Mississippi State fires Zach Arnett as head coach in 1st season after succeeding the late Mike Leach

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FILE - Mississippi State coach Zach Arnett protests an official's call during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Mississippi State fired coach Zach Arnett on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, just 10 games into his first season on the job as the late Mike Leach's replacement.(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Mississippi State fired Zach Arnett on Monday after less than one season as head coach, just under a year since he took over the Bulldogs after the tragic passing of Mike Leach from a heart issue.

Mississippi State announced Arnett's dismissal on its athletics website. He leaves the university after a 5-6 record, including a 4-6 mark this season with the program tied for last in the Southeastern Conference West Division at 1-6.

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Senior offensive analyst Greg Knox, who has worked around the SEC for 28 of his 35 years of coaching, will serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2023 season. Mississippi State has games remaining against Southern Mississippi and rival Mississippi.

The university scheduled a news conference for Monday and said in its statement a search for a new coach will begin immediately.

Arnett, 37, was in the first of a four-year contract that paid $3 million annually plus incentives. The contract length was the maximum allowed under Mississippi state law.

Arnett began this season as the SEC’s youngest head coach and the first of Hispanic descent in league history, and vowed last summer to maintain the same intensity. Mississippi State couldn’t fulfill that goal with a front-loaded schedule that included ranked LSU and Alabama, and certainly not after record-setting quarterback Will Rogers’ injury.

Athletics director Zac Selmon said in a statement that he determined a change in leadership was needed for the football program to move forward and "position it for the highest level of success.” Selmon added that he has the utmost respect for Arnett and appreciated his effort but the on-field results weren't at the expected level.

Selmon also acknowledged the challenging situation Arnett faced last December in taking over the Bulldogs after the death of Leach. Arnett had been defensive coordinator during Leach's two-years-plus tenure at the school and had built it into one of the SEC's toughest defensive units.

“There is no question that he has made a positive impact on the lives of our student-athletes during his time here," Selmon said. “We are grateful for his contributions to Mississippi State and wish him the very best both personally and professionally.”

After several seasons of exciting, high-octane offense with the Air Raid under Leach, the Bulldogs haven’t been nearly as proficient since switching to a pro-style scheme under Kevin Barbay. They rank last in the SEC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and next to last in total offense (325.8 yards).

They were thumped 51-10 by Texas A&M on Saturday in what turned out to be Jimbo Fisher’s finale in College Station. Fisher was fired on Sunday.

Mississippi State has scored 33 combined points in its last four games, one of which was a 7-3 victory at Arkansas.

Rogers missed those four games with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. The Bulldogs started true freshman Chris Parson at Texas A&M before turning to Mike Wright.

Defensively, the Bulldogs entered last weekend ranked 10th in the league at 362 yards allowed per game.

Shocking as in-season firings might seem, next month's signing period has resulted in schools taking a more aggressive approach. Consider how Mississippi State quickly promoted Arnett to interim coach and then head coach three days after Leach died on Dec. 12 to maintain continuity within the program and convey stability on the recruiting trail.

Arnett eventually guided the Bulldogs to a 19-10 ReliaQuest Bowl victory over Illinois to cap a 9-4 season. That game featured multiple tributes to Leach and demonstrated Arnett’s impact as defensive coordinator.


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