TAMPA, Fla. – It’s been three weeks since the world lost a national treasure. Former Texas Tech University (TTU) head coach and recent Mississippi State University (MSU) head coach, Mike Leach, passed away on Dec. 12 due to heart complications. He was 61.

“Anytime something tragic happens, it’s best to go through with those you’re closest to,” said Zach Arnett, who took over as MSU’s head coach after Leach died. “That’s what a football team has. That’s what a locker room has. It’s a family.”

Despite Leach’s death, the team decided to play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa, Florida on Monday.

“Mike Leach has been leading this program for three years, and he was out there leading us today,” Arnett said.

Just like TTU did in the Texas Bowl last week, MSU lined up in Air Raid formation on the first play from scrimmage. Illinois declined the delay of game penalty.

“I cannot thank Coach Bielema and his staff enough for being okay,” Arnett said. “Obviously, we spoke leading up to the game about ‘hey, this is an opportunity to honor Coach Leach one of his unique formations,’ and they were 100% all in on it. It just created an opportunity, and a moment to honor Coach Leach’s legacy on the game of football.”

Keith Coble is on the faculty at MSU. He was there to witness the matchup and said it was a sight to see.

“It made this a special day today to play this game,” Coble said. “My sense was that the players really wanted to win this one for Coach Leach.”

Some notable ways Leach was honored? The Bulldogs wore pirate decals on their helmets, his name was on the 25-yard line at Raymond James Stadium, MSU’s Maroon Band spelled out ‘Leach’ during their halftime performance and his portrait sat aboard the legendary, 100-foot-long, Tampa Bay Buccaneers pirate ship.

“I’ve been amazed by the outpouring of heartfelt relationships with Coach Leach,” Coble said. “We were just glad to be a part of that.” 

The Bulldogs struggled through the first three quarters without the pirate, but ultimately, a 16-point fourth quarter – including a 60-yard scoop-and-score to end the game – would seal the deal for MSU’s 19-10 victory over Illinois.

“They were locked in during football time, which is what was preached under Coach Leach,” Arnett said. “They went out there and they played, they competed and executed, and we left with a win.”

With the bowl game win, MSU finished the season with a 9-4 record. This was the ninth time in school history the Bulldogs have earned nine or more victories in a season. 

Leach was 158-107 in 21 seasons at TTU (2000-09), Washington State University (2012-19) and MSU (2020-22).

In 2018, Leach was the American Football Coaches Association national coach of the year. His 158 career wins were the second-most among active SEC coaches and the fifth-most among active Power 5 coaches this season.

Many are hoping the National Football Foundation makes an exception for Leach to be honored in the College Football Hall of Fame. To be inducted, coaches must have 10 years of head coaching experience, 100 victories and a winning percentage of 60%. Leach’s tenure ended with a .596 winning percentage – just .004% short of the winning mark.