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?

April 2010By Comments

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, DECEMBER 18: The team has the day off, but James reports to Pincock, telling him that he has symptoms that include headache, dizziness, sensitivity to light and noise, and fatigue.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19: James, who has not been cleared by Phy to engage in physical activity, shows up for practice. This time Leach orders Pincock to place him in an empty, windowless room used for media interviews and to have him stand in darkness. Again, a student trainer is placed outside the room.

That night Craig and Marilyn are eating dinner at their home in Celina, about 35 miles north of downtown Dallas, when Adam calls to tell them what happened. They are “stunned” that Adam was confined for a second day. Craig asks Adam if he is willing to make a formal complaint to university officials. This time Adam agrees.

Craig then calls Larry Anders, the chairman of the Texas Tech Board of Regents, to tell him what has happened and to ask Anders to pass a message to Chancellor Kent Hance: This treatment has to stop. Hance calls Leach that night and makes the same request. During that conversation, Leach expresses anger toward Craig for what he says is Craig’s frequent interference on behalf of his son.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 20: Hance calls Craig and pledges to conduct a full investigation, which begins immediately. At practice that day, Adam is sent to the training room, where he pedals an exercise bike in a dimly lit room.

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22: Hance tells Leach that he has held a conference call with some members of the board of regents and the administration and that they are split over whether to fire him or take disciplinary action. Hance asks for a letter of apology from Leach. Leach heatedly denies that he has done anything wrong and refuses.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 26: Leach meets with Texas Tech president Guy Bailey and athletic director Gerald Myers, who ask him to sign a letter that reads, in part, “You must at all times assure the fair and responsible treatment of student athletes in relation to their health, welfare and discipline, and if you are not doing so, you must immediately cease any actions not in compliance with this provision of your contract.” Leach again refuses.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 28: Texas Tech suspends Leach.

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 29: Leach asks a judge for a restraining order that would allow him to coach in the Alamo Bowl, on January 2.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 30: Bailey fires Leach for mistreating a player and for refusing, “in a defiant act of insubordination,” to cooperate in resolving the complaint. Leach prepares to file a lawsuit against Tech, in which he categorically denies that he is guilty of either charge.

Red Raider nation goes berserk.

In the days that followed Leach’s dismissal, two views of what had happened—utterly opposed and completely irreconcilable—emerged. The first was Leach’s own. In a half-hour interview on ESPN on December 31, he insisted that his treatment of Adam James had been appropriate to the injury: He had put James in darkness because of his sensitivity to light. James had been given water, had not been made to do any physical activity, and had been checked on by a trainer. In Leach’s version, his firing had everything to do with a spoiled, “entitled” player; a powerful, meddling father; and certain Texas Tech regents and officials who were stabbing Leach in the back.

Leach blasted Craig James for constantly calling coaches to complain about his son’s lack of playing time. And when the coaches stopped returning the calls, Leach told ESPN, “he started making calls to administrators, the athletic director, the chancellor, and so forth, trying to bring pressure on us.” Leach was also harshly critical of Adam. “I think he’s lazy, and I think there’s a sense of entitlement,” Leach said. “And really, this isn’t an independent thought on my part. It’s pretty well documented in a number of statements by teammates and both of his position coaches.”

Leach had plenty of support in the media. Former football players railed that the sport had gone soft. Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins captured much of the pro-Leach sentiment when she wrote, “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.” Leach was just being Leach: strong-willed, eccentric, unaffected by public opinion. It was part of what made him a great coach. (Due to a judge’s gag order, Leach and Texas Tech officials could not be interviewed for this story.)

The opposing view, which was aired by many sports commentators, including Lou Holtz, Mike Patrick, and Mark May on ESPN, held that Leach had no right to punish a player with a concussion, no matter what he thought about him. He had made James stand in chilly darkness (neither room was heated) for the duration of practice with a condition whose symptoms include nausea, dizziness, and disorientation. And regardless of how Leach defended his actions, there is no indication that he had ever, in his ten years at Texas Tech, treated any player like that before.

In his own ESPN interview and in released statements, Craig James shot back. He insisted that the concussion was the only relevant issue. “The problem happened when my son had a concussion [and because] of the actions taken against him,” Craig said. “As a mom and as a dad, anybody in the country, knowing what we know about our son, you would have taken the same steps we did.” He called Leach’s statements “damaging and untrue” and said “he’s simply trying to shift attention from his own actions.”

Despite Leach’s protestations, he had run up against—some might say he had blundered into—issues that were larger than football politics in West Texas. It is remarkable, in retrospect, that Leach did not recognize what a politically charged issue concussions had become. Head injuries, or “getting your bell rung,” have long been considered part of the game. If a player saw double and vomited and experienced dizziness, well, he just needed to rub some dirt on it and get over it. But last fall that attitude began to change. A concussion was now seen for what it was: the result of a traumatic injury to the surface of the brain with potentially devastating consequences. A series of articles in the New York Times made the case that repeated concussions were likely responsible for the high incidence of dementia, disability, depression, and early death among professional football players and that the NFL had concealed the problem. In November, in the wake of congressional hearings, the co-chairmen of the NFL’s committee on concussions resigned under fire. Only two weeks before Adam’s injury, the league had finally agreed to change its policy. Teams would now be required to receive advice from independent neurologists when treating players with brain injuries.

The attitude toward concussions was not the only change in the football world. In the old days, the rough treatment of players was both common and rarely reported. When Bear Bryant was coaching at Texas A&M in 1954, he made his players practice for hours in the 100-degree heat of Junction while depriving them of water. Only 37 of the nearly 100 players made it through. Bryant was lucky someone did not die. Back then, coaches ran players until they dropped, grabbed them by the face mask, and jabbed them in the chest, all with complete impunity.

Those days are fading fast. “There has been a constant unwritten rule that you never talk about what happens on the practice field and in the locker room,” said Harold Shinitzky, a sports psychologist who works with NFL and college teams. “Now people do talk about it. There is a cultural shift that said, abuse is abuse.” Players come to practice with cell phones equipped with cameras and video recorders and are inclined to share their experiences as never before. Adam, for example, took a now famous video of the inside of an electrical closet that was part of the media interview room where he spent practice on December 19. Another video, this one of Leach chewing him out in practice, became an Internet sensation. Both suggest a transparency that did not exist even a few years ago.

This new attitude toward the treatment of players is evident across the country. On December 3 Kansas football coach Mark Mangino, who allegedly had verbally abused players and grabbed and poked them, was forced to resign. University of South Florida coach Jim Leavitt was fired on January 8 after the school concluded that he had slapped a player at halftime during a game in November. On January 9 Kansas State’s basketball coach Frank Martin apologized immediately and profusely for hitting a player on the arm in the heat of a game. Perhaps with the Mangino, Leach, and Leavitt incidents in mind, Martin said, “That’s a mistake on my part. I’m an old-school guy, but I understand the times are real sensitive now.”

For whatever reason, Leach seemed to be unaware of the forces he was unleashing. “From what I understand about what Leach did, it was abusive, inappropriate, and disrespectful,” said prominent sports psychology consultant Alan Goldberg. “He should have known better, because in the climate today with concussions—you don’t screw around with that. He is an idiot if he thinks nothing has changed.”

Still, the argument that raged on in the media seemed to have as much to do with the character and influence of Adam and Craig James as it did with Leach’s response to a player’s concussion. Leach and his lawyer, Ted Liggett, received an impressive number of testimonials that cast Adam as a player with a poor attitude. Receivers coach Lincoln Riley suggested that Adam was a know-it-all who was angry with his coaches and that complaining about his treatment was “his way of trying to ‘get back’ at us coaches.” Adam’s former position coach Dana Holgorsen said that Adam was “lazy” and that “his teammates believed he was selfish.” Strength coach Bennie Wylie said, “His attitude was poor.” Former quarterback Graham Harrell suggested that Adam was constantly complaining about how unfair the coaches were.

There are, however, questions about just how lazy and unmotivated Adam really was. He had come to Texas Tech three years earlier as an all-district receiver from Celina High School. By last spring he had worked his way into the upper echelons of one of the most talented receiving corps in the nation. After a poor performance in spring camp in 2009, Adam made a substantial improvement. On August 30 the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal ran a story praising the six-foot-three, 215-pound receiver’s efforts and reporting that he had beaten out two talented players for the starting position. Riley, who was so critical later on, told the paper: “He really played well in camp. He’s competed at a level that I don’t know if he knew he could compete at. He’s really pushed himself to do that.” Indeed, Adam started the first game of the season before being demoted. None of this quite fit with the whining, prissy, daddy’s-boy image that had swept the Internet and resulted in Leach supporters’ wearing “Real Men Aren’t Afraid of the Dark” T-shirts at the Alamo Bowl.

Yet something had obviously happened to change Leach’s mind about Adam and to cause him to treat him differently than he had treated any other player after a concussion. A video clip that made the Internet rounds in early January showed Leach chewing Adam out on the football field. “I can’t even stand to watch you f—ing stumble around,” he said. “That’s a s—ty f—king effort, like you f—ing accomplished something.”

But for Leach, Adam was merely the trigger. It was Craig, he believed, whose interference had led directly to his dismissal. And it was Leach’s on-air criticism that had turned so many fans against Craig and had resulted in what he said were death threats against him and his family. Craig received so many, in fact, that the police in Celina had to step up their patrols of his neighborhood.

This is how Leach defined Craig’s “meddling” to an ESPN interviewer: “When you call me, call his position coaches . . . and want to have constant discussions on your son and on playing time and who should be playing ahead of who. Then [get] calls from other people he has discussed things with outside the program.” In Leach’s view, the meddlesome and overbearing father went to great extremes to get his son more playing time.

On February 8, I visited Craig at his spacious brown-brick home on the rolling prairie in North Texas. Craig does his broadcasting job only four months a year. His main business is ranching and commercial real estate. He owns 10,000 acres of ranchland west of Fort Worth and is one of the largest sellers of hay in the state. He is active in the Republican party and has even been suggested as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate.

In my interview, which was his first since the incident, Craig forcefully denied that there was any truth in Leach’s depiction of him. “I am anything but a meddler, anything but a helicopter dad,” he said. “I never called coaches to ask for playing time. In fact, I never mentioned the words ‘playing time’ with Adam’s coaches at Texas Tech. That is just simply not true. I did not call the administration.”

Craig admits to exactly one phone call, on September 10, to Lincoln Riley after Adam had lost his starting job before the second game of the season. “I did call him,” said Craig, “and left a message asking him to call me back. The spirit was to keep Adam on track. I didn’t talk to him. He sent me back a text message saying, ‘I have your son’s best interests at heart, the team’s best interests at heart. Continue to motivate him. I would appreciate your continued support to make sure that we get the most out of Adam.’ That was it.”

Compare that with the version of events on September 10 in Leach’s lawsuit, which says that Craig left a voice mail for assistant coach Tommy McVey saying, “You coaches are crazy and are screwing my kid.” He then left a message for Riley saying, “You don’t know what you are doing. Adam James is the best player at the wide receiver position . . . If you’ve got the balls to call me back, and I don’t think you do, call me back.”

For Craig the case is about only one thing: Adam’s concussion. “It doesn’t matter if Adam is good, bad, or indifferent,” he said. “There was a practice at which Adam got a concussion, and there was an unbelievable treatment for the concussion. Then it happened a second time. The actions were meant to demean, humiliate, and punish him. Coaches have been hard on players forever. They grind them; they run them until they are ready to pass out. But this is different. This is unthinkable, unimaginable.”

Craig said that he knew as soon as he made his complaint that “a chance for a storm was likely.” He called his attorney for advice and soon hired Spaeth Communications, the Dallas-based agency that oversaw the Swift boat campaign against Senator John Kerry. Spaeth helped the family draft its first public statements and later arranged for the release of Adam’s video to WFAA television. “We did that,” said Craig, “because nobody believed he had actually been confined.”

But the back-and-forth continued. What Adam shot was the inside of an electrical closet. The James family said Adam was supposed to stay inside the closet; Leach’s side countered that he was only supposed to stay in the media room. Craig said he had had only two conversations with Hance about the incident and that he was surprised to hear that Leach had been suspended and then fired. He said that it had been a difficult time for his family but that the death threats had stopped.

One of the hardest things to understand in the entire affair is why Texas Tech and its head football coach were unable to resolve the problem. Why couldn’t Leach apologize? Why did Tech have such a short fuse? The explanation lies in large part with Leach’s difficult relationship with his bosses. Though Leach was an extremely popular coach who filled the stadium and was loved by the fans, many leaders in the Tech community—including Gerald Myers and a number of current and former regents and prominent alumni—found him barely tolerable. This was because, unlike almost every other successful Division I coach, he refused to have anything but minimal contact with them. “He was a complete recluse from the alumni,” said John Sims, a Lubbock lawyer who is a former member of the board of regents. “He never participated in Red Raider or alumni events, and he didn’t make his assistant coaches go either. Even though his contract required that he make at least ten appearances, he might have made two. It was all about himself; he was completely self-centered.”

In an interview with texas monthly last spring, Hance confirmed that Leach had little to do with the Tech community but defended him anyway. “Look, we don’t require him to do that,” said Hance of the practice of schmoozing with boosters and alumni. “There is no sense in me making him go play golf with so many people every week to help raise money.” Leach did have supporters on the board and among the alumni, one of whom counseled Hance in an e-mail during the heat of the contract dispute, writing, “in my mind you people would be crazy to end this great period of TT football on a negative note.”

But others in the Tech community were not so charitable, and their ill feelings went beyond simple unhappiness at being ignored. Many were also convinced that his agents were constantly trying to shop him to other schools (even though he had gone on only one interview, at the University of Washington, in December 2008) and that Tech could not afford the $3 million a year salary he wanted.

Those issues boiled over publicly for the first time that winter in a bitter fight over the renegotiation of his contract. Though outsiders were unaware of it, this was actually Leach’s third unpleasant contract negotiation. After an often acrimonious ten months of negotiating, word leaked out that not only would Leach not be signing a new contract but he would likely be fired. To many Tech fans this sounded like pure insanity, and they vented their rage on talk shows and Internet message boards. In February 2009 Leach’s contract fight became a national story. On the day he was to be fired by the board, he met face-to-face with Hance and signed a five-year contract worth $12.7 million, making him the third-highest-paid coach in the Big 12.

In the midst of this, the Dallas Morning News published a series of harshly worded e-mails from former board of regents chair Jim Sowell to Hance. In those messages, Sowell, a Dallas businessman and one of the largest financial contributors to Texas Tech, said flatly that he did not believe Leach was worth what he was asking and that Tech could easily find a better coach for less money. Though Sowell has said he regrets that those private e-mails became public, he stands by his comments. He even suggests that, based on his conversations with Hance, his feelings about Leach at the eleventh hour were not as hostile as those of most of the board members. “In one of my e-mails I said, ‘Look, let him serve another year, fire him at the end of the year, and then pay him off his last year,’ ” Sowell said in a recent interview in his Dallas office. “I think the direction the board was heading, and what they had told Leach, was, ‘No, we are going to fire you right now.’”

Sowell believes this same stubbornness contributed to Leach’s refusal to help resolve the James complaint. “You can hear stories ad nauseam about his lack of cooperation,” said Sowell. “To that point, here he is in December 2009 handed a fairly benign piece of paper that if he were to sign it, none of this would have become public. And he would not have been suspended. If he signs it, he coaches the bowl game and three to four days later he pockets an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar [bonus] check and he is out recruiting today.”

Leach thinks that Sowell’s e-mails and the “animosity from last year’s contract negotiation” were integral to his firing. He said they show that members of the board of regents and administration officials “were clearly involved in some level of collusion and conspiracy that goes back to last year,” as he told ESPN on December 31. “Obviously people involved with the regents and chancellor, behind my back, have been working against me.”

Some theorized that Leach’s actions might have resulted from the pressures of the football season itself. Though the Red Raiders went 11-2 in 2008, last year they struggled to finish 8-4 during the regular season. Tech had lost by one point in the game’s final minute to the University of Houston and by only one touchdown to Oklahoma State. After a 52—30 loss to Texas A&M, Leach said that his players had listened to their “fat little girlfriends” instead of focusing on the game. There had been unrest on the team too. After the Houston loss, captain Brandon Carter went public on Twitter, saying that this was not how he had envisioned his final season. The following day he sent another message, saying Leach had suspended him and that he was not the captain anymore. That was followed by a tweet from senior linebacker Marlon Williams that criticized Leach for being late to a meeting. Leach responded by banning Twitter. Then, oddly, he told a newspaper that he had thought of breaking his long-standing refusal to discuss internal issues with the media. “Maybe this’ll be the day I’ll tell all the details,” he said. “I’ll say all the stuff . . . I’ll say what was said.” For a team spat to break in the public was one thing; for Leach to threaten, in a lawyerlike way, to criticize individual players was quite unprecedented.

After the Alamo Bowl, Carter commented on Leach’s firing to ESPN. “I don’t want to say anything bad about the fans, but this is not the first situation where something like this has happened [with Leach],” he said. “This is just the first time someone stepped forward. I don’t want fans thinking that Adam James did this because he was upset . . . it was just kind of the last straw, and sooner or later something was going to come out. We always thought Mike Leach was a great coach, and he always has been. This year . . . things just kind of turned for the worst.”

College football teams are notoriously opaque. It is hard to know what Carter is talking about or even how many team members would agree with him. In any case, the team is now under new management. Tech hired former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville in January. Most of Leach’s coaches lost their jobs, though many, like defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil, who was named head coach at East Carolina, and Riley, who became his offensive coordinator, quickly landed on their feet. The team is doing its winter workouts. Lifting weights and running sprints with his teammates is No. 82, a junior from Celina named Adam James, who was booed lustily at the Alamo Bowl but has resumed his normal life as a student-athlete in Lubbock. His father, Craig, said, “He’s doing fine. Players have spoken up and they really support him. There was never any question that he would stay at Texas Tech.”

Things are not going as well for his former coach. One of Leach’s arguments in his lawsuit is that Tech’s public comments have made it impossible for him to find another job. If he is right about that, then the damage to his career may already be done, whether he wins or not.

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