Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach deserves another look, and another chance

Former coach Mike Leach's Texas Tech football program had the eighth-best graduation rate in the country (79 percent), according to the NCAA.
Former coach Mike Leach's Texas Tech football program had the eighth-best graduation rate in the country (79 percent), according to the NCAA. (Matt Slocum/associated Press)
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By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach has lost his job and his reputation because he didn't treat the subject of concussions with the appropriate cringing political correctness, or the son of an influential TV star with enough soft deference. You can hear the sound of a railroading in Lubbock, and it's not coming from the train station.

At first it was easy to view Leach as just another backward brute of a football coach, based on the superficial news reports. Wide receiver Adam James, son of ESPN analyst Craig James, accused Leach of mistreating him after he suffered a mild concussion earlier this month, alleging Leach twice had him locked up in dark sheds when he couldn't practice with his head injury. His parents complained to school authorities that he "had been subjected to actions and treatment not consistent with common sense rules for safety and health," according to a statement. It's a devastating charge, given the growing public alarm over brain injuries, and it frightened Texas Tech into first suspending Leach without a complete investigation, and then firing him Wednesday when Leach went to court to fight the suspension.

Actually, nothing in this case is simple. Leach is not some head-banging throwback. He's idiosyncratic and incurably outspoken, but nothing suggests he's a sadist or an idiot who would endanger a player. In fact, he is one of the more well-read and thoughtful men in the game, with a large curiosity and a law degree from Pepperdine. More importantly, he's a serious, demanding educator whose team has a graduation rate of 79 percent, eighth best in the country and first in the Big 12 Conference. He trails only Notre Dame (94 percent), Stanford (93), Boston College (92), Duke (92), Northwestern (92), Vanderbilt (91) and Wake Forest (83) in turning out grads, while he also has made nine bowl appearances in nine years.

Leach is more complicated than he seems, and so are the events that led to his firing. His relationship with university officials has been contentious. While they may well have had just cause to fire him, there is also some compelling evidence that they may have judged him unfairly.

Several current and former players have come forward to attest that he's a humane teacher. "Leach has unusual methods for doing things a lot of times, but he's never cruel and never out of line in doing them," former offensive lineman Cody Campbell told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. It turns out the alleged torture chambers were an equipment garage and an auxiliary room, where injured players are often sent to rest or do calisthenics, and where James had access to trainers and ice. "It's not like its some dungeon," former lineman Glenn January said.

It turns out Leach has a policy that requires injured players to remain close by at practice "to let everybody know they're not going to stand around and do nothing," January added. And it turns out that James was examined by a school physician named Michael Phy who, according to ESPN.com, wrote a memo stating "no additional risks or harm were imposed on Adam [James] by what he was asked to do." Which amounted to standing alone in a room for a couple of hours. Standing in a low-light environment hardly seems like a menace to his health.

Two days before the concussion, Leach and his staff apparently disciplined James for poor effort during drills. Leach contends that this, and a lack of playing time, led the James family to resent his handling of the player. James's habits and attitude have also been questioned by his teammates. CBSSports.com acquired an e-mail to Tech authorities from former wide receiver Eric Morris, who said that James "was never known as a hard worker" and "seemed to have a negative attitude toward the football program the majority of the time." Receivers coach Lincoln Riley also wrote a memo in support of Leach to the administration, obtained by ESPN.com, in which he referred to the player as "unusually lazy and entitled."

It also turns out university administrators have quarreled repeatedly with Leach over his contract demands, and may have been looking for a reason to get out of paying him a $800,000 bonus he was due on Thursday if he were still the head coach at Texas Tech.

It's impossible to say exactly what happened between Leach and James, but we can be reasonably sure that there are two sides of the story, and that Texas Tech acted too quickly in firing him just two days after suspending him. Was it the right thing to do to send an injured player into the shed with the appearance of disciplining him? Probably not. Was it a firing offense? Certainly not.

It's the contention of Leach's attorney, Ted Liggett, that Craig James brought the complaint "to retaliate for his displeasure with the extent of his son's role on Texas Tech University's football team." While that doesn't sound like the whole truth either -- James has never seemed the vindictive sort -- the possibility that this stems from a parent-coach conflict seems worth considering.

It's also perhaps a conflict of two competing principles. The public is becoming acutely aware that invisible football injuries can be far more dangerous than visible ones. Concussions are the hot-button topic of the moment, because they were taken too lightly, for too long, and research now shows that medical personnel need to be more cautious and conservative in the treatment of them. This awareness is a good thing, and no one could blame a parent for being concerned or a player for objecting to Leach's method. "I have no complaints about this decision. [Leach] put Adam in a shed like an animal," defensive lineman Chris Perry said.

But at the same time, football is an essentially violent game; it can't be played without pain and collision. Coaches are in the business of developing the physical and mental toughness required to stand it.

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