THE FIRING OF A HEAD COACH
Michael Leach directed Texas Tech University's football program for a decade. He demonstrated a flair for innovation and creativity, especially in the passing game. His 2008 season was a tour de force that garnered him prestigious coaching honors and saw four of his players named as first team All Americans. While Leach was at Texas Tech, the graduation rate among football players heightened. In 2009, he entered into a new five-year $12.7 million contract extension.
Charges recently surfaced that he had retaliated against a player in his program, sophomore Adam James, who had suffered a "mild concussion." Leach had allegedly forced the player, who is the son of ESPN commentator Craig James, to stand in dark places, an equipment room and a visual aid room, while the team practiced. The coach was suspended pending an investigation of the charges. When he thereafter hailed the university into court by filing an application for a temporary restraining order, which would allow him to resume his coaching duties for the ensuing bowl game against Michigan State, Texas Tech fired him.
Listening to Leach discuss his case, it appears that Craig James took a hyperactive interest in his son's athletic career. It also appears that Leach thinks Adam is lazy and possessed by a false sense of entitlement. If these observations are correct, it would not be the first time a coach and a player were on the wrong side of each other. It is frankly surprising that personality conflicts between the two are not more publicly vitriolic than they are.
A coach must wield team discipline, but he must do so responsibly. Compelling a young man to stand in a dark room while his team practices strikes even a sympathetic observer as harsh and vindictive. Why not allow the player to dress in street clothing, to wear sunglasses to protect his light-sensitive eyes, and to be with his team during its practices? Certainly a player's recovery from a concussion can be safeguarded without isolating him from all other members of the team.
Kent Hance, the chancellor of the university, impresses me as a fair and level-headed man with a ton of common sense. He has undoubtedly had the opportunity to take the full measure of Michael Leach as a person. The school, when confronted with reasonably substantiated charges of retaliation against an injured player, was bound to investigate them and, pursuant thereto, to suspend the coach while the investigation was proceeding. It was no doubt surprising to school officials to discover that its coach had invoked the judicial system in this controversy with the hope of countermanding the administration's decision. Mr. Hance or someone else within his inner circle was probably asking, "Why should the university tolerate this insubordination?" The rest is now history.
In subsequent statements, Leach has insisted that the crux of the problem is that the university was unwilling to pay his contract and so decided to "steal" the money from him. The statement, like so many others the coach has made during the course of his tenure at the university, is short on both circumspection and class.
The fact that Leach's firing has resulted in a strong bone of contention in the sports world leads to a question regarding higher education in the country: what directs the dog, its head or its tail? Athletic programs, filled mostly with students of marginal ability, are major sources of revenue on university campuses. The success or failure of a coach affects the revenue stream. A successful coach thus commands a salary far in excess of a distinguished professor or even a Nobel Prize winner. It is all too easy for a football coach to become an ad hoc signal caller at a university – another unfortunate instance of the transposition of values in American culture.
Based upon the essential facts which have been elicited from all parties to this controversy, my hat is off to Texas Tech University for a decision upholding the university's integrity. It is clear that the football coach will not run the show there. Another university, desiring to enhance its revenues, will knock on Mike Leach's door. We can only hope that he has learned a valuable lesson about the treatment of injured players and about his "subordinate" role in the life of a university. As for Adam James, perhaps football will comprise, in the end, the smallest part of his university education. Again, we can hope.
January 4, 2010