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After eight seasons, Mike Leach leaving Washington State to coach at Mississippi State

Mike Leach was at his vacation home in Key West, Florida, nine years ago when Bill Moos convinced him to return to football and become the next coach at Washington State.

So it figures that’s also where Leach was stationed this week when another school finally lured him away from the Cougars – eight years, 55 wins, six bowl appearances and a multitude of Pac-12 Conference passing records later.

Consider it the end of the Air Raid era at Washington State.

Leach’s flirtation with the SEC – something that began two years ago when Leach was in line to take the vacant job at Tennessee – finally culminated early Thursday afternoon when the Washington State coach was officially hired to be the next coach at Mississippi State.

The Spokesman-Review confirmed a report from Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports stating Leach and Mississippi State had agreed on a deal just one day after it was reported the two parties met at the coach’s home in Key West for an interview.

Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen tweeted a picture of Leach signing a contract at 11:15 a.m. PT, writing “The deal is done. See you back at StarkVegas at Bryan Field at 3:15 p.m. with @Coach_Leach! #HailState”

The school announced Leach’s hire in a news release before noon and confirmed the school would announce its new coach at a 9 a.m. PT news conference on Friday at the Leo Seal Jr. Hall Football Complex. The news conference will be streamed live via the SEC Network.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs,” Leach said. “I loved Washington State, but I am excited for the next chapter in the SEC. It’s a privilege to be a part of the MSU family, and we look forward to getting down to Starkville shortly.”

WSU Director of Athletics Pat Chun kept in touch with Leach throughout the week and spoke on the phone with the coach Thursday morning.

“We actually talked a couple days ago and actually I left that conversation feeling we were in good shape,” Chun said in a news conference Thursday. “ He called me this morning and told me he accepted the job, so it was a bittersweet phone call. I’ve enjoyed working with Mike, happy he’s able to take his career in a direction he wants to go to.”

Leach was thought to be a candidate for the position in Starkville when the Bulldogs fired coach Joe Moorhead on the heels of a 6-7 season that saw the Bulldogs lose 38-28 to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. Former Washington coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was also considered to be a front-runner for the job.

In order to snag Leach, Mississippi State was required to spend $2.25 million – the total of the coach’s buyout at WSU. Leach’s contract was extended in December, prolonging what essentially was a five-year rolling contract for the coach. Had he stayed in Pullman through the 2020 football season, Leach would’ve earned a one-time retention bonus of $750,000.

“I believe coach Leach has left us in great shape,” Chun said. “Based on what he took over and what’s here now, this is not a rebuild anymore at Washington State. We will and need to go find the right person that’s going to add to this program.”

Chun said a coaching search would begin immediately, but indicated the school won’t follow a specific timeline when it comes to hiring Leach’s replacement.

“No matter what time of year, you’ve got to get this thing right,” he said. “Whether you’re competing, I would say relative to what we’ve done in some past searches, we consciously try to beat the market on some things. … That variable probably isn’t as active right now, because I think there’s only other Power Five job open in Baylor right now. That won’t factor into the pace in which we move, but at the end of the day, we’re going to try to get this done at an appropriate pace.”

As for what the Bulldogs are getting? Leach, a Cody, Wyoming, native, is an offensive genius who was responsible for popularizing the Air Raid offense – a high-volume passing system the coach invented with Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Throughout his career, Leach has used his potent offensive scheme to overachieve at Power Five programs with less pageantry and fewer resources than his own – Texas Tech of the Big 12 and WSU of the Pac-12. Many think Leach will able to use the same formula to win at Mississippi State, which usually takes a backseat to Alabama, LSU and Auburn in the SEC West.

There’s enough evidence to suggest Leach could perform a similar transformation in Starkville.

In eight seasons at WSU, Leach notched 55 wins – third-most by a coach in program history – and took the Cougars to six bowl games. Leach also set a school record by taking WSU to four straight bowls, then extended that record in 2019 when he took the Cougars to the Cheez-It Bowl, losing 31-21 to Air Force.

Leach, who was hired by former athletic director Bill Moos in 2011 to replace Paul Wulff, led the Cougars out of the Pac-12 cellar after the program won just nine games in the four years prior to his arrival. The former Texas Tech coach broke a nine-year postseason hiatus in 2013 when the Cougars qualified for the New Mexico Bowl, and WSU won at least eight games in four consecutive years, from 2015-18.

The Leach era in Pullman reached its peak in 2018 when the Cougars were projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North but wound up winning a program-record 11 games with graduate transfer quarterback and current Jacksonville Jaguars starter Gardner Minshew. Leach was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year and Minshew Offensive Player of the Year as the Cougars came an Apple Cup win short of winning the Pac-12 North before defeating Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl.

WSU finished with a 55-47 record during Leach’s tenure, including a 43-22 record over the last five years.

One of Leach’s only shortcomings at WSU was his record against Washington in the Apple Cup. The Cougars beat the Huskies in an overtime thriller in 2012, but Leach was outcoached by Chris Petersen in the next seven rivalry games, losing each of those by an average margin of 21.2 points. UW was often the obstacle between WSU and the school’s first Pac-12 North title, beating the Cougars in 2016, ’17 and ’18 to keep Leach out of the conference championship game.

Still, those losses were largely overshadowed by Leach’s success against other opponents in the North division. The Cougars won four straight games against Oregon before losing to the eventual Rose Bowl champions by just two points in Eugene this season, and WSU secured a fourth straight win over Stanford, soundly beating the Cardinal 49-22 in Pullman in November. Leach also managed to string together six consecutive wins over Oregon State.

Leach’s quarterbacks at WSU broke a handful of conference passing records throughout the coach’s time in Pullman. Connor Halliday set the league record for yards in a single game when he threw for 734 in a 2014 loss to California while Anthony Gordon set the single season mark, jumping Minshew when he threw for 5,779 yards for the Cougars this season. Gordon also set the conference mark for touchdown passes in a single game when he tossed nine in a 67-63 loss to UCLA. The Pac-12 mark for career passing yards is also held by a WSU QB, Luke Falk, who threw for 14,481 from 2014-17.

Leach’s most recent record-setting QB delivered a farewell wish to the coach on Twitter Thursday.

“Crazy day on the Palouse…” Gordon wrote. “Loved every minute of playing for you, coach! Wish you nothing but the best as you take on a new challenge in the SEC.”