Firing Leach saved Tech buyout money, but will cost it much more
Mike Leach's persona was defined by defiance, but he made Texas Tech relevant
Leach was ostensibly fired for mistreating a player, but that was just an excuse
It won't be easy for Tech to make a home-run hire, or keep angry fans happy
It's hard to imagine Mike Leach's 10-year tenure at Texas Tech ending in a more fittingly bizarre fashion. The law school grad sent his lawyer to a courthouse in hopes of getting his suspension lifted, only to come back with a termination letter.
Leach's one-of-a-kind persona was defined by defiance. Ultimately, it brought about his demise.
Leach, who went 84-43 and took his team to 10 straight bowl games, was ostensibly fired for his mistreatment of a player with a mild concussion, but don't be fooled. The allegations by Adam James' family were a convenient excuse for school president Guy Bailey and athletic director Gerald Myers to rid themselves of a coach who, despite bringing the school considerable prestige, never fully earned their respect and butted heads with the administration for years (most notably in last winter's contentious contract negotiations). When the school rushed to suspend him Monday, we all knew where this was headed.
By firing Leach "with cause" (we'll have to wait and see whether that part holds up in the inevitable lawsuit to come), the school will get out of paying him a potentially expensive buyout ($400,000 a year for the next four years). It may be about to lose far more than that, however, in canceled season tickets, diminished respect, and, quite possibly, many lost football games.
Not since Indiana fired controversial coach Bob Knight in 2000 has a major program abruptly cut ties with such a locally revered figure. (Ironic, considering Myers is the same guy who gave Knight his second chance.) The difference: Knight, by the end, had his share of detractors in Bloomington. He also had a long and well-documented history of degrading players and officials alike.
While Leach engendered minor controversies here and there throughout his tenure, there had been not a peep about any misconduct. But then came the allegations from prominent ex-football star and ESPN analyst Craig James claiming Leach had subjected his son to humiliating isolation on two occasions because of his injury. Disputes then ensued over the details and the motivation behind said allegations -- ex-players rushed to the coach's defense; James and his father were apparently bitter over his lack of playing time; the purported "electrical closet" turned out to be the size of a garage; a doctor swore Leach inflicted no harm -- but it was apparent from the beginning that Tech either wasn't buying it or wanted Leach gone regardless.
By some accounts, Leach could have avoided the whole fiasco simply by writing an apology to James, although his attorney, Ted Liggett, has denied the coach was given such an apportunity. In any case, Leach was never a conformist. This time it cost him his job.
Craig James said the family went public with the allegations to "protect all the fine young men involved in Tech football." Whether that meant getting Leach fired, we'll never know, but now that it's happened, the aftermath figures to be ugly.
Bailey and Myers now face the unenviable task of finding a new coach willing to follow in the footsteps of Tech's own Urban Meyer. While Leach had only one truly transcendent season in Lubbock (2008, when the Red Raiders started 10-0 and beat No. 1 Texas), the fact that his program remained as consistent as it did was remarkable considering the gap it faced in almost every department compared with divisional rivals Texas and Oklahoma. He did it with his uniquely innovative offense and ability to turn hidden gems like Wes Welker, Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell into record-setting stars.
Texas Tech never reached a BCS game under Leach, but it gained an unmistakable identity and untold national notoriety (even 60 Minutes came calling) thanks to Leach's offensive schemes and unusual personality. (Is there any football fan in America who doesn't know about Leach's affinity for pirates or improbable relationship with Donald Trump?)
His successor will step into an environment where the fan base is now angry and divided and presumably skeptical of anyone short of a home-run hire. Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes is a former Leach assistant who's also a legacy of Leach's similarly beloved predecessor, Spike Dykes. So, too, is Baylor coach Art Briles. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin didn't work for Leach, but runs his offense thanks to coordinator Dana Holgerson, a Leach descendent.
But all of them may be reticent to take the job out of either loyalty to Leach or alarm over the way he was treated. Myers, a basketball guy, doesn't exactly paint the picture of a man willing to go to bat for his football coach, and all sorts of dirty details about the school figure to come out in Leach's forthcoming lawsuit. Big-name coaches will likely think twice before signing on there. Just as Tech got Bob Knight, it may get a football Mike Davis.
The more intriguing question is, what becomes of Leach? Over the past few years, as his reputation finally morphed from that of a gimmick artist to a legitimately respected football coach, he sought desperately to get out of Lubbock, interviewing with Miami and Washington and entertaining other suitors. But no opportunity came to pass. To say he's an "oddball" is putting it mildly, which likely made for some "unique" interviews.
Now, with the stigma of a job-ending scandal -- one involving the particularly sensitive subject of concussions -- he's going to find it infinitely more difficult to land a cushy gig. Leach's ego would likely welcome the opportunity to take his system to the pros as a coordinator, but the button-down NFL would seem even less welcoming. More realistically, some college mid-major is going to luck out and get an accomplished coach on the cheap, but only if it's capable of viewing the James incident as an aberration and/or exaggeration.
As for Craig James, it's hard to imagine his own career will remain unscathed. While it's hard to criticize a father for looking out for his son, he's put himself in a very uncomfortable situation. An ESPN analyst -- a purportedly objective college football commentator -- just got a prominent college football coach fired. Will viewers take him seriously now when he critiques a coach's judgment? Will coaches of the games he's covering even speak with him? ESPN won't fire James for being a concerned parent, but it could certainly relegate him to Tuesday night MAC games for the foreseeable future.
He (and his poor son) would be wise to stay away from Lubbock. In the battle of Leach vs. James, there was little doubt as to which side Red Raiders fans fell. You'll be able to tell from all the empty seats in AT&T Jones Stadium next fall.
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