A Tennessee coaching search that has grown crazier by the day. A coach renowned as one of his profession’s most unconventional personalities.
A rabid, but recently downtrodden, fan base that includes the “Vol Navy,” a group of supporters who take advantage of 100,000-seat Neyland Stadium’s proximity to water. An offensive mind known for turning around struggling programs — and for his fascination with pirates.
Yup, Mike Leach sounds perfect for Tennessee. He also sounds like a best-case scenario for a school desperate to salvage what has become a widely ridiculed debacle, and reports Thursday indicated the two parties were close to agreeing on terms that would bring Leach, currently head coach at Washington State, to Knoxville.
Of course, Tennessee fans should know at this point not to get their hopes too high. After suffering through arguably the worst season in the history of a football program that dates back to 1902, a sizable and very vocal group of Vols fans were able to get the school to drop an impending hire of Ohio State assistant Greg Schiano, only to see a succession of other candidates turn down overtures.
According to reports, head coaches who, in one way or another, said no to the Vols included Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Florida’s (and until very recently, Mississippi State’s) Dan Mullen, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. Oh, and Jason Witten also said thanks, but he was a little busy right now, what with being a Cowboys tight end and all.
Then there was Lane Kiffin, who incensed Tennessee fans by quitting his job as the school’s football coach in 2010, after just one season, and has more recently taken to gleefully trolling those beleaguered supporters. Now head coach at Florida Atlantic, and amid plenty of hints that he wouldn’t mind returning to Knoxville, Kiffin posted an image Wednesday of Kim Jong Un in Vols gear, with a caption joking that even the North Korean dictator had “turned down the Tennessee job.”
In this context, a Leach hire would presumably engender raucous renditions of “Rocky Top.” The 56-year-old has Washington State at 9-3 and ranked 21st in the AP poll, with the Cougars ranked as high as eighth following a 6-0 start that included an upset of then-No. 5 USC.
In six years, Leach has gone 38-37 at Washington State, but he has a 26-12 record over his past three seasons. The Cougars went 9-40 in the four years before Leach arrived, bringing his pass-happy, “Air Raid” offense.
Leach was previously head coach at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2009, and he went 84-43 there, including reaching No. 2 in the country in 2008, the school’s highest-ever ranking. Including a 4-8 record this season, the first time the Vols have lost that many games and the first time they’ve ever been winless in SEC play, they have gone 62-63 over the past 10 years, potentially making them Leach’s most high-profile reclamation project.
On Twitter, Leach has recently dropped hints that he would be interested in coaching the Vols. He liked a post that said he “wouldn’t go 4-8 at the University of Tennessee,” another that asked him, “can you come to Knoxville?” and another that implored, “Rocky Top needs you Coach Leach! You’re the only one who can save us.”
Vols fans might be about to find out just what Leach can do for them, but at the very least, his hiring would generate a much-needed round of positive headlines. It says a fair amount about how outlandish the Tennessee coaching search has become that the ultra-eccentric Leach would bring a major dose of credibility to the Vols.
Leach would have his work cut out piling up points against some of the annually stacked SEC defenses, but his track record at lower-tier programs in other power conferences, plus his work as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 1997 and 1998, says that he would throw more than a few scares into the likes of Alabama and Auburn. Meanwhile, his offbeat pronouncements in interviews and news conferences would draw chuckles, but Tennessee fans will take that every time over the cackling others have been doing recently at the school’s travails.
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