Mike Leach is a unique, creative, dynamic and brilliant individual in many respects, including coaching. What people don’t seem to realize, however, is that Leach is not hirable: not now, not last December given his ongoing litigation against Texas Tech, a fellow NCAA member institution. A man of unwavering principles perhaps, Leach doubles down at every opportunity, and appears intent upon continuing this fight (over his dismissal from Texas Tech) to the bitter end. In so doing, he has driven himself further into coaching purgatory.
Lawsuits are very dangerous business, and it is wise to avoid becoming involved in one, especially someone else’s. There is no telling what can come out, whether true or not, in depositions or at trial, and the whole ugly process can drag on for years. Since initiating legal action against Texas Tech, Leach has gone on to release a book and subsequently embarked on a media tour to promote it, making him all the more radioactive. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, from Maryland’s or any other prospective employer’s standpoint. What matters is that Leach’s legal entanglements have the potential to become an insurmountable distraction to the football program, and an overall public relations fiasco with which no public university could afford becoming embroiled.
By way of an update, that wrongful termination lawsuit was dismissed in early 2011 by the Texas Court of Appeals, but has since found new life. The Texas Supreme Court has asked for briefings from both sides (as reported in an August 19, 2011 AP article) and could hear the case again early next year. Leach is now arguing a point related to “sovereign immunity”, which essentially provides that the state cannot be sued without the legislature’s permission. By entering into a contract with him in his capacity as a private individual, however, Leach contends Texas Tech waived its right to sovereign immunity and can be sued for wrongful termination. This is a broad vulnerability with far reaching implications, and the new request for information suggests it is an area of unsettled law. This could help Leach’s case eventually reach the US Supreme Court. Public universities across the nation, including Maryland, are hoping that does not happen.
Leach filed a separate lawsuit against ESPN and a Dallas-based public relations firm, claiming Libel and Slander, which remains ongoing. ESPN has various contractual ties to the NCAA member institutions, again exposing countless other legal vagaries perhaps better left undisturbed.
That Leach was ever a serious contender for the Maryland job is, to me, cause for concern. Did they simply fail to recognize the serious risks that would accompany Leach’s hiring, or did they have some plan for the contractual mitigation of those risks? More specifically, did they demand Leach settle the Texas Tech dispute before accepting the Maryland job, or did they have an escape clause allowing for his timely and cost-efficient release should the whole thing blow up? We don’t know.
The only precedent I can think of ironically was Texas Tech’s hiring of Bobby Knight following his termination at Indiana. That decision was roundly condemned. While competitors on the field of play, the NCAA member institutions are business partners above all. One member simply cannot take sides in another member’s internal disputes.
Texas Tech defended Knight’s hiring by pointing out that his lawsuit against Indiana was unrelated to his 2000 dismissal, was very narrow in its scope and that Knight’s claim for damages, $100,000, was relatively insignificant. Jim O’brien, fired as Ohio State’s basketball coach in 2004, won a wrongful termination lawsuit against his former employer, but has not coached since. I cannot think of another example that is directly on point.
Forget about Leach’s legal entanglements for a moment; simply consider the power dynamics involved and an athletic director’s weakness vis-à-vis a prominent head coach. Think of some of the more successful basketball or football programs. You could probably name most of their coaches but very few of their athletic directors. Once given control of a team, the head coach has almost unfettered autonomy. In professional sports franchises, areas of responsibility are carefully delineated and functional control is widely distributed. In the college ranks, authority is concentrated in a single position, the head coach. An athletic director has very little control.
For better or worse, a college athletic director is measured by the performance of football and/or basketball teams, yet he or she is almost powerless to affect that performance. Kevin Anderson manages a $65 million operation, and that is an enormous responsibility, yet his fate has already been sealed in the eventual outcome of the Randy Edsall and Mark Turgeon hirings. Mike Leach, and Sean Miller as further example, strike me as individuals having outsized personalities that defy management or control within the framework of a university athletic department.