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.