Editor’s Note: This story was published before Texas Tech fired coach Mike Leach on Wednesday.
As anyone who knows anything about Texas Tech football can tell you, there is something odd about yesterday’s suspension of football coach Mike Leach because of a complaint that he mistreated a third-string receiver named Adam James, who happens to be the son of football commentator and former SMU star Craig James. For one thing, Leach has never been known to violate any NCAA rules on player treatment, as a wave of former players who went public this week have attested. He can certainly be tough. When I was in Lubbock in March, reporting on a TEXAS MONTHLY cover story (“Mike Leach Is Thinking…”, September 2009), he made receiver Ed Britton sit at a desk outdoors in a blizzard for two hours for missing study hall. Leach has a special, 40-yard long sand pit next to the Tech practice field where delinquent players—especially academically delinquent players—are put through all sorts of boot camp-like exercises meant to get their minds right. The sand pit (aka “Muscle Beach”) is also where injured players are put to work during practice dragging truck tires or pounding stakes and generally working whatever parts of their bodies are not injured.
But a pattern of abuse like what Kansas head football coach Mark Mangino is alleged to be guilty of? There is no evidence at all for it. Not only have many of Leach’s former players already come forward to defend him, but testimonials popping up on the Internet are running roughly 100 to 1 in favor of Leach and against his bosses, Texas Tech’s athletic director Gerald Myers and Tech Chancellor Kent Hance. (This estimate is, of course, highly unscientific.)
As far as anyone can tell, here is what happened. On December 16, Adam James suffered a mild concussion. Since he could therefore not participate in contact drills, the coaches had him walking the track. The next day he showed up wearing sunglasses, explaining that the doctor said this would help him recover. Leach, apparently thinking that James was exaggerating his injury—though this is not entirely clear—sent him to the team’s equipment room to stand in the darkness. (In some accounts this has been described as a “shed” or a “closet.” I have been there and seen it, and it is a normal equipment room.) According to the James family’s allegations, Adam was forced to do this for the next two days.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy. Leach later told Tech officials that he thought James was a slacker. I can confirm that Leach and his coaches thought this about James as far back as March. In one of the coaches meetings that I attended, James and one other player were specifically discussed. Without saying why, Leach told his coaches they needed to get tougher on those players since they obviously felt they were not giving 100 percent. There seemed to be general agreement on this. According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Leach also told officials that Craig James had behaved like a Little League dad, constantly calling and complaining. At issue apparently was Adam’s playing time. He was not getting a lot of it, was unhappy about that, and according to several reports is already planning to transfer to SMU.
What happened next was that Craig James took his complaints to Tech officials, saying that his son was being mistreated. Tech then asked Leach to apologize formally to Adam by Monday. Leach outright refused to do that, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, and Tech suspended him, which meant that Leach could not coach in this Saturday’s Alamo Bowl against Michigan State.
The suspension reminded me of the bitter feud that erupted between Leach and athletic director Myers this spring. After a season when Leach’s football team went 11-2, after which he won several major coach-of-the-year awards, the Tech community was stunned to see headlines suggesting not only that Leach would not receive a raise but that he might be fired. Things got so bad that Chancellor Hance had to intervene personally. He and Leach worked out a salary package that made him the third highest paid coach in the Big 12. The feud with Myers was no longer in the headlines, but it simmered on.
It has, in fact, been a strange year for Leach. After last year’s run at a national championship, the team struggled this year to an 8-4 season punctuated by a Leach outburst against his team following a loss to A&M which he blamed on the players’ “fat little girlfriends.” After one player tweeted angrily that Leach was late for a meeting, Leach forbid his team from using Twitter.
None of which adds up, however, to player abuse. I do not claim to know exactly what happened, but one scenario that must be considered is that we are witnessing a power play against Leach by the James family, who were unhappy because Adam wasn’t getting enough playing time. The Jameses are being greatly aided by their complaint’s proximity to both the Mark Mangino firing with its attendant allegations of player abuse and to the current NFL controversy over its sensitivity to player concussions. They are further aided by the fact that Leach and Myers hate each other.
Leach’s lawyer Ted Liggett, meanwhile, is vowing to take Tech to court this week to force it to let Leach coach the bowl game. Stay tuned. If Tech fires Leach over this, there will be a mushroom cloud over Lubbock that will be visible for thousands of miles and a likely revolt of Tech fans, alums, and former players.