Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mike Leach firing –- there is nothing good in this story; Remember the Syracuse-Connecticut game?

The only thing I know for sure about this stranger-than-fiction Mike Leach story is that everyone is going to have a strong opinion about it.

Let’s take the Texas Tech fans out of the equation because their reaction is going to be pretty much the same as any group of fans who have just lost a coach who was a consistent winner: this is a travesty. They really don’t care what Leach did or didn’t do to Adam James; they don’t care what he did or did not say to his bosses at Texas Tech. All they know or care about is that he took a school in west Texas to 10 straight bowl games and a No. 3 ranking a year ago in November and they’re mad as hell that he’s gone.

That’s the way fans are. As I said last week during the Rutgers brouhaha, fans don’t care about graduation rates (Leach’s was very good) or whether someone is a good guy, an okay guy or a bad guy, they care about wins. So, most Texas Tech fans are going to take the approach that Adam James was a spoiled, under-achieving whiner whose father Craig was a pain-in-the-butt. Some will see this as part of the softening of athletes and of our society in general. Kid complains about being stuck in a room for a couple of hours. What a wimp! We’re talking a coach who was 84-43; he’s just trying to make a man of him.

Okay, now let’s move on to those who might be a tad more objective. Even there you’re going to see and hear sharp disagreements. My pal Sally Jenkins, whose dad is a proud graduate of TCU and a lover of all things college football, took the approach in this morning’s Washington Post that what Leach did wasn’t so bad, that there’s no medical evidence that James’s concussion was made worse in any way by the two days he spent in some form of solitary. (Even Leach’s lawyer hasn’t argued that point, he’s just argued about the size and comfort of the rooms James was placed in).

Sally points out—correctly—that Leach has always been a maverick on and off the field. He once made a player sit on the 50-yard line and study in the cold because he hadn’t been going to class. He’s taken Texas Tech’s graduation rate from nowhere to almost 80 percent. He has a law degree and he has interests outside of football. He’s bright and engaging. She accused those saying there’s no excuse for what Leach did of being politically correct.

The other side, taken already by a number of columnists, is that there is NO excuse for what Leach did to James. Doctors said he had a concussion and whether it was “mild,” or not where did Leach get his medical degree? Whether the rooms involved were small and dark or large and well-lit, making him stand by himself with a guard outside the door is pretty damn close to cruelty and, if God Forbid, something had happened to James, Leach and Texas Tech would have faced the mother of all law suits.

Not only should he have been fired, he should never coach again.

Look, I don’t know Craig James except to say hello. I don’t know Mike Leach at all, except what I’ve read and heard about him. The one thing I will say is that his considerable abilities as a coach aren’t at issue here.

I’m not a doctor anymore than Leach is a doctor but I do know this: Leach clearly was upset with Adam James and wanted to make some kind of example of him the same way he made an example of the kid who hadn’t been going to class. But he was in a very dangerous area, especially nowadays with all the information that has been coming out recently about the dangers of head injuries of any kind. If Leach felt that James had been out of line in the past, there were lots of ways to discipline him that didn’t involve any kind of medical risk.

He can’t make the argument that James was faking a concussion—and hasn’t. If you believe the version of the story told by LEACH’s lawyer, he’s on shaky ground. The idea that Leach liked to keep injured players near the team when it was practicing is just fine. Lots of coaches will have injured players ride a stationery bike by the practice field when they are able to do so while hurt or go through drills with their teammates that won’t exacerbate an injury.

But seriously, has anyone ever heard of sticking a kid with ANY injury, much less a concussion, alone in a room for a couple of hours? Different is one thing, borderline cruelty and perhaps endangering someone is another thing. A firing offense all by itself: perhaps not, but clearly there was an undercurrent of tension between Leach and the school before all of this began.

Here’s what doesn’t matter in this story: whether or not Craig James was an annoying stage-father or a “helicopter father,” as one Leach defender put it. There are plenty of those and coaches learn to deal with them. The same is true about Adam James attitude or work ethic. As for the whole, “softening of America,” argument, there are lots of way to toughen football players without going over the line that Leach appeared to cross.

There’s going to be a lot of he-said/he-said as this mess sorts itself out. The sad thing is there aren’t going to be any winners, regardless of whether Leach is able to force the school to pay him the $1.6 million buyout he says he’s due or if the school is able to convince a judge he was fired for legitimate cause.

Leach has lost his job and if he does get another job (which I suspect he will) he will be under intense scrutiny from day one and it won’t just be about wins and losses. Texas Tech has lost its most successful coach, a coach who brought the school the national attention it craves in the sport it cares about most. There will also be plenty of people who will point out the irony of the school suddenly being so concerned about the welfare of its players when it willingly hired Bob Knight in 2001 after he had been fired at Indiana for repeated offenses involving abuse of players—and, in the final instance for grabbing a non-player by the arm when he had the temerity to call him, “Knight.”

And Adam James is going to be a pariah in Lubbock. Even if some or most of his teammates back him, he’s going to be seen by Texas Tech fans and people on campus as the guy who got their big-time coach fired. If he ever plays another game in a Texas Tech uniform he will probably be booed on his home field. His brother also attends Texas Tech. My guess is that both will have to transfer.

There’s just nothing good in this story. Whether the Texas Tech administration used this as an excuse to get rid of a coach they felt had grown too big for his britches, the fact is Leach gave them that excuse. James might be a whiner or he might be a victim or—more likely—he might be both.

Personally, I like feel-good stories, especially in college athletics. I’m excited about watching Navy and Air Force play their bowl games today. I loved the ending of the Boise Bowl yesterday (does anyone know what Roady’s is or this sponsor for The Alamo Bowl?) with Idaho going for two and beating Bowling Green, 43-42 in a truly classic game to watch even if both teams were 7-5. I still love watching Joe Paterno stalking the sidelines and I’ll always watch The Rose Bowl no matter how mediocre The Big Ten and Pac-10 might be in a given year. It is THE ROSE BOWL—end of discussion.

I don’t know Mike Leach or Adam James and I’ve never set foot on the campus at Texas Tech. But this entire story just makes me feel sad.


Among the many really good suggestions yesterday about best sports moment of the decade was someone who brought up the Syracuse-Connecticut six overtime game in The Big East Tournament this past March. I was in Atlanta that night at the ACC Tournament and watched the last 40 minutes—10 minutes of regulation, 30 minutes of overtime—in the media hospitality room at the hotel. By the time the game ended there were probably about 150 people in the room, all riveted by what they were seeing.

At the final buzzer, everyone in the room CLAPPED, just clapped for what they had just witnessed. Bob Ryan, who was watching in the lobby bar, told me the exact same thing happened there. That was one of those cool moments in sports—it didn’t matter if you were a Syracuse fan, a U-Conn or couldn’t care less about either team. You knew you had seen something special. I love that kind of stuff.

Happy New Year everyone.


Anonymous said...

I think Roady's is the largest truck stop chain in the country, no? In reality, they may be a great bowl sponsor. Except that their core customers are probably on the road while its being played.

Anonymous said...

I think you get to the point that everyone (intentionally?) is skipping. The issue isn't how serious James' condition is, how stark the room in which he was placed is or what medical impact this might have on James. The issue is that this is a concussion and Leach's punishment undeniably had a stigma attached to it (having the guard is enough to do that).

Even if you are willing to say there is no cruelty here whatsoever, the point is that football as a sport has to get past the stigma of sitting out with a seemingly minor injury when it comes to concussions. Leach clearly is adding to the stigma, and by questioning whether there was a concussion he's making it even worse as they are impossible for an outsider to diagnose (as opposed to a broken arm where everyone can see something is wrong).

I don't know if he should be fired for it, but if nothing else people need to admit that Leach is putting his players' long term health at risk by encouraging them to play through concussions.

Gunnar said...

Roady's is a truck stop, and the secondary sponsor was Internet Truckstop, which is an iPhone App for truckers. The blue Boise State field is brutal to look at. It was a fantastic bowl game, and I was really happy to see the Idaho kids win, some of them have had three coaches in 5 years. They have a good one with Robb Akey. The Bowling Green team was great. It was a great bowl game, which I didn't have high expectations for but thoroughly enjoyed.

It seems like the Texas Tech administration was ready for the next problem to come up, to justify firing Leach. It is a very unfortunate situation for the James boys. I know TTU was upset with him for interviewing at Washington roughly 54 weeks ago, but TTU did extend him after that. He made the "...fat little girlfriends..," comment, but what else did he do? There has to be more to come out. We need to see the dirty laundry before understanding who is at fault.

Thanks for the great blog John, Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Tough lady. Where does Sally stand on enhanced interrogation techniques for captured terrorists?

Michael said...

While working on my PhD at Tech, I did some periphery work for the athletics department.

Yes, all the stories about Mike Leach are true. He is a good guy. And a nice person. His press conferences were nothing more than tangents of tangents of tangents. You never knew where the comment was going to end.

It plays well for the media who get terrific quotes but it plays lousy for donors who want to be energized.

Leach's firing has nothing to do with Adam James. James is a cover for the administration's action.

If Leach had been head coach at Tech on Dec. 31, 2009, then the University would owe him $800,000 as bonus.

The University is doing well financially and has made some minor cutbacks here and there but nothing major. The athletics department is in the hole. I have been told and read from different sources that for every $1 in athletics revenue generated, Tech pays 50 cents in debt service. In contrast, Texas pays about 20 cents in debt service for every $1 in athletics revenue.


A month ago, loud whispers started being heard that people were upset that a coach who had never been to a Big XII championship game, had never been to a BCS bowl game, and had never been ranked number 1 in the country was going to receive such a large bonus.

Leach and AD Gerald Myers have never gotten along very well. The Bobby Knight hiring did not make Leach a happy camper because Knight, who is a good friend of Myers, received a lot of perks that were unavailable to Leach.

The contract extension negotiations, while petty to outsiders, were a clash of many egos. The last contract extension, signed in February 2009, was especially bruising.

For example, Leach's agent proposed that Leach report directly to the Kent Hance (TTU's president, IIRC).

Sowell (I don't recall his first name), a big money guy and owner of many car lots in North Texas, begged Myers in two e-mails to fire Leach or at least reject the extension. Sowell saw a coach that no school wanted and whose success reflected a Charmin soft schedule more than recruiting and coaching abilities.

Unlike Mangino, Leach does not have the smoke problem. That is, there are not a lot of current and former players claiming mistreatment similar to James'. Tech will owe Leach the life of the contract.

The University will struggle on the field unless they can hire someone who can run the offense and recruit. Until Spike Dykes, Tech has not known consistent success. That is, they have little football history except for a lot of upsets. Dykes ran a rogue program that ultimately ended up on NCAA probation. His kid's offense has not lit up the world at Arizona. The coach at Houston is interesting but he could do better if he waits.

Tech is a hard sell for recruits, and they lack the A&M and Longhorn dollars. The stadium is getting bigger but it will still be less than 75,000. When the kids see College Station, Austin, and Norman, Lubbock looks like a one pony town and the pony doesn't look ill.

As for Leach, I doubt a BCS school will call unless a really bad program (Minnesota or Wazzu) becomes that desperate. I doubt it.

Look for him to resurface at North Texas, Utah State, or some such quality program. Pity. If Leach had a different relationship with Myers, then he would still be there and James would come off as nothing more than a whining version of Chris Simms.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will now acknowledge the statement of the TTU trainer that nothing that was aledged actually happened. Of course the worldwide sports leader released that information at 1:00 AM. The real story is how James used his platform at ESPN to get a coach fired and ESPN being complicit.

Jim in the Cuse said...

The Syracuse-UConn game was the single greatest college basketball game I've ever witnessed. As an SU Orange fan, my father and I watch every single game together. Other than the National Championship in '03, no single game comes close. Thanks for the insight into how you watched it, John. Brings back some great memories.

Anonymous said...

First, I'm not a TT fan at all. I don't care about them or the Big 12 for that matter.

However, while you put in the normal caveats about not being a doctor and stuff you make a number of conclusions revolving how bad it was for Adam to be put into a rather spacious room alone.

Since when is leaving someone alone for short durations of time 'borderline cruelty and perhaps endangering someone' in the first place? The trainers stated they checked on Adam every fifteen minutes or so. How is this putting him at 'medical risk'?

Was Leach supposed to assign someone to stand next to Adam every second of every day so he wouldn't ever be 'alone in a room'? But then, if he did, you'd say he assigned a guard and that was a bad thing. Oh wait, you're already saying that about the trainer that Leach assigned to keep an eye on Adam.

And how was putting Adam in the shed medically detrimental? From what I've read it seems appropriate for his injury (not shed per se, but out of sun, etc) while still applying some discipline for a bad attitude. Was Leach supposed to put Adam in some large cavernous room with Xboxes and a fridge full of popsicles instead?