Mike Leach and Charlie Weis are both attempting second acts in their coaching careers right now.
Leach, who was wildly successful in 10 seasons at Texas Tech, got fired in 2009 after allegedly mistreating Adam James, the son of then ESPN announcer Craig James. Lawsuits followed the firing but the end result was the same: After going 84-43 in Lubbock, Leach was out of a job.
Weis’s firing at Notre Dame was much more straightforward. After going 19-6 his first two seasons, he was 16-21 the next three years. Even though it cost Notre Dame millions to push Weis out the door, out he went at the end of a 6-6 season in 2009.
Three years later, both are back and both are struggling to rebuild downtrodden programs.
Weis is at Kansas, which had a nice run several years ago under Mark Mangino but went 5-19 during the two-year regime of Turner Gill. The Jayhawks are now 1-6 after being crushed, 52-7, by Oklahoma on Saturday and their only win was in the season opener against Football Championship Series member South Dakota State.
Leach is at Washington State, which was 9-40 the last four years under his predecessor, Paul Wulff. The Cougars are 2-5 and do have one win against a Football Bowl Series opponent — UNLV, which is 1-7.
“We’re just trying to make a first down every now and then,” Leach said jokingly last week.
Leach is a lot more apt to joke about something than Weis. He may get himself into trouble by saying outrageous things, but he’s a lot different than Weis in that he’ll stand behind what he said and there’s rarely any real malice. Weis takes himself very seriously — to put it mildly — and seems to think that bullying the media plays a key role in building a successful football program.
When he first arrived at Notre Dame he spent most of his first news conference lecturing the media on what would and would not be allowed under his watch. Anyone who did anything he did not approve of would quickly lose all access to the program. Any coach who is winning can pretty much say and do anything he wants to do. But when Weis started losing — including two losses in three years to Navy, a team Notre Dame had beaten 43 years in a row — he had absolutely no good will to fall back on.
Apparently that experience didn’t change him very much. A couple of weeks ago, a reporter from the Kansas student newspaper was called into a meeting with two members of the Kansas athletic staff and told that if he asked questions in Weis’s news conference that day they could not guarantee how Weis would respond but it might not be friendly. Apparently Weis was upset about a disparaging cartoon that appeared in the student paper about his team.
Oh gosh, we can’t have that, especially when the genius coach has produced one victory.
The pick-on-the-kid reporter story came out at about the same time that Weis was quoted by a number of local media members as saying he didn’t plan to allow his 20 seniors to practice with the team on Sundays anymore. While the rest of the team practiced, the seniors were told to lift weights and run on their own.
When the question of the seniors’ absence was raised the day after Kansas’s 56-16 loss to Kansas State, Weis was quoted as saying he planned to focus the rest of the season on players who would help the team in the future. “I took everyone who is gonna be on the team next year and they practiced,” Weis said, according to the Kansas City Star. “And anyone who’s not gonna be on the team next year, after we were done with their film session, they ran and lifted.”
Later that week, Weis claimed that what he said about the seniors had been taken out of context that, in fact, he always sat players out on Sunday who had played extensively the day before, regardless of class. He said he had practiced the underclassmen that day only because he was so upset with the way the team had played against Kansas State.
An attempt to pin Weis down on his initial comments and the subsequent spin, got nowhere. “He’s not going to talk to you,” Kansas football spokesperson Katy Lonergan said. “He’s just too busy.”
Leach apparently wasn’t as busy. He also got into trouble with a comment made about his seniors — of whom he only has 13. Asked about he seniors at his weekly press conference, Leach lauded a number of them, singling out several for the leadership they had brought to the team. Others, he said, had not bought in the way he had hoped.
“Some of them have had kind of this zombie-like, go through the motions like everything is like how it’s always been, that’s how it will always be,” he said. “Some of them quite honestly have an empty corpse mentality. That’s not pleasant to say or pleasant to think about but it’s true.”
Reached by phone, Leach didn’t back off what he had said. “I don’t regret saying it,” he said. “I was actually trying to make a point about how great some of the seniors have been and I singled out several of them. But for some guys it’s very hard. One of the things you try to teach is that you and your team can make progress on every play — regardless of score, regardless of record.
“I know that can be tough to buy into when you’ve been losing and you’ve been disappointed in the past. These guys started every single season of their careers thinking they were going to win and then it crashed on them. We’re struggling and they can see that the end isn’t that far away. Some have handled that great, others haven’t. I can tell the difference by the way they look in practice, in meetings, in games. That was the point I was making. I wasn’t saying any of them are bad kids. I was saying it’s very tough for all of them which is why I admire the guys who have been able to avoid that mentality so much.”
The only thing tougher than coaching seniors who have been in a losing program is being a senior in a losing program under a new coach. It is only natural that the coach is going to focus on the future. The best coaches find a way to make those seniors believe their leadership is critical and that if they buy in they will get to feel as if they were part of the start of something good — even if they aren’t around when the results begin to kick in.
Harsh words or not, Leach seems to understand that. Weis, apparently does not. He’s too busy making sure student reporters don’t get out of line to worry about his seniors.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com. To read his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.