Brinksmanship in Lubbock
The saga of Mike Leach, the mad genius football coach continues today in a Texas courtroom, at a hearing of his plea to be reinstated for Saturday’s bowl game. This is the latest in a bizarre sequence of events, reminiscent of an 19th century duel.
Most readers know the precipitating events. A player, Adam James was diagnosed with a mild concussion, and in subsequent practices was isolated from the team and treated with, at a bare minimum, a big pinch of disrespect. James’ father, ESPN commentator and former SMU star Craig James, complained to the university about the treatment, and subsequently made noise in the media that the issue was the coach failing to act in the interest of his players’ safety given Adam’s treatment after his concussion.
Here’s my somewhat speculative take on the saga. The escalating event occurred when school president Guy Bailey attempted to deal with the issue by getting Leach to sign a letter of apology to James. Leach refused, forcing Bailey to execute his threat, suspending Leach from the bowl game. This is not the outcome Bailey wanted. As a school president, Bailey is a politician, and when he turned into a mediator between a well known TV analyst and his coach, he acted like one. Fairly typical, but in this case it was a big mistake.
Leach turned Bailey’s move into a blunder by refusing to cooperate. Why? I think there’s another game being played out in the background. Subsequent reports indicate that the coaches (not just Leach) had issues with Adam James, referring to him in one case as “unusually lazy and entitled.” Unwelcome interventions from his father had apparently taken place before. So what’s going on? James is a redshirt sophomore who doesn’t get many touches, apparently a pain in the buttocks and perhaps corrosive to team chemistry (He may even have a “fat little girlfriend” a phrase comment from Leach that is somehow being used to imply he’s unfit to coach!)
I think Leach & co. were trying to run him off. The concussion gave Leach the impetus to send Adam James to the proverbial woodshed. But instead of planning to transfer to another school (which will surely be forced by these events anyway), his dad decided to create a stir. Apart from the impetus and the response, the concussion has little to do with the story. This is a story about control of the program in the face of unwelcome intervention by parents and blundering administrators. The president should have anticipated that Leach would not go the apology route when control of the program is on the line.
A similar scenario played out at Clemson in January of 1990. Clemson’s most successful football coach, Danny Ford, and the university president got into a tangle over building a dorm for athletes. The president had political capital tied up in an effort to ban these facilities (something that would ultimately take effect), and the coach had raised a few million bucks to build one. Neither would budge, and the feud escalated until first, Coach Ford was fired, and
two four years later, the president. As is happening today in Lubbock, the fans in town were lined up on one side only, in favor of the most successful coach in school history, camping out in front of the President’s house.
I’ve always thought this episode revealed a big flaw in the leadership ability of Clemson’s president. Good presidents (and they are rare) can get past the politics and look at the end result. Danny Ford had raised the money for a new building, and the president should have let him build it. Once all-athlete dorms were banned, the president would have captured most of that dorm as the athletes were spread across campus. In turning the issue into an all-or-nothing fight, Coach Ford and the president destroyed a potential asset for the university, and lost their jobs on account of it. The football program stunk for most of the next decade as well. All of the above are in the cards for the duelists in Lubbock.
Update: Leach was fired, minutes before the hearing was to start! Ok, so you are firing a guy for not apologizing, and then for filing a restraining order?!! Omg, this is nuts. Texas Tech is out-Clemsoning Clemson!