STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — No. 24 Mississippi State will be playing in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois on Jan. 2 in Tampa, Florida.
That is one of the few solid things around the football program at the moment following the sudden death of coach Mike Leach on Monday night in Jackson, Mississippi, with what the school said were complications from a heart condition. The third-year coach was 61.
“Our players are excited about going to the ReliaQuest Bowl and they will play in honor of Coach Leach,” Mississippi State interim athletic director Bracky Brett told The Associated Press. “They want to finish the job that they started together and they know that’s exactly what Mike would want them to do.”
Leach’s death came as his Bulldogs (8-4) look to follow up their most successful season during his tenure with a victory in the bowl game.
Brett said bowl practices started last week and the players were scheduled to have a few days off while the coaches recruited before getting back together later this week.
The team is scheduled to travel to Tampa on Dec. 27.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett will run the team for now, but Mississippi State is facing a potential search for a new coach with the annual signing day for recruits coming up next week and the possibility that some of its players will join the many already in the transfer portal.
On top of that, MSU is already looking for a permanent athletic director. Brett is serving in an interim role since John Cohen left to become AD at Auburn.
Brett said he would defer any questions on the search for new athletic director and whether a national search would be conducted for a new football coach to Mississippi State President Mark Keenum.
“I’ve told the president and I am here as long as he needs me to be here,” Brett said.
An email sent to a Mississippi State spokesman requesting comment from Keenum was not immediately returned.
“We’re fortunate to have an outstanding coach and person like Zach Arnett, who has stepped up in leading our football program right now and I think that our program and our athletes are in great hands with coach Arnett,” Brett said. “What happens next will be up to the president to determine the timeline for both positions.”
It has already been a whirlwind year of hiring for Mississippi State. Cohen this spring hired Chris Jans and Sam Purcell to guide the men’s and women’s basketball programs, respectively.
It will just be done with a heavier heart following the stunning death of a successful, charismatic coach who was continuing his rebuilding process in the small college town known fondly as Stark Vegas.
“Mike’s death also underscores the fragility and uncertainty of our lives,” Keenum said in statement. “Three weeks ago, Mike and I were together in the locker room celebrating a hard-fought victory (in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss) in Oxford.”
Brett said Mississippi State would hold a memorial for Leach on campus, but when was still be to determined. He said the school first wanted to consult with Leach’s relatives and allow them to make their own arrangements for services first.
For now, the Bulldogs can look forward to the bowl game at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, which is home the NFL’s Buccaneers and a pirate ship — something Leach no doubt would have enjoyed given his appreciation of pirates.
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