At first glance, the Mike Leach story might look like a dysfunctional relationship brought to its inevitable conclusion. Between player and coach. Coach and university. Or coach and decency.
That last one is sure to be what resonates with a lot of people. On Monday, before we'd even begun to process this, I offered the following reaction: "At a time when the media's already on high alert about bullying college football coaches, he's gone and locked a player in a closet ... apparently because the player was reluctant to return prematurely after he'd suffered a concussion." And now, others have emerged to echo those sentiments, as Jay Mariotti writes of a coach run amok, "If anyone should be placed in solitary confinement and wrapped in a straitjacket under lock and key, it's Leach. What a friggin' lunatic."
But either way: side with Mariotti and those that say Leach crossed the line, or say Texas Tech was unfair in firing its most successful coach in history, it obscures a much better story. It's not about what happened to Adam James, and whether Mike Leach locked him in a closet, or an equipment room, or a shed.
It's deeper than that, and more fascinating. When Mike Leach got fired Wednesday, it was the product of longstanding resentments, clashing egos, and ignorance. Adam James -- the player whom former star quarterback Graham Harrell described as "spoiled and selfish," and "more interested in playing his own games" -- was a bit player in all of this. A textbook pawn in a much larger, more profound narrative. Just look at him. He's meaningless.
But Mike Leach is someone far more complex and more compelling than a character like James. He's what makes this whole thing so damn interesting. Where people like Adam James or Texas Tech Athletic Director Gerald Myers are boilerplate figures in college football, Leach is a lightning rod. As his agent Gary O'Hagan said a few years ago, "He's so different from every other football coach, it's hard to understand how he's a coach."
That's the word that always comes up when we talk about Mike Leach: "different." Maybe his differences wouldn't seem quite so dramatic in another field, but this is football. Football coaches, specifically. You'd be hard pressed to find a more insular, staid population on the face of the earth. If you're black or didn't play football in college, it's considered a stirring success story to even get a job. The uniformity is staggering.
For every Urban Meyer, there's a Bob Stoops. And a Jim Tressel. And a Mack Brown. And a Nick Saban. And when they get old, they'll be like Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden. This is the face of college coaching. The backstories may diverge at points, and they may employ different schemes, but for all intents and purposes, they're the same person. Wired specifically to excel at that one, awesomely difficult thing: coaching major college football.
As fans, we often imagine ourselves as GMs of pro teams, but rarely as coaches. Why?
Mainly because the thought is so utterly insane. Coaches are born, not made, runs the conventional wisdom. We could learn the skills necessary to become a successful GM, but coaching is a game of instinct, where the great ones are almost as rare as great players. Only few people have what it takes. Most don't. Or so we think.
And that wisdom rarely gets challenged. Except when a lawyer, with a wife and a child, up and decides he'd like to try coaching football. That's what happened with Mike Leach. This wasn't a career track for him. He didn't start out as a grad assistant in college, or emerge, like Urban Meyer, as a "34-year-old whirl of activity ... an assistant coach on the rise. Big-name coaches had marked him; boosters were taking note." That's from a Sports Illustrated profile this month, relating a scene from Meyer's early years as a Notre Dame assistant coach.
Mike Leach's first job was with California Polytechnic State University. Did you know they played American football in Finland? Well, Mike Leach coached there. And he went just about anywhere else that would have him. Whether that was a tiny school in Valdosta, Georgia, or the University of Oklahoma in 1999, where he installed an offense that Bob Stoops and the Sooners still run today. And every place, he did things different, with a perspective culled not from years of waiting his turn and holding clipboards, but with the help of tireless work ethic, creativity, and a curious spirit that made him hugely popular with fans and media alike.
And ultimately, people resented him for it.
That's the shed where Adam James was forced to stand for a few hours. It's sort of cartoonish to think that Mike Leach's tenure at Texas Tech ended when he forced an injured player to go stand in a dark shed for a few hours. But it's also perfect, because it was Adam James.
Like I said, he's meaningless on his own, but if you think about it, he's also a perfect symbol for the college football establishment. A little cocky and self-important, riding the name of past glory (his father's), not as good as he thinks he is, and sharply at odds with the mind of Mike Leach. Per Texas Monthly, this week's conflict all started when James, after suffering a mild concussion, showed up to practice wearing sunglasses.
When asked about the glasses by a perturbed Coach Leach, he told his coach that his doctor said they'd help his recovery. In response, Coach Leach sent James to stand in dark places over the next two days' practices. Not "dark places" in a figurative sense, although that's the way they've been described in some circles. But just... Some literally dark environments.
It's not hard to connect the dots here--Leach, pissed off that a notorious primadonna would show up to practice with sunglasses on and cite his "recovery," sent him to stand in an uncomfortable place where sunglasses were idiotic. Namely, a dark shed. A callous move, until you consider the context and characters involved.
On one side, you've got a perpetual underdog with an unorthodox style, dealing with someone that'd reportedly caused conflict over everything from playing time to practices. On the other, you've got someone literally born to college football blue blood, unhappy with a situation he sees as wasting his talent, a national college football analyst (his father) to bolster his claims, and a doctor's order for sunglasses, to help treat a mild concussion. Can you really blame the first person for using his authority to punish the second person in a humiliating, but perfectly humane, fashion?
Well, Texas Tech chose to blame the first person, Mike Leach, and it opened the door for some of his most powerful critics to turn the tables, and humiliate the underdog they'd come to resent.
And ultimately, that's what this is all about. Power and resentments. The James family resented Coach Leach because they thought he'd been unfairly wielding his power, and wasting their son's talents. But more important, it became evident during last year's contract negotiations that Texas Tech's Athletic Director, Gerald Myers, along with a few other powerful voices, agreed with the James family. Maybe not that Adam James was the future of Texas Tech football, but agreed insofar as Mike Leach had become too damn powerful, and he didn't deserve it.
After all, he's just a coach that does things a little differently. Successfully, sure; but it's not like he's some coaching superstar. E-mails between the AD and a boosters, obtained by the Dallas Morning News, confirm that this thinking existed. After Leach went 11-1 and had arguably the most successful season in school history, Leach was of the mind that he deserved a new contract. Here was the opposing perspective, an e-mail from booster Jim Sowell to Texas Tech President Kent Hance:
Kent, their latest offer is offensive. Mike wants a salary virtually the same as (Bob) Stoops and (Mack) Brown...
He won 11 games this year -- big deal -- two other tech coaches did it before him and it didn't take either one of them 9 years to do it. What did it get us? The Cotton Bowl. ... In 9 years, he has only had one real interview: Washington. (Where they hired another coach within 24 hours after their interview with Leach). We got the report from the Miami AD on their "interview" with Leach last year in a hotel lobby. The Kentucky job, where he was offensive coordinator for two years, has been open twice since he has been at Tech. They weren't interested in him. ... In spite of being Big 12 Coach of the Year, he is NOT a hot commodity. He has no bargaining power.
But see, he did have bargaining power. Because where Bobby Knight -- college basketball's all-time winningest coach and one of the more traditional figures in all of sports -- had failed to deliver Texas Tech to any true national prominence, Mike Leach had succeeded. Again and again. It was more than just 10 winning seasons and bowl appearances. As long as they had Leach, Texas Tech and the tiny town of Lubbock were relevant.
What would happen if a regular guy -- albeit a weird, really smart regular guy -- decided to coach football? Mike Leach was college football's answer. And for that, the whole country -- especially Texas Tech fans -- romanticized the hell out of him, while the higher-ups at the University refused to respect him and resented his influence.
Last year, Leach's bargaining power ultimately won out, and Texas Tech awarded him a new contract. But as the above e-mail illustrates, there was no shortage of skepticism toward Leach and all that he'd accomplished. And that sort of thing doesn't just disappear. This Adam James controversy merely offered them an opportunity to act on their frustrations. It was never about Leach's misconduct toward an injured player with a famous dad.
This was about injured egos, and more than anything else, ignorance. Because while the backlash toward Leach is maybe understandable, the Texas Tech administration made the bigger mistake of misunderstanding Leach's success. It wasn't that they had a coach who'd produced ten winning seasons, but that they had Mike Leach. He didn't deliver Texas Tech to national prominence despite his strange style, but because of it.
College football fans cared about him -- and by extension Texas Tech -- because he was completely different than anyone we'd ever seen coaching before. Sure, his teams were successful, but not that successful. There are plenty of top 15 programs that nobody cares about. I'll watch Oklahoma State play Oklahoma, but otherwise, they're not on my radar. But Texas Tech? People will watch, solely because they know that Mike Leach and his offense will make things interesting. He had the people all across the country talking about Texas Tech.
And in the end, that's his job. It's not to win the Big 12 or win National Championships like Mack Brown or Bob Stoops. Those would be great, but from the administration's standpoint, the goal is to enhance the overall profile of the school. That's why they hired Bobby Knight after multiple instances of abusive behavior, the likes of which make Mike Leach's shed seem tame. But it wasn't Knight that got the whole country talking; it was this quirky, weird looking ex-lawyer that nobody really understood, but everyone loved.
Texas Tech stumbled onto a winning lottery ticket with Mike Leach. Now, they've chased him off because he wanted to get rich too. And yeah, I'm sure the Texas Tech administration thinks that their football team can win without him. But will anybody watch?
S.C. Gwynne, Texas Monthly: Pirate Under Attack
CBS Sports: E-mails In Support Of Mike Leach
Dallas Morning News: EXCLUSIVE E-Mails Show Rocky Relationship Between Leach And Texas Tech
Michael Lewis, New York Times Magazine: Coach Leach Goes Deep
Seth C, Double T Nation: The Saga of Mike Leach :: The End