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Arnett’s move to Ole Miss another...

Arnett’s move to Ole Miss another reminder of what fans don’t like to admit

By: Parrish Alford - March 12, 2024

Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett against Illinois during the first half of the ReliaQuest Bowl NCAA college football game Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

  • Coaches are all about beating the rival when they’re in the moment, but loyalty follows the paycheck.

It was mentioned to me last week that Lane Kiffin is playing chess while others play checkers.

I’m not sure if that’s the case. That sounds like there should be a championship trophy on campus with Kiffin’s fingerprints, and the Golden Egg doesn’t count for the chess discussion.

But in Mississippi the Egg Bowl counts in many other ways.

A rivalry series known for violent outbursts and other occasional displays of unsportsmanlike behavior took a strange turn last week when Kiffin hired a former Mississippi State coach.

Not a former assistant coach and not a coach from the distant past.

Kiffin added last year’s Bulldogs head coach, Zach Arnett, as a defensive analyst.

A series that has no trouble creating drama grabbed some spotlight in the news cycle in March. That’s impressive.

Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin speaks during SEC Media Days, Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

For Kiffin, the benefit is obvious.

For Arnett, the landing spot is peculiar.

There have been the occasional assistant coaches to draw paychecks from each school.

State’s current head coach is a perfect example. Jeff Lebby was Kiffin’s offensive coordinator at Ole Miss and had a successful run there with former Rebels quarterback Matt Corral.

Kiffin recently employed defensive coaches Deke Adams and Terrell Buckley who were previously on staff together at Mississippi State.

Egg Bowl historians will recall Bob Tyler, a key Ole Miss assistant under John Vaught, who eventually became head coach at Mississippi State.

But that journey took three years and included a 1971 layover in Tuscaloosa, and before Tyler became head coach at State he served for a year as offensive coordinator under Charles Shira.

There’s a whole different time frame here. Arnett was head coach at State just four months ago.

He never got the chance to oppose Kiffin as head coach against head coach. He was let go by State on Nov. 13, and Greg Knox was installed for the last two games including the Egg Bowl, a 17-7 Rebels win in Starkville.

But Arnett was in charge of State’s defense in 2022 when Kiffin never figured it out. 

In a 24-22 Bulldogs victory, Mike Leach’s only Egg Bowl win, the Bulldogs twice forced the Rebels to kick short field goals.

Ole Miss had a chance to extend play when it got its second touchdown of the game, a 23-yard pass from Jaxson Dart to Dayton Wade with 1:25 left, but the shovel pass for the tie failed.

Along the way, Quinshon Judkins was mostly contained. He rushed for 91 yards but averaged 4.1 per carry and never got in the end zone.

Zach Evans, the second part of a prolific run game, was a non-factor with zero yards on five carries.

Dart passed for 250 yards but averaged just 6.6 yards per completion. He didn’t throw an interception but also didn’t throw a touchdown pass.

Arnett was not on the sideline for last year’s Egg Bowl, and while the win is the most important thing, 17 points was hardly inspiring.

Defense wasn’t the Bulldogs’ main problem last year, but the better SEC teams – LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Texas A&M – had handled them much more easily.

It seems odd that Arnett, in moving on from Mississippi State, considered Ole Miss his best option to stay part of college football.

Timing is often a part of odd.

Arnett has land, a nice house and a family in Starkville.

There are likely buyout considerations in play too. State owed Arnett around $4 million at the time of his firing, ESPN reported.

It’s not odd that Kiffin would pursue him.

He gets a proven defensive mind and first dibs on a solid coordinator candidate should Pete Golding decide he needs to move on. If that situation arises having Arnett on staff – potentially – could be an insurance policy on defensive stability.

State will run a vastly different offense under Lebby. Video from Arnett’s games won’t have much schematic value, but he will offer intricate knowledge of much of State’s roster and what makes those players tick.

That knowledge won’t be in play for long the way rosters turn over in the Transfer Portal Era, but it will be helpful this fall.

Taunting his rival without even getting on social media is just a bonus in all of this for Kiffin.

Arnett’s move is another reminder of what fans don’t like to admit. 

Coaches are all about beating the rival when they’re in the moment, but loyalty follows the paycheck.

About the Author(s)
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Parrish Alford

Parrish Alford brings the cumulative wisdom that comes from three decades of covering Mississippi sports to Magnolia Tribune. His outstanding contributions to sports reporting in the state have twice been recognized with Sports Writer of the Year awards. Alford currently serves as the associate editor of American Family News.