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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

At A Junction: Mike Leach And The Fading Autonomy Of The Coach

Illustration for article titled At A Junction: Mike Leach And The Fading Autonomy Of The Coach

So it appears that even the sharpest, most forward-thinking free radical in college football isn't any more evolved than Bear Bryant in the Texas hills. Mike Leach, for all his smarts, is on the wrong side of a movement now.

ESPN's Joe Schad has Leach's version of the events, and it is probably not a good sign that the coach comes off poorly even in his own telling.

A source close to the family said [Adam] James sustained a concussion on Dec. 16, was examined on Dec. 17 and told not to practice because of the concussion and an elevated heart rate. The source said Leach called a trainer and directed him to move James "to the darkest place, to clean out the equipment and to make sure that he could not sit or lean. He was confined for three hours."

A source told The Associated Press that James said Leach told him if he came out, he would be kicked off the team.

According to the source, Leach told the trainer, two days later, to "put [James] in the darkest, tightest spot. It was in an electrical closet, again, with a guard posted outside."

An attorney for Leach said that while James was secluded twice, the circumstances were not as portrayed in that account.

Ted Liggett, Leach's attorney, said James "was placed in an equipment room as it was much cooler and darker" than the practice field "after a doctor had examined him and returned him to the field."

Liggett said that on that day, a trainer was posted outside the room and that James was provided ice. Liggett said that James was secluded for one to two hours.

Liggett said that on another occasion, James was placed in a "press room with air-conditioning and a stationary bike he could use."

Liggett also said Leach placed James in those environments because "Mike tries to keep the players that are unable to practice as close as he can."


Liggett is vowing legal action, and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal has corralled a few former players to say nice things about their old coach. One of them, Glenn January, assures that Leach "doesn't deviate from the (NCAA) rule book at all." That's great and everything, but I'm not sure the old rules matter much any more. In the past few months alone, we've learned of the Back to Bataan fitness philosophies of Mark Mangino and Rich Rodriguez and now, apparently, Leach, and we've also learned, again and again, of the sad fragility of former football players. There is little sympathy for the coach in this climate; Bear Bryant in the Texas hills looks more and more like another asshole in a bad hat. The old rules are being rewritten, just as surely as they were in 1969, when black players boycotted practices everywhere from Indiana to Iowa to Wyoming. That was the last time players rose up en masse against the authority of their coaches. Author Michael Oriard calls it the sport's "quiet racial revolution," the result of which was that "coaches lost their cultural authority." At the time, this was deemed such a threat to the soul of college football that Sports Illustrated devoted a hand-wringing three-part series to the matter. The consensus is that college football has come out just fine.

You can hear echoes of 1969 in the protests earlier this year from players at Michigan and Kansas and now also in the James family's statement ("subjected to actions and treatment not consistent with common sense rules for safety and health"), and you can hear them, too, in the fervent defense of the coach's prerogative (that means everyone out there bleating stupidly about the "pussification of America"). There are differences, sure. The players have more leverage now (the front page of The New York Times is on their side); the coaches, more power (in 1973, the four-year scholarship became a one-year renewable grant, left to the coach's discretion). And the subject has shifted from the race of the athletes to their health. But the stakes haven't changed, and in both cases the agitators demanded the same thing: a piece of the coach's supposedly sacrosanct autonomy. The players will get a sliver, as they did in 1969, and a proud, retrograde sport will move incrementally forward, and football will again be better for it.


Leach suspended after player complaint [ESPN]
Former Tech players support suspended Leach [Lubbock Avalanche-Journal]
College Football's Season of Discontent [Slate]

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