The troubled case against Mike Leach
This is the sensational allegation against Mike Leach, head football coach at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock: During practice, Leach ordered a team trainer to lock a player who had just suffered a concussion in a lightless electrical closet for several hours. The player, Adam James, son of former NFL player and ESPN analyst Craig James, was not allowed to sit down. A “guard” was posted outside the door. Adam James subsequently released footage of the closet interior that he took with his cell-phone camera.
Mike Leach’s account: Leach told his trainer to take Adam James to a safe, dark place, because the paramount considerations when a player suffers a concussion are light sensitivity and the risk of an additional blow to the head. The “electrical closet” was in fact a “sports medicine garage,” in which James could receive fluids and remain out of the light. The “guard” was a trainer who checked on James every fifteen minutes.
The James family filed a complaint, and with extraordinary rapidity Leach was fired “with cause,” meaning the school was not obligated to pay the remainder of his contract. Leach had secured the contract a year earlier after threatening to leave Texas Tech. In ten triumphant years there, he had gained tremendous leverage. An idiosyncratic law school graduate obsessed with pirates, Leach had lifted the school’s previously anemic football program to national prominence by using an unprecedented offensive attack that changed the way the college game was played. (Michael Lewis wrote a beautiful article about this in The New York Times Magazine.)
During the contract negotiations, Texas Tech administrators mistakenly assumed that Leach’s threat was a bluff, and were ultimately forced to accept his terms to keep him. Leach’s victory, though, engendered suffusing bitterness that only grew with time.
This past season, Leach struggled to discipline and earn the allegiance of his players. Adam James complicated the problem. He was, Leach says, a lazy kid with an outsized sense of entitlement who frequently flaunted team protocol.
Craig James, a ubiquitous presence on ESPN, apparently phoned Leach and his position coaches regularly, demanding to know why Adam’s minutes had fallen off. (The answer, Leach says, was a combination of laziness and limited ability.) James was also calling high-ranking administration officials and powerful alumni. Leach and his staff eventually stopped answering James’ calls.
Leach has filed suit against Texas Tech, which he says has chosen to “deal in lies.” Texas Tech has undertaken an accelerated search for a new coach.
Did Leach torture Adam James? The team trainer initially affirmed Leach’s story, but then criticized his conduct in an affidavit taken by Texas Tech lawyers. At least one of Leach’s assistants considered Adam James a disruptive player who undermined his coaches. Some of Leach’s current players have said that Leach behaved tyrannically this season and that his treatment of Adam James was not anomalous.
The first problem for Leach now is that his reputation has been damaged to the point of probable unhireability, and the only people with firsthand knowledge of the situation are beholden to Texas Tech. Leach’s public support will come obliquely from other head coaches and former head coaches (see Lou Holtz), former players (see Wes Welker), and fans.
Leach’s second problem is that the Jameses cannot back off their positions. They got the man who built Texas Tech football fired. They can’t equivocate now.
Finally, even if Leach clears his name through compelled legal testimony, it may not help him much professionally, because the near-grotesque allegations against him will have hung in the air of plausibility for so long.
In this miasma, it’s interesting to contrast Craig James’ ESPN interview with Mike Leach’s. One man, dispensing with politics and protocol, seems to be making a desperate, earnest attempt to convey what he knows to be true. The other, cautiously and uncomfortably evading certain questions, seems to be reciting talking points supplied by advisors.