Mike Leach, brilliant and eccentric college football coach, has been fired by his employer of ten years, Texas Tech. Despite leading Tech to unprecedented glory, Leach's alleged mistreatment of an ESPN commentator's son has led to his dismissal.
I just got off the phone with Leach's attorney Ted Liggett. Liggett, who comes across as a genuine Texas lawyer--which is to say a real character--had some interesting things to say about Texas Tech and the coverage of his client's case.
To watch ESPN or read some of the more sensational coverage, Mike Leach locked Adam James, ESPN commentator Craig James's son and little used Texas Tech receiver, in an electrical closet as punishment for the sin of suffering a concussion. Not so, says Liggett.
Liggett said that James, who he was not shy in painting as an ill-loved prima-donna with a "helicopter dad" (an assertion he repeated in an ESPN interview here ), was in locations far from Star Chambers or Gitmo like detention facilities. Liggett scoffed: " "they called it a shed, like Jed Clampett, rats and shit."
According to him, the "shed" is in fact a garage favored by the O-line because of the ice machine it contained and its excellent ventilation. The "electrical closet" is in fact the post-game interview room for opposing coaches.
Nevertheless, the scroll running constantly below ESPN's coverage is that Mike Leach was fired for confining a player to an electrical closet.
According to Liggett, Leach's actions were "absolutely not" taken to punish Adam James. He confirmed that James suffered an injury on December 16th, which was diagnosed by a doctor as a mild concussion on the 17th. On the 18th and 19th of December, James was ordered to the garage and the shed respectively. Yet James's digs were comfortable--even coveted by fellow players, according to Liggett, and he was not isolated from his fellow players.
Liggett made a point of objecting to "two egregious falsehoods: one, that Mike was told if all he did was apologize to the James family all would be forgiven--never happened--total fabrication." The second falsehood, according to Liggett, is that "there was a letter drafted of actions that Mike could or could not do. That by signing that letter he could avoid being fired. He was never told sign this and no punitive measures would be taken."
I asked Liggett if Leach would have accepted any restrictions on his autonomy as a coach. He laughed. "The things Tech is talking about were already in his contract." A "total fabrication."
Liggett did not hide his contempt for the ESPN party line that Adam James had the support of his teammates, saying that "Craig James saying that the football players on that team are behind his son is a joke."*
Who should we believe in this drama? I tweeted a while ago that Malcolm Gladwell's article on concussions in the New Yorker had forever changed the way I watch football. No longer do I applaud a bone crushing hit by a safety if there is even the slightest helmet contact.
However, I detect in the treatment of Mike Leach the ostracization of a brilliant and eccentric coach for suspect reasons.
To be sure, if the argument that Leach's actions would have had a chilling effect on the reporting of concussions has merit, what he did can not be justified.
Yet the systematic distortion of the facts of his case leads me to wonder whether Texas Tech has not overreacted in the face of whom Adam James 's daddy is, instead of reacting appropriately to a coach out of control.
Moreover, if James is able to wrap himself in the flag of concussions, it may lead coaches to associate concussions with "lazy and entitled" players (as James has been described by former players and coaches) to the detriment of the seriousness of the problem.
Liggett is an attorney, representing his client. As a fellow attorney and fellow Southerner, I well know the mistakes of taking anything that an attorney says at face value or to take a drawl to mean either honesty or simple-mindedness. Nevertheless, the details that Liggett provides and his persistence in asserting them lead me to believe him.
More over, as Chris Brown at Smart Football references, a series of emails from former players, the current and former inside receivers coach (Adam James's position coach), the head strength and conditioning coach, and Graham Harrell, former star Texas Tech quarterback, corroborate Liggett's assertions. Harrell went as far as to describe Adam James as "spoiled and selfish," in a lengthy email reproduced by Dennis Dodd on CBS Sports's website.
Instead of jumping to conclusions, we need to find out more facts. In particular, someone needs to interview the doctor who diagnosed Adam James, in order to determine whether or not Leach's actions were out of line.
(I plan to continue to attempt to get Texas Tech's reaction. If a Texas Tech administrator or media representative is reading this, they can find my email address on my bio page.)
The consequences for Mike Leach are extreme: he's lost his job and will need to find another outlet for his passion. The consequences for Texas Tech, however, are quite a bit worse. They have lost the most brilliant innovator in college football and the best coach they could attract to their school under the best circumstances.
Now Texas Tech has compounded the problems of being a small school in an unglamorous location by appearing to treat personnel unfairly. The odor of Leach being fired just ahead of a contract date that would require Texas Tech to pay him an additional $800, 000 is foul smelling. There are high fives all around at Big-12 opponents Oklahoma and Texas.
As a college football fan, I root for the Miami Hurricanes (Daddy's alma mater and my team growing up), the University of Florida (my alma mater), and (when they aren't playing the other two) Florida State (my law school). The only other college team I regularly rooted for and was interested in was Texas Tech. No longer.
*Minutes before I posted this, ESPN had an interesting exchange between Lou Holtz and Mark May. Both expressed bafflement at the action taken by Texas Tech and were quite sympathetic to Mike Leach. May, however, repeated the line (denied by Liggett) that Texas Tech gave Leach an opportunity to apologize.
I welcome comments, criticism, and questions, which can be directed to the email address located on my bio page.
Update: Two fascinating documents have emerged. Courtesy of Coaches Hot Seat, we have Mike Leach's contract with Texas Tech. Thanks to @bcuban on twitter for bringing it to my attention. And via Smart Football and courtesy of the Dallas News, we have emails between Texas Tech administrators--including one pleading for them to act rationally and not be consumed by their annoyance with "city slicker Yankee agents." You cannot make this stuff up.
Update 2: I recommend this article by Michael Felder of In the Bleachers. Describing himself as "not a Mike Leach fan," whose "Pirate Act is stale," Felder goes on to conclude that James and Leach are both victims of AD Gerald Myers's desire to get rid of Mike Leach. An interesting argument.