Justice Is Served

December 31, 2009 8:57 AM

Leach had the glory but not the power


He had thought he was bigger than the college president, a mistake one of his former Texas Tech counterparts had made on an early stop in his career. But just like Bob Knight at Indiana, Mike Leach misread his standing, a miscalculation that cost Leach his job.

In a way,
Tech's decision yesterday to fire Leach could represent a tectonic shifting in the intercollegiate landscape, a reminder to people that football and basketball coaches don't lord over an institution like Third World strongmen. Even a coach with Leach's coaching portfolio can't design all the rules at an institution of higher learning.

That fact seems to have lost its currency over the years.

Let a coach win enough games and championships, and nothing he does ever earns him censure. His fiefdom has one man in charge, and anybody else who enters must take off his shoes at the front door.

Just think about how college coaches have demanded the world from university officials and ended up with the universe. Alumni talk about how energized they are because their alma mater is winning.

The school's graduation rate?

Leave it to a rump organization like the NCAA to worry about that. Besides, a Top 10 ranking in the year-end AP Poll always trumps a 10-percent graduation rate, right?

Listen to university presidents long enough and the answer might not be what a person expects. Their motives, of course, have never been this altruistic: While the presidents boast about their commitment to scholarly research and academic excellence, they seem willing to trade both for a berth in the BCS or a spot in one of the lesser bowls.

In 10 seasons, Leach held up his end of the deal. His success at Tech put the football program on the map. He made the campus a destination for elite talent, talent that brought millions into the athletic department - money that built athletic shrines for athletes in every sport on campus.

Tech fans cheered basketball, at least the kind Knight introduced them to. But they revered football in Lubbock, because football is bred into a Texan's DNA, as tied to the state's ancestral heritage as cattle and cowboys - the real cowboys, not the Dallas variety.

Texas is the home of Friday Night Lights, the state were high schools play to larger crowds than some college programs do. Other states might call this obsession with football crazy, but does anything make sense in a world where a boy in a runaway balloon can garner more media attention than a serial rapist who killed 10 women?

Leach created his own headlines, partly because he won football games. He was a colorful maverick. He took risk; he fine-tuned an offensive scheme that turned football games against Red Raiders into a larger version of Arena Football. Tech didn't just beat teams; Tech had to bury them under an avalanche of points.

That led to games that took a Tech fan's breath away. Leach brought fame to a little outpost that a GPS might have had a hard time finding.

Too much fame brings ego, and Leach had one - an ego as big as the state. He seemed to believe that winning allowed him to do whatever he pleased. If it meant Leach coached without regard to rules, others would have to deal with those rules.

For Leach never fretted what he did; he never thought he needed to answer for whatever he did, even if his conduct put another man's son in harm's way.

To recount this sad saga with sophomore 
Adam James, son of a college football legend, would be to justify it. Leach has one perspective on it; James has another. Somewhere between the two versions lays the truth.

In college sports, 
Leach wouldn't be the first coach to treat an athlete like a fraternity pledge. As misguided as his treatment of James was, Tech was willing to forgive Leach's injudicious conduct. School officials tried to broker an 11th-hour compromise, one allowing Leach to remain the coach.

Leach wanted none of it. He wasn't going to let anyone else at Texas Tech run his football program. He built Tech football; he would tear it down, brick by brick, if that's what he needed to do, finding that preferable to moving on and keeping his job.

Underestimating the resolve of university officials, he made a fatal misjudgment. They wouldn't be bullied, and they took from him a job Leach never wanted to lose. They did so for all the reasons that Knight lost his job in Indiana: College presidents, like it or not, must always wield more clout than their coaches. 

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