After what happened earlier this year, no one should really be surprised that Texas Tech University elected to fire Mike Leach yesterday.
But we still are. Just how does someone as successful and intelligent as Leach lose one of the 20 or so highest-paying jobs in big-time college football?
Absent a financial settlement between Tech and Leach, this mess will make for a particularly nasty lawsuit. From the beginning of their relationship, Tech has never been entirely comfortable with Leach, while Leach has been without success trying to find a better job than the Tech gig almost from the day he set foot in Lubbock. So, both parties have incentive to get this settled without exposing all that dirty laundry in court, notwithstanding Leach’s somewhat provocative public statement about his termination.
Frankly, I don’t have a clue from reading media reports whether Leach’s handling of Adam James justified a termination for cause (i.e., no further compensation) under his contract. Football is a tough sport and coaches are often rough on players to make a point. Leach has also alleged publicly that James was a slacker and that his prominent father lobbied him and the other Tech coaches on behalf of his son. For what it’s worth, Leach has supporters and detractors among the folks close to the program who have personal knowledge about the situation.
Although Leach’s alleged conduct toward James was clearly odd and certainly meant to embarrass the young man, it’s reasonably clear that James was never physically endangered or abused. Thus, this does not appear to be a situation that rises to the level of risking what happened to Ereck Plancher at at Central Florida last year or the alleged physical and verbal abuse that supposedly led to the recent resignation of Mark Mangino at Kansas.
On the other hand, this is another example of a situation that — for whatever reason — Leach just didn’t handle well.
Beyond his shabby treatment of James, Leach was apparently given the opportunity by Tech to resolve the matter privately with an apology to James. Leach balked at that, so Tech suspended him from coaching the upcoming Alamo Bowl game. When Leach sued Tech seeking to be "unsuspended," Tech fired him (in my experience, employers often have that reaction when sued by their employees). That’s not the advice I would have given Leach, but his lawyer (Ted A. Liggett) purports to be on the aggressive side.
Furthermore, stories about Leach’s eccentric behavior have circulated for years. For example, Leach’s tardiness for meetings is legendary (sometimes very tardy) and has caused much misery for his staff and players. When one of his players called Leach out on Twitter about that habit earlier this year, Leach reacted by banning Tech’s players from using Twitter. Leach has also used poor judgment in making public remarks about assistant coaches on his staff.
Finally, although Leach did a good job at Tech, his public relations were better than his overall record.
But still, even with all that, how did it come to this?
Given Leach’s eccentricities, there is certainly no assurance that any other big-time college football program will take a flyer on him — it’s telling that none came calling during his successful tenure at Tech. Leach has now blown a contract that would have paid he and his family around $11 million over the next four years and may well be the best contract that he ever has.
And what does he have left to show for it? A lawsuit.
As complicated as we tend to make such issues, my sense is that the answer to what would have prevented this imbroglio is really quite simple.
Mike Leach needs to grow up.