s introductory press conference on January 10, 2020, featuring introductions from Director of Athletics John Cohen and President Dr. Mark Keenum.
Director of Athletics John Cohen
“Good afternoon. We appreciate all of you being here today. I want to thank everybody who was involved in the search, and it was several people. We wanted to move quickly, but more importantly, we wanted to be thoughtful and thorough in the search. As always, I appreciate Dr. [Mark] Keenum for his guidance and wisdom. Every day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have Dr. Keenum at the helm of Mississippi State University. I want to be brief, but I want to be clear about a few things. We didn’t hire Mike Leach because he is charismatic, but he is. 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 is exceptionally bright, but he is. We didn’t hire Mike Leach because of his dynamic personality, but he’s got one. We didn’t 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. He’s won in some places, quite frankly, that are very difficult to win. So, at this time, I would like to introduce Coach Leach’s lovely wife, Sharon. His children could not be here today, but we are excited to welcome Janeen, Kim, Cody and Kiersten to the Mississippi State family. With that, I would like to get Dr. Mark Keenum up to make a very special presentation.”
President Dr. Mark Keenum
“Thank you, John. Thank all of you for being here for this great day and great occasion for the history of Mississippi State football. I want to take this moment to say publicly how much I genuinely appreciate the leadership of our athletic director, John Cohen, and the great job he has done managing this search. John, thank you and your team for this outstanding performance. Coach Leach and Sharon, welcome. Welcome to Starkville, welcome to Mississippi State University and to our wonderful Bulldog family. We’re proud to have you as a member of our family. Coach Leach, I know that you want to inspire your players and your fans. You use a saying of ‘Swing Your Sword.’ Well, we have a saying here too for when we want to motivate our players and our fans. Ring Your Bell. We’re proud of our cowbell. It’s one of the most unique traditions in all of college athletics. In fact, we’re the only Division I school where you can legally bring an artificial noisemaker and use it. We respect that tradition. We respect what it represents. It represents our spirit. It represents our core values of integrity, hard work and respect for others. We always, always ring responsibly. Again, we respect this tradition, so with that, Coach, I want to present you with your very own official Mississippi State cowbell.”
Head Coach Mike Leach
“Well the first thing I want to say is how honored I am to have the opportunity to work for John Cohen and also Dr. Keenum. I’ve heard about their reputation over the years and things like that. Also, Mississippi State, like any football coach, I have been familiar with this great state and the great players who play here and also the pride that exists in this state. Although, I will forever be proud, and if I’m not careful, I’ll get emotional about my time at Washington State because I’m very proud of that team and proud to have coached there. I’m excited about this next step, this next chapter and to be a Mississippi State Bulldog.
“I’ve heard for years about the family atmosphere. Coach [Jackie] Sherrill was a guy that when I was a young coach kind of took me under his wing and told me about this great place, and of course, I was jealous. I first started coaching baseball at age 15. So, when I got to college my first year, the textbook was Baseball Playbook by Ron Polk. It looked like a great big term paper with the brass things through the deal. I still have that book. I made sure to get the updated version. I’ll tell you all what I learned out of that book for football over the years. Even though it was baseball, he had all of his players going through the drills or doing something. So, at football practices, we try to have constant motion with everyone going somewhere. Don’t be surprised if you come by our practice field and you see five quarterbacks each throwing the ball to five receivers. We want as much action and as much work as we can possibly get in a short period of time.
“I know we’ve got a lot of work to do here. We’ve got some great players here. 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. We’re going to work harder than any team in the country to be a team that everyone in here can be proud of. I really appreciate that. My wife Sharon, I wouldn’t here without her. There’s been a lot of tough times where she made more money than I did for 10 years to feed this football habit. With that said, I’m not a big opening-statement guy. This may be the longest one of the year.”
Q: Why was Mississippi State the job you chose, and what went into the decision to come here?
ML: “Why I chose Mississippi State, the cowbell represents a lot of the pride and tradition that personifies this place. I guess there are so many ways to describe that. They put the symbol under the cowbell, and that means more than we really have time to talk about here. But, it’s something that even as an outsider you feel. The commitment to football that the state of Mississippi has and the entire southeastern region. The athletes that you have an opportunity to be a part of here, and they only become that through incredibly hard work and dedication, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to have the opportunity to have another chapter of my career. Why you play sports, whether you’re a player or a coach, is to have an opportunity to see or do something bigger than you currently are, as you fight and scratch to achieve. This is a place with great resources and opportunity, in my opinion, to do that.”
Q: How feasible is it to implement your offense here, right away?
ML: “I’ll be able to give you a better answer after about a week of spring. We’ve always been able to install it fast. I don’t think it will be perfect within a week, but I think it will be fairly sharp within two weeks. It’s not going to be perfect. That’s why we’re in this. You’re always grinding away. As far as seeing our offense, and we’ve been doing it for a long time, a lot of NFL teams have adopted it. You’ve got the [New England] Patriots, the [New Orleans] Saints, the [Green Bay] Packers. Generally speaking, most of the Super Bowls of the last eight to ten years have had some air raid concepts in them. We originally drew it from the wishbone. Offensively, two objectives we’re trying to achieve is we want to attack as much space as possible, and we want to put it in all the skilled positions’ hands. The thought very simply, is the more people the defense has to keep track of over a bigger area, the better our chances are. I don’t know, as you guys come up with a good play to do that, maybe we’ll cut one of the ones we’ve got and add yours. We do that from time to time.”
Q: What have you seen from afar in the SEC’s changing stances on offense, as they have been strong on defense in the past?
ML: “I think it’s a little of both. I think conferences and teams will go kind of in cycles. I remember when I was the offensive coordinator at the University of Kentucky, we led the nation in passing. We threw it a lot there, and I thought it elevated things there at the University of Kentucky for the two years I had the opportunity to be there. There were some balls flying around then. You had Florida throwing quite a bit then too. The biggest thing as an offensive coach is, as we used to refer to it, build a better mousetrap. ‘How can we build the mousetrap better?’ we used to say. We would say stuff like, ‘Well, if we run a post on that play, that’ll help the mousetrap.’ We spend most of our time talking about how we’re going to practice, and how we are going to duplicate those things. We also talk quite a bit about how we’re going to find ways to attack space. Sometimes you’ll have a real special player, like our running back this past year [at Washington State] had an awful lot of yards. If you don’t count kickoff returns, he led the Pac-12 in yards. If you have a special player, you’re trying to get the ball in his hands as many times as you can and devising ways to do it. What I like about what we do offensively, is you have some flexibility in how to do that.”
Q: Have you had a chance to solidify your staff yet?
ML: “The timeline is as soon as possible. Obviously, for some positions I have some people in mind. It’s always tough. I’ve been on both sides of this coin, and I have the utmost admiration for everybody that’s worked here because I know what a struggle it is to be a coach. You live and die on each game, and you’re always trying to do the best you can. I couldn’t have more respect for my predecessors, and what they did and what everybody strived to achieve. With the course of that, there are some coaches that I know, that I’m familiar with, that I think will best duplicate what we are trying to achieve offensively and defensively. There will definitely be some that I have worked with in the past. I don’t have a perfect answer for that. I’ve been here for 24 hours. That’s a top priority, to get the staff organized so you can duplicate your efforts and take care of the team, and just really start integrating what we want to teach and accomplish.
Q: Have you thought of bringing the class you taught to Mississippi State?
ML: “I’ll tell you that that would be fun. I taught a class last year and it was a blast. I taught a class with Senator Michael Baumgartner, a senator there in the state of Washington, who went to Harvard and used to work at the State Department. We taught some courses on insurgency and counterinsurgency, and he would come around practice all the time and sit through our meetings. I knew he was dedicated when he would sit though those film meetings, and although necessary, I, myself, was sorting out a way to make it go as fast as I could. He says, ‘You know, football and insurgency and counterinsurgency have a lot of similarities.’ So we taught a class, and it was ridiculously exciting for me. Our format was that Mike would talk about some of the principles of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and I would talk about football.
“[Turns to demonstrate breaking down film] You know, here would be football, and alright, we’re playing so and so. We have to fortify this. We have to take care of that. We can’t let them attack here. We’ve got to get them here. Once we’ve got them moving here, we’ve got to take them here. Boom! From my position, my part was relatively easy.
“We would have guest speakers in there. We had a guy, who was instrumental in busting the Shoe Bomber and the Boston Marathon bomber, from Homeland Security. We had an Air Force survival specialist, and people who had been in Afghanistan. What I really liked about the class, was I would learn a lot. I would sit there, and as soon as my part is over, it’ll get interesting. It was just captivating. I would leave with more questions than answers listening to the quality guys that came and spoke there. We had some of the past quarterbacks come and talk. Jack Thompson, who is a true hero of mine, was one of them. You might remember him as the ‘Throwin’ Samoan,’ and Jack was one of the very first island guys to ever play college football. He is a truly outstanding figure and example there at Washington State. His friendship I have always valued. He gave a very compelling speech about being a guy from a different culture and a different place and how he integrated himself in the state of Washington, with kind of the rural setting and all that stuff. You meet so many great people, and you can learn something from anybody. And these people, you can learn what to do and what not to do. So, I thought it was very good.”
Q: How do you perceive building the recruiting operation here?
ML: “I think they’ve done a lot of good things recruiting here. They’ve done a fine job, I think, recruiting here over the years. There’s a lot of things we’re going to have to maintain and continue and then elevate as we see opportunities. I think the most important element of recruiting is persistence and relationships. I think that those types of people are the best type of recruiters. I’ve been all over the country, and a guy that’s meaningful and has a sincere message can recruit. With that said, I think it’s important that we have some people that know the ropes around the area too. I would say a combination of all of it. First and foremost, I want good, quality people who are dedicated recruiters and then a mixture. We’ve got to have really strong guys who know X’s and O’s on the field, discipline, focus, and pulls the unit together. The most important thing is what you can do together. Sometimes people remember a key individual here or a key individual there, but that’s one thing I really felt like Gardner Minshew did the year before last when we won 11 games. People didn’t think we could even go to a bowl, but we won 11. He was a really good example of a guy who could elevate the people around him, and as that happens, everyone is stronger.”
Q: I’m just wondering if you’ve had a chance to revisit the visitor’s locker room and if it’s been upgraded to your expectations or not.
ML: “I did experience one disappointment when I came to Mississippi State. That would be that last night, I wanted to go down memory lane to that old visitor’s locker room. The artistry of which I truly admire; I mean that sincerely. Maybe my taste and view in football and sport is a little different than others. The old visitor’s locker room at Mississippi State was literally a work of art, and now it’s an office. As far as I’m concerned, that’s sacred ground because you always go to the visitor’s locker room, and obviously, if you’re the home team, you want to have the most advantageous visitor’s locker room you possibly can. It was utterly outstanding. Just the thought that went into it, the malicious intent. The ‘Hey, it’s tough to play on the road’ attitude. I counted them and if I recall, 37 nails in a concrete block, two toilets with no seats or lids and one roll of toilet paper in the middle. I was convinced that here I would have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of a locker room of that magnitude. I am disappointed. The thing with football is there are all these memories. There’s stuff you remember, you see, you remember all your life, and that’s one of them. Then, of course, we could get into SMU’s locker room and that’s an entirely other story, and I’m sure we’ll have time at some point to talk about that. I was slightly disappointed that the greatest visitor’s locker room of all time, is no more.”
Q: Do you anticipate looking into the transfer portal for quarterbacks this year and have you addressed that at all?
ML: “We’ll look at the transfer portal. It’s a new resource nowadays. It’s both positive and negative, but it can be a resource. I don’t think it can be ignored for any position. Football’s a competitive sport, and you’re always trying to upgrade. Of course, everybody, regardless of position, remembers somebody that played from whenever. But if you can upgrade, that’s the point of a team game. I know a lot of guys have aspirations to play in the National Football League and things like that. You’re in a competitive situation. For the overall good of the entire Mississippi State family, anywhere we can upgrade – if we can find somebody that can do that – that’s not a resource that can be ignored. So yes, we’ll look at the portal and see what’s out there at all positions. From my experience, a lot of times, the guys on the portal that are trying to get opportunities to play, maybe they are lower on the depth chart. Other times, sometimes, it’s a fit situation. I don’t think it can be ignored. It’s now a factor in recruiting and kind of a reality of our business. If you can upgrade from the portal, you need to do it.
Q: How exciting is it for you to be coaching in a division with other high-profile SEC coaches? How familiar are you with Lane [Kiffin] from your days back in the Pac-12 together?
ML: “I’ve known Lane for a long time; I’ve actually known him from when he was a GA for Pete Carrol. I’ve always liked Lane, and I know you’re not supposed to like anything from Ole Miss, but I’ve always liked him, kind of an entertaining guy. All those guys, I know, Nick and Jim Bo. This conference is loaded with quality coaches; that’s what makes it exciting. The fact of the matter is, I came from a conference loaded with quality coaches, too; not to diminish either conference. The resources vary, the opportunities vary. I like playing against crummy coaches better than really good ones, but as I look around these conferences, there’s no hiding from good coaches. You’re going to run into a good coach and you’re going to have to fight like crazy at every conference you’re in with regard to the quality of some of these coaches.
Q: In the past, you’ve done a ranking of different mascots. Where do the Bulldogs fall in terms of the Mike Leach’s ranking of mascots?
ML: “Oh geez. I have a really good joke that I’m not going to tell here. Well, I will tell you the punchline of the joke. The punchline was “That dog will bite you!” I’ll tell you this, they call them bulldogs for a reason, and they’re built for combat. Young kids, a lot of times, start out afraid of them, maybe for good reason. I know I’m scared of this one, so I’m glad I represent him. You don’t want to get bit by him, I’ll tell you that. That’s the dog version of a leather jacket. He’s like the Fonzie of bulldogs, so you don’t mess with him.
Q: What was your perception of the Egg Bowl coming into this? Here, Ole Miss is a big rivalry and a lot of people care about.
ML: “I think it’s huge, and I think everywhere you kind of have your rivalries. The better you get, the more rivalries you have because everyone wants to get a piece of you. We want to put out a quality enough product, and it will take a couple years, but where you consistently beat some teams to where everybody feels like they’re your rival. Ole Miss is right down the road, and Ole Miss is a place that Mississippi State has always taken a great deal of pride in beating. We want to elevate that, and it’s very important to all of us to win the Egg Bowl. The best way to play in that Egg Bowl is to get better every day.”
Q: What is your initial impression of the roster that you’re inheriting?
ML: “My initial impressions, and they are initial, is that they’re good, good solid football players. I knew an old school coach from Florida State and he used to say, ‘We’re looking for runners and hitters.’ Just looking, there are definitely some runners and hitters on this team. I’ve always been told I have reasonably big hands, but I shake hands with some of these guys and I feel like I’m 10. We’ve got some big hands and long levers, that’s football for arms. I’m excited about the chance to coach. I think a lot of the things that are exciting about coaching is discovery. Discovery of what someone is capable of because a lot of time they’re discovering that the same time you are. Everyone can work harder than they think they can, and everyone is a little better than they think they are. Another thing is, as players grow and develop from one day to the next, pretty soon they can do something they couldn’t do before and they didn’t think they’d be able to. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of discovery in this business and I think that’s what keeps you interested. I think addiction would be a better word because coaches do get addicted. All the time you see people retire, and it’s tough on them. Some of these guys get reeled back in.”
Q: Talk about discipline, your philosophy on that piece and what it means to you?
ML: “You know, it depends specifically on what happens, but the quick answer is accountability. Everybody needs to be accountable, and it has to be an equal level of accountability. I’ve always thought that, whatever is the undesired behavior, you have to make sure the desired behavior is easier. If you want guys to go to class, you have to make sure that not going to class becomes really inconvenient. Whether it’s having somebody do more or taking something away that they want, you just have to make it more convenient to do the thing that’s right. In the long run everybody wants the same thing, and I think that needs to be illustrated to them that everyone wants the same thing as far as being the best that they can possibly be. Down deep they want it. Following that path can be hard, but you have to make it inconvenient to stray from the path.”
Q: I saw that you went to George Sherman today, how would you rate your first 24 hours in Starkville?
ML: “Yeah, what do you think of this suit? [turns to show full outfit] Don’t get real used to that part of it. I think it’s outstanding. It’s what a great college town is. It’s all Bulldogs 24 hours a day, whether it’s football, academics or another sport. Universities always have a dimension where there’s a lot of things. You’ve got the Grant Library here, museums, exhibits, great lecturers and people who know something, I’m sure. Obviously, a lot of people have written some great books around here. I can tell you right now that [former baseball] Coach [Ron] Polk wrote a great book. There are some minds, in whatever interests they’re in, that are just outstanding. Anytime people are pursuing knowledge and thought, a lot of good things come out of it generally.
Q: What’s the most important factor for a coach when he’s deciding to take a new job, what would have been a deal breaker?
ML: “You’re always really conflicted because you create great relationships with your previous team, coaches and fans. The other side of it is you’re going to be dead in 100 years anyway, so you want to try to have as many experiences as you can. Everyone has goals and things they want to accomplish, so it is kind of a path. I guess in my case, I just wanted a different experience, although I’ll always cherish the experiences that I had previously. I think that the departure is the hardest. Even though you see it as captivating and a life lesson to have a different experience, go to a different place, have a different set of problems, do different things and have an opportunity to work with a different people, it’s a different part of the country and a part I’ve always loved, having got my masters in Daphne, Alabama at the United States Sports Academy and coached at Valdosta State and Kentucky. I just wanted a part of that, and I didn’t want to miss that. I can’t think of any huge deal breakers. You want to have the ability to develop your staff and players without a lot of distractions, and of course, that requires a lot of support from the university and administration. I’ve worked for some great presidents and athletic directors, and I truly believe that exists here. You can look around this campus at the facilities, this place is spotless. Some of you guys may need to get out more, this is one of the cleanest campuses I’ve seen in my life. I think that exhibits the pride and the focus of the administration to achieve big things. In working with them, I want to be a part of achieving big things too. Together with our players, players and coaches are the same, we’re partners. We want to put together the very best team that we can, one that we can all be proud of and continue to build on.
Q: It seems like in the past your name has come up when SEC jobs have opened, was being a coach in the SEC something you’ve always thought about?
ML: “I’ve always wanted a quality place where people are committed to winning. Just to be perfectly honest, the recruiting base here is hard to resist. A 300-mile radius of here just has outstanding recruits, and it all starts with the commitment on the high school level and the great job the high school coaches do here. The opportunity to put that together in a college town where there is a lot of energy and it’s meaningful to people every day and where you continue to strive and do it together is exciting. The other thing is, like I mentioned, I’ve always admired Mississippi State and their traditions. I don’t know how to describe it, there’s a unique independence that exists with Mississippi State that doesn’t exist other places. They are very direct, very down to earth and independent in the way they do their stuff. Everyone is not running around in their linen suits even when it’s their casual time. There’s a gritty toughness here too that I think exists and allows achievement and people to get things done.