Why won't anyone hire Mike Leach?
Of 21 college football head coaching vacancies, Mike Leach was contacted for one
The events surrounding his dismissal supersede his coaching accomplishments
Texas Tech's alltime winningest coach wants another chance to lead a program
As soon as Minnesota fired coach Tim Brewster on Oct. 17, Mike Leach's name began circulating as his potential replacement, a possibility that left many Gophers fans salivating. But Minnesota never called the former Texas Tech coach. It wound up hiring Jerry Kill of Northern Illinois.
Miami never called, either. The school had interviewed Leach four years earlier for the opening that eventually went to Randy Shannon, and upon Shannon's dismissal, Leach was mentioned as one of the names "at the top of UM's wish list." But there would be no interview this time. The job went instead to Temple's Al Golden.
Leach, the eccentric 49-year-old offensive guru and Texas Tech's alltime winningest coach, figured to be one of the hottest names on the market during the recently concluded coaching carousel. Instead, of the 21 FBS schools that changed coaches, only one -- Maryland -- contacted him. Leach was considered the prohibitive favorite there and came to campus for an interview. But in a stunning 11th-hour move, the school opted instead for Connecticut's Randy Edsall, 74-70 during his time in Storrs, over Leach, 84-43 with 10 straight bowl appearances during his 10-year tenure in Lubbock.
Appearing in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this month before the BCS National Championship Game, where he broadcast his Sirius XM radio show for several days, Leach -- looking tanner and trimmer than during his days in Lubbock -- sounded upbeat about his coaching future during a 40-minute interview. He was surprised, however, by recent events.
"I didn't really have a preconceived notion about [the job market]," said the current Key West, Fla., resident. "But I guess a lot of the hires have surprised people. A lot of times the folks that are looking for people, they've never really done a job search."
Few would dispute Leach's coaching acumen, primarily his reputation as an innovator of the passing game. Under Leach, the Red Raiders posted eight straight seasons with eight or more wins, as many as they had in the previous half-century, and won as many bowl games (five) as they had in the program's history. His 2008 team won 11 games and rose as high as No. 2 in the polls following a memorable upset of top-ranked Texas. And as Leach points out, his program had the highest graduation rate (79 percent) of any public school in the country at the time of his ouster.
But the lack of interest among potential employers seems to indicate that the controversial events surrounding his dismissal -- his "baggage," as one might call it -- supersede his coaching accomplishments in many schools' eyes. The same guy who only a couple of years ago garnered profiles from 60 Minutes and The New York Times Magazine is now considered a "tough sell."
"When you're looking for the promise of a new day, you don't want to have to account for those cloudy days from years past," said a senior athletic administrator whose BCS-conference school had a recent opening but never considered Leach. "Wherever he is hired, it's going to be difficult not to have that opening press conference and those opening profiles include what happened at Texas Tech."
What exactly happened at Texas Tech depends on which side's version of events you believe -- the university's or Leach's.
On Dec. 30, 2009, Texas Tech fired Leach for "a defiant act of insubordination" when he challenged his suspension over allegations he mistreated a player, receiver Adam James, who was diagnosed with a concussion. Reports at the time claimed Leach twice ordered James -- the son of ESPN analyst Craig James -- be separated from the team while unable to practice, the first time in an equipment shed, the second in an electrical closet. A p.r. firm hired by James' family posted a cell-phone video on YouTube that the player shot of himself inside a dark room.
Leach claimed to be upset at the player's attitude (Leach says James showed up late to practice wearing a backward cap and sunglasses) and told his trainer only to escort James to a "dark place" due to a concussed player's sensitivity to light. Leach told media that Adam James was a malcontent with previous disciplinary problems and that Craig James had tried to coerce his staff into giving Adam more playing time. It was later revealed that Craig James told board members he wanted Leach fired.
Leach subsequently filed a wrongful termination suit against Texas Tech that is still pending. Among the evidence presented is e-mail correspondence between school chancellor Kent Hance and two board of regents members (dating back to their contentious contract negotiations with Leach's agents a year earlier) that insinuate the school had been looking to fire him.
Leach's complaint cites an e-mail sent by university regent Jerry Turner the day after Leach signed his new contract in February 2009 advising two board members "that they should terminate Leach on November 30, 2009 to avoid playing his $800,000 bonus" due December 31. Leach was fired Dec. 30. Another e-mail from board member Larry Anders to Hance on Dec. 27 urges the chancellor not to close their investigation into the James matter. "I don't want to eliminate our ability to use this to our advantage should we determine to use it to terminate Leach," he said.
Leach has filed a separate lawsuit against ESPN, which initially reported Adam James' allegations, and Spaeth Communications, which released the YouTube video, for slander and libel.
Leach admitted that the Texas Tech lawsuit has "limited my market." Asked whether he'd considered simply "swallowing his pride" and apologizing to James, the coach remains defiant. "First of all, I didn't do anything wrong, and the depositions clearly reveal that," he said. "The fact that I'm trying to get paid for the last year I worked, the fact I'm in litigation to collect what's mine, doesn't affect my ability to coach and doesn't impact another institution in any way."
But that's not necessarily how potential employers see it. In an increasingly image-conscious business, it may be that Leach won't get a look until the lawsuits are resolved -- and maybe not even then. The mere suggestion of abusive treatment toward a player is the sort of thing that can linger well after any litigation gets resolved.
Jim Leavitt, USF's coach from the program's inception in 1997 through 2009, was dismissed shortly after Leach following allegations he grabbed a player by the throat and struck him in the locker room. Leavitt recently settled a wrongful termination suit with the school for $2.75 million but no school has been willing to offer him a head coaching job. Same for former Kansas coach Mark Mangino, who led the Jayhawks to the 2008 Orange Bowl, but resigned less than two years later following allegations of physical and verbal abuse.
Former Northwestern and Colorado coach Gary Barnett ran into the same problem upon trying to re-enter the job market. In 14 seasons as a Division I-A head coach, Barnett won three conference championships, was named national coach of the year in 1995 upon taking Northwestern to the Rose Bowl and won four Big 12 division titles over a five-year span. To much of the public, however, Barnett is forever synonymous with a scandal that engulfed the Colorado program in 2004, during which nine women claimed they had been sexually assaulted by CU players or recruits.
None of the cases were ever prosecuted, and two separate investigations cleared Barnett of any wrongdoing, though he was placed on administrative leave at one point after making an inappropriate comment about kicker Katie Hnida, one of the accusers. He returned for two more seasons but was eventually forced out following a 70-3 loss to Texas in the 2005 Big 12 title game. After taking a year off, he began pursuing openings, to no avail. One athletic director told him "the local press will eat me alive" if he interviewed Barnett. Another feared an uprising among his women's coaches.
"People had developed misperceptions regarding our time at Colorado, and I could not get beyond them," said Barnett, who's spent the past five seasons as a commentator for Sports USA Radio Network. "In the football world, Mike and I both, among our peers, people that know college football, both of us are well-respected. It's the next level of administrators, which in many cases do the hiring, that drag you down. And there's really no way to get beyond it."
Leach may have run into that problem at Maryland. Most Terps fans and media assumed him to be their guy due in part to Leach's close relationship with one of the school's trustees, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, as well as AD Kevin Anderson's comments at a press conference announcing Ralph Friedgen's dismissal. Anderson cited decreased ticket sales as a factor and acknowledged Leach would be a candidate. The day after Maryland's Dec. 29 Military Bowl win over East Carolina in Friedgen's last game, Leach was interviewed in College Park.
But the day after Connecticut's Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma, the school interviewed and hired Edsall instead. The Washington Post, citing three sources close to the athletic department, said Maryland "got cold feet" about Leach in the 48 hours prior to Edsall's hiring. "They wanted to make the conservative, safe, non-confrontational hire," one of the sources told the paper.
A school spokesman said Anderson is declining requests to discuss the search and unsuccessful candidates.
"They made the decision they made based on whatever it is they were looking for," Leach said of Maryland. "I certainly had a lot of support there, and I think it's a sleeping giant and I think they'll do well."
The aforementioned senior administrator said there's often a disconnect between fans' perceptions of a coach like Leach and those ultimately responsible for such decisions.
"If you talked to football fans, he'd get almost unanimous support to be their hire, but as you move up the ladder, to university presidents and board of trustees, they get a little more antsy," said the school official. "You can't argue with his success in Lubbock, it was a golden era there. Unfortunately, the events of his last two years there, it's difficult for a president or administrator to go to the podium and deal with that."
Perhaps time and the resolution of his lawsuits will enhance Leach's stock come this time next year. Other coaches (UCF's George O'Leary, UTEP's Mike Price) endured controversial firings and landed on their feet, albeit at less glamorous destinations. It took five years, but Rick Neuheisel eventually resurfaced at alma mater UCLA after settling a lawsuit with the NCAA and Washington over his termination for participating in a March Madness pool. And Leach's resume is arguably better.
In the meantime, he's been keeping busy. As our interview wound down in Arizona, he recounted some of his activities of the past year: calling games for CBS College Sports; spending two weeks in France consulting a club team, Les Flashes de La Courneuve; attending his son's Little League games; spending time as a house guest of celebrity friend Matthew McConaughey; and twice visiting another friend, director Peter Berg, on the set of his upcoming film Battleship.
"It should be pretty cool," Leach said of the movie. "There're aliens coming to the Earth, of course. And the world navy has to stop them."
As we're about to part ways, however, I checked my phone. Talk about awkward timing. Just moments earlier, the following AP headline had crossed the wire: "NCAA accuses Texas Tech of major violations" involving impermissible text messages to recruits. Its initial story included the following line: "Football violations occurred between August 2007 and February 2009, which would have come under former coach Mike Leach."
So, I showed the headline to Leach, who seemed confused.
"I don't know what that's about," he said. "I thought that was water under the bridge."
It was. Later, we would both figure out that the initial AP story had left out some significant context, reflected in later versions. The school had self-reported the violations back when he was still coaching, and the announcement that day was of the NCAA accepting the school's self-imposed penalties. Of the nearly 1,000 impermissible texts involving three sports, Leach had sent ... nine.
"As I told the NCAA, I never knowingly violated any rule, nor would I ever," he wrote that night. "My conduct consisted of nine inadvertent texts to two football prospects that had not identified themselves to me." As an example, he said, someone texted, "Great game, coach," and, without recognizing the number, he texted back, "Thanks."
But history will only show that the NCAA placed Texas Tech on two years' probation for violations that occurred under his watch. Another "misperception" for the coaching candidate to overcome. Another prospective press-conference question to scare away an athletic director. He can only hope the image of Michael Crabtree's catch against Texas eventually outlasts the image of Adam James in a dark room.