NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Zach Arnett is not only the lone rookie among the Southeastern Conference’s 14 coaches, he’s also the youngest at 36 along with being the first of Hispanic descent in the league’s history.
He’s been around the league long enough to know Tuesday that he broke the standard set by his former boss and predecessor at Mississippi State. Arnett not only wore a tie to talk to reporters, he also used a lot more than the seven words Mike Leach used in his opening remarks a year ago at SEC media days.
“I’ve already said too much, and that combined with wearing a tie, I’m sure I’ve disappointed him a little bit here today,” Arnett said. “In recognition of his tremendous impact and influence not only on the game of football but on myself, I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet.”
Arnett was named head coach in December soon after Leach died unexpectedly from a heart condition. He then coached the Bulldogs to a bowl victory over Illinois in January. Arnett and the Bulldogs face high expectations even without the coach known as the Pirate after going 9-4 last season.
That was the fourth time in the past nine years Mississippi State has won nine or more games. Arnett made clear he wants to continue the identity established by Leach as being “tough, hard-nosed, disciplined.”
So bring the lunch box and hard hat. The physical game Leach liked isn’t going anywhere.
“When I first interviewed with him and talked to him about what he thinks are the important things about developing a winning football program, it’s not talking about scheme,” Arnett said. “It’s all about the effort with which you play, the physicality and the tenacity.”
Arnett was the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator during Leach’s three seasons in Starkville. As Arnett prepares for his first full season as a head coach, he is relying on lessons left behind by his larger-than-life predecessor.
“Simply put, I look at it as a blessing,” Arnett said. “I got to spend three years under, in my opinion is a unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer. I mean, his fingerprints and impact on the game of football are evident throughout particularly offensive play in modern football.”
GUESS WHO’S BACK
The SEC has one other coach going into his first year at a new school. This may be Hugh Freeze’s first season at Auburn, but he’s back in a league where he coached Mississippi starting in 2012 before resigning in July 2017 following an investigation into his personal conduct.
“It’s good to be back,” said Freeze, who went 34-15 with three bowl wins the past four seasons at Liberty,
Freeze isn’t the first coach to coach at two different SEC schools. Steve Spurrier coached at Florida, then South Carolina. Nick Saban won a national title at LSU before his brief stint in the NFL and has dominated since taking over Alabama.
Now Freeze is the third different coach who once worked at Arkansas State to run Auburn. He said Tuesday when he left Ole Miss, he would’ve said no to ever getting a chance to coach in the SEC again.
“How a person responds to those and reacts to those probably tells you more about them than the successes do,” Freeze said.
Beating Arkansas, BYU, Virginia Tech and Syracuse while at Liberty got Freeze to thinking he might get a Power Five opportunity again. Freeze also talked with former Auburn and Arkansas State coaches Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin about Auburn.
“Obviously, Gus is a dear friend of mine who I talked with about a lot of things, and he’s just so complimentary of Auburn and the people and the things that can happen there,” Freeze said.
The Tigers went 5-7 last season, including 2-6 in SEC play. They did not receive a bowl invitation for the first time since 2012 and fired Harsin after less than two seasons. Freeze has qualified for eight bowl games in 10 seasons as a head coach with Ole Miss, Liberty and Arkansas State.
“I see no reason why Auburn shouldn’t be one of the upper half and competing every year,” Freeze said of his expectations. “Look, if you’re in the upper half of this conference, you get a break here or there, you’re in the playoffs. Then you’ve got a real chance. That’s where I see Auburn.”
SEC CONSTRUCTION ZONE
Vanderbilt opens the season Aug. 26 hosting Hawaii, and the end zones of the Commodores’ football stadium are construction zones.
Renovations are under way at FirstBank Stadium on campus as part of a project to modernize both football and basketball facilities. FirstBank Stadium, the smallest football stadium in the SEC, has not undergone major renovations since 1981.
“A year from now, two years from now, we’ll have a really tough place to come and play for an opponent,” said Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea, who is entering his third season at his alma mater.
For now, there are a lot of closed roads, dirt and construction equipment. But Lea said the private university’s commitment to improve its athletic facilities will pay dividends in recruiting.
“It gives us the landscape to paint the picture of what the future will be, and in short order we’ll be talking about Vanderbilt football with cutting-edge facilities and best-in-class resources,” Lea said. “When has that ever been said?”
Cover Photo: Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)