Head Case

Was Mike Leach’s spectacular implosion at Texas Tech the result of his mistreatment of a player who had a concussion? The meddling of ESPN commentator Craig James on behalf of his son? Part of the “wussification” of football? Or was the quirky personality and enormous ego that made Leach one of the most popular coaches in the country the exact thing that caused his downfall?
Head Case
Illustration by Eddie Guy

On December 30, 2009, three days before Texas Tech was to play in the Alamo Bowl, the university fired its popular head football coach, Mike Leach. The stated reason: He had mistreated an injured player and then refused, in effect, to admit that he had done anything wrong. The news shocked Red Raiders fans, not just because they were losing their beloved coach but because, right up until the moment he had been suspended and, two days later, fired, there was no hint of trouble. To them he was the winningest football coach in the history of the school, a man whose team routinely led the nation in offense and in 2008 made an electrifying run at a national championship. He had recently signed a generous five-year contract. Leach’s program was, moreover, squeaky-clean. His players had the highest graduation rate of any public university in the country and the eighth-highest of any Division I college. Leach seemed the antithesis of an abusive coach. He was a law school graduate who surfed and studied history and impressed recruits by doing card tricks and telling pirate stories. He had put Lubbock on the map in a way no one, not even Buddy Holly, ever had.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. That alone would have been enough to send die-hard Tech fans into a frenzy. But Leach’s downfall seemed to have been engineered by a single person: Craig James, a prominent ESPN commentator who had been a football star at Southern Methodist University and with the New England Patriots. Eleven days before Leach was fired, James had complained to university officials that the coach had punished his son Adam, a sophomore receiver, after Adam had reported suffering a concussion.

Leach versus James quickly spun into a full-scale national media storm, fueled by a public fight between two of the sport’s biggest names about a red-hot medical issue. Both men took to the airwaves to accuse the other of lying. ESPN featured a parade of commentators condemning Leach. Enraged Leach fans, who believed the network was biased, countered by burying it in an avalanche of 4,700 protest letters and e-mails. In the absence of ready explanations, a narrative soon emerged among the Leach crowd to account for what had happened. Adam had complained to his father because he was a spoiled brat who blamed his problems on everyone else. Craig, the ultimate “helicopter” dad, had persuaded Tech officials to fire their coach. Much of the electronic chatter was driven by the raw and often bitter emotions of fans who believed that Leach was the one who had been treated unfairly.

But there were forces beyond mere celebrity driving the story. The fact that Adam James’s injury was a concussion, for example, was significant. In the months leading up to Leach’s firing, new research had shown how much more dangerous concussions were than had previously been thought. Congressional hearings had been held; the NFL, which had long denied that concussions resulted in eventual dementia, disability, and death, had done an abrupt about-face. Attitudes about concussions, especially in the contact sports, were changing with startling speed, even as the Leach affair was unfolding.

Leach, meanwhile, has not gone gently into the night. In January he sued his former employer for breach of contract and defamation. He has moved his family to Key West, where he awaits a judge-ordered mediation that will resume in Lubbock this month. He is, according to his own lawsuit, unhirable, which undoubtedly gives him plenty of time to think about the strange sequence of events that has landed him on a beach in South Florida.

The controversy over Leach’s firing was so fierce, so rife with rumor, hearsay, and wild speculation, that it has often been difficult to understand what caused the tempest in the first place. It is thus helpful to review the basic, unembellished and unlawyered facts.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 17: Adam James tells the team’s physician, Dr. Michael Phy, that at practice the previous evening, he suffered an injury to his head and neck. Phy determines that James has “at least a mild concussion.” He tells James and trainer Steve Pincock that James should not participate in any physical activity and orders that he be reevaluated in a few days.

Later that day, James reports to practice, where he is told to “walk the field.” He goes only a short distance before Leach sees him and asks Pincock what James is doing. Pincock tells him that James has a concussion. Leach is upset about James’s “appearance and attitude.” James is not in pads, is wearing sunglasses, and has a baseball cap on backward. Leach asks why James has sunglasses on. Pincock says that, because of the concussion, he is sensitive to light. Leach then tells Pincock to put James in a dark place nearby, saying he does not want him “loafing” around the practice field. He tells Pincock to “lock his f—ing p—y ass in a place so dark that the only way he knows he has a d—k is to reach down and touch it,” which Pincock repeats to James.

Pincock places James in a windowless, unheated portable equipment shed about the size of a one-car garage. James is ordered to stand, in total darkness, for the duration of practice, approximately two hours. Leach also assigns a student trainer to check on James and to make sure that he does not sit or lie down.

From inside the shed, James sends this text message to his father: “You’re gonna like this. I got a concussion yesterday at practice so I can’t practice today. Leach thinks it’s impossible for me to have one and I’m just being a p—y. So for punishment he has locked me in a pitch black shed for the whole practice.” His father and his mother, Marilyn, are upset by this news, but Adam tells them that he does not want them to take any action, and they agree. Craig James advises his son to “hang in there, stay the course.”

FRIDAY,

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