Zach Arnett took a seat in his MSU office rocking atypical attire. At least it was atypical for him. A maroon blazer and a white dress shirt was the fit on this Monday afternoon, wherein he had multiple media appearances, including an SEC Network interview on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” The new face of MSU is taking that part of the job seriously, as evidenced by the diet plan he’s on (which he insists he’s enjoying). Arnett’s version of a fresh haircut is taking his 1/2-inch trimmers and shaving his head, which doesn’t have a receding hairline at age 36.

“Our (Sports Information Director) would like me to grow some hair and get the new slick haircut that’s required for head coaches,” Arnett told SDS recently.

But even if Arnett’s hair didn’t grow out like, as he said, “a Chia Pet,” he maintained that he doesn’t have time for styling (he did admit his preferred non-buzzed look would be reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s in the movie “Fury”). He doesn’t have time or patience for TV shows, either. He’s a New Mexico native and former New Mexico linebacker who has never seen an episode of the wildly popular New Mexico-based TV show “Breaking Bad.” Unlike his predecessor, the late Mike Leach, Arnett doesn’t possess an affinity for binge-watching shows on Netflix.

A cliché film junkie? Sure, you can call Arnett that, among other things. A husband. A father of 2. A self-deprecating, 3-3-5-loving, post-victory Wild Turkey-drinking, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.

Arnett has plenty of time to learn the cosmetic aspects of being a head coach. It’s a role that he earned following an in-house promotion in the wake of Leach’s death in December. Recently hired Arizona State head coach Kenny Dillingham is the only Power 5 head coach younger than the new head man in Starkville.

Another thing you could call Arnett? Self-aware. He knows that you’re not supposed to become a Power 5 head coach having only coached professionally at 2 programs.

“I feel guilty talking about my coaching history,” Arnett said. “To really only work in 2 places and to now be a head coach, I have guilt over it.”

Three years as Leach’s defensive coordinator were preceded by 9 working his way up the defensive staff at San Diego State with his former college coach, Rocky Long. It’s Long who taught him the ways of the 3-3-5 defense, which features 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs. Arnett learned it as a linebacker on Long’s New Mexico teams from 2005-08 and he mastered it as an assistant at San Diego State from 2011-19. “I haven’t been exposed to anything else,” Arnett said.

Rooted in an aggressive blitzing style, “conservative” isn’t a word you’ll hear associated with the 3-3-5. It can scare off offensive-minded head coaches. When Leach was at Washington State, he spoke to Arnett about potentially filling a defensive coordinator vacancy. Ultimately, Arnett didn’t get the job but he conversed with Leach several times.

Following a 2019 season in which Arnett led the No. 2 scoring defense in FBS, he was finally set to leave the familiar surroundings of Long at San Diego State. Arnett accepted the Syracuse defensive coordinator job to have total control of a defense without his mentor for the first time.

But when Leach came calling roughly 2 weeks later with an opportunity to be his first defensive coordinator at MSU, Arnett was intrigued. He wanted to make sure that Leach would embrace that high-risk nature of the base defense and allow it to complement his 1-of-1, high-volume passing version of the Air Raid offense. Arnett came away convinced that his defensive philosophy was seen as a positive by Leach, though he wasn’t the only potential target who could operate it.

“I think he wanted Coach Long,” Arnett admitted. “There was probably a dozen or so other guys that he would’ve preferred to have, but fortunately, for one reason or another, it got all the way down the list somewhere in the high teens or 20s and it got to me. I was not about ready to pass up that opportunity.”

Self-deprecating indeed.

It wasn’t that long ago that Arnett made the bold decision to pass up the opportunity to play college baseball at New Mexico. Never mind the fact that he hit .477 with 20 home runs and 121 RBIs in high school. Ask Arnett about those numbers and you’ll get another self-deprecating answer.

“If you grow up playing baseball in Albuquerque,” Arnett said, “you can hit an infield pop fly that might carry for a home run with the way the wind blows sometimes in the spring.”

Arnett might’ve benefited from a convenient East-to-West wind at La Cueva High School (N.M.) but the productive high school catcher was set to pursue a college career on the diamond instead of the gridiron heading into the summer of his freshman year. But on 4th of July weekend, New Mexico had a football scholarship open after a player backed out just ahead of fall camp. Football was Arnett’s first love … and it also offered a full scholarship compared to a partial scholarship for baseball. Decision made.

Could he have worked his way up to the professional ranks in baseball?

“No chance,” Arnett said. “I was 5-9, below average speed, below average arm. I don’t think my future was in baseball any more than it was in football to be a role player and then move on to coaching afterward.”

Fifteen years after Arnett hung up his football cleats, he’s embracing all the elements of his new role. Responsibilities shifted. Delegating is part of the job.

Leading up to the ReliaQuest Bowl, Arnett realized that after being named head coach, he didn’t have enough time to game plan for Illinois’ offense. He handed defensive play-calling duties over to linebackers coach Matt Brock and relayed defensive signals like he usually did. MSU defensive captain Jett Johnson didn’t even realize that it was Brock, not Arnett, calling plays until the 4th quarter. Three days after MSU held Illinois to 10 points in the bowl victory, Brock got Arnett’s old job as MSU defensive coordinator. Just like in the bowl game, Brock will be MSU’s defensive play-caller.

When Arnett went searching for his new offensive play-caller, he didn’t just go out searching for a coach with similar philosophies to Leach. Like his predecessor, Arnett entertained the possibility of several schemes. It helped that he had the full support of 3-year starting quarterback Will Rogers, who affirmed to his new head coach that he was staying for another year, and that he wouldn’t hit the transfer portal if he didn’t like the offensive coordinator hire.

In stepped Kevin Barbay, who checked Arnett’s all-important “efficiency” box after running an Appalachian State offense that ranked:

  • No. 18 in yards/pass attempt
  • No. 21 in yards/rush
  • No. 22 in yards/play
  • No. 23 in scoring
  • No. 26 in yards/game

Another box that Barbay checked for Arnett? Little to no hair. Seven of his 10 on-field assistants are bald or have shaved heads, just like Arnett, who noticed his accidental trend.

“I’m worried,” Arnett said. “Psychologists talk about implicit bias ….”

Whether it was going through the interview process to assemble his new staff or making a defensive adjustment at a Tuesday practice during his time as an assistant, Arnett has had plenty of time to observe and establish his values. Learning from 2 coaches — Arnett believes Long and Leach should be College Football Hall of Famers — taught him a valuable lesson.

“The biggest thing I figured out was I need to stop talking so much and listen,” Arnett said. “There’s so much that you can learn when you just shut up and listen.”

On Arnett’s desk is a document that Leach gives all of his assistants when they’re hired. It’s not so much Xs and Os as it is philosophical. After all, we’re talking about Leach, not Sean McVay. Loaded in this document are nuggets that Arnett finds himself harking back to.

“As a defensive coordinator, it was ‘never take counsel of your fears.’ Meaning don’t second-guess yourself. If it’s time to go blitz ‘em, go blitz ‘em,” Arnett said. “Now that turned out to be the wrong advice on a few calls, but it was the right advice more often than not. I’ll remember that for as long as I’m a coach.”

Now isn’t the time for Arnett to second-guess himself. Atypical circumstances or not, he got his first head coaching gig after improving MSU’s defense each year he was in Starkville. Irrelevant is the fact that there are assistants in their mid-20s who are more well-traveled than Arnett.

He’s different, and not just because he can’t identify a single character from “The Office” or any other well-known TV show. Arnett is MSU’s first defensive-minded head coach since Jackie Sherrill. It was Sherrill who led MSU to its first and only SEC Championship appearance back in 1998. Twenty-five years later, Arnett would love nothing more than to establish that as the new standard for a program in search of its second winning record in SEC play in the 21st century.

There’s Wild Turkey waiting to be poured.