Mississippi State will play in ReliaQuest Bowl vs. Illinois despite death of Mike Leach

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Mississippi State will play Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl next month, despite the death of their head coach Mike Leach this week. Bracky Brett, interim athletic director for Mississippi State, confirmed the decision to ESPN on Tuesday. 

Leach died Monday due to complications from a heart condition. He was 61. 

Brett said the players were “100% behind playing this bowl game” and following the expectations of Leach, a coach known for his tenacious competitiveness and entertaining presence. 

“We all know that’s what Coach Leach would want, and it’s what we should do,” Brett said.

Leach inherited a Mississippi State program that had gone 6-7 the year before. Under Leach’s leadership, the Bulldogs went 19-17 through three seasons and were slated against the 8-4 Illini. 

ESPN also reported that Mississippi State players will return to campus on Thursday and partake in a complete bowl game practice on Friday.

The ReliaQuest Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 2 at Raymond James Stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The upper deck of the stadium features a pirate ship, fitting to honor Leach, who was known to have an affinity for pirates and would frequently weave the lessons of piracy into his team messages.

Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett took over Leach’s responsibilities on Sunday when the coach was hospitalized. He will retain that role in the bowl game. 

This will mark the first that these two teams have met since 1980. They previously played each other twice before -- in 1923 and 1980 – with each school picking up a win to split the series.

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