The summary firing of Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach Wednesday for allegedly punishing a concussed player by isolating him in an equipment room for hours shows that even today’s highly-paid collegiate coaches can expect swift justice if they overstep their bounds with players.
Leach is the winningest coach in the history of Texas Tech and succeeded in bringing a measure of glamor to the football program in Lubbock, Texas, through a blitzkrieg offense that routinely leads Division I college football in passing. The Red Raiders have qualified for a bowl in each of Leach's 10 seasons and have won five of the past seven.
Firing him is a potential civic catastrophe in football-mad Texas.
True, there has been some ill will between Leach and Texas Tech Athletic Director Gerald Myers as Leach began demanding more authority over the program. But the speed with which Leach was fired is striking.
Leach was suspended Monday as the school investigated complaints from a player, Adam James, that the coach sent him to sit alone in an equipment room for not playing through a concussion. The room was originally described as a dark shed, but reports have since suggested it is a decent-size storage room.
When Leach filed a lawsuit trying to overturn the suspension so he could coach in Saturday's Alamo Bowl, the school fired him.
'Old school' coaching or new anger?
The Leach firing comes a few weeks after Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino resigned amid accusations by players that he physically and emotionally abused them at practice and during games. Mangino was college football Coach of the Year in 2008. Leach was 2008 Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Unlike coaches such as Rick Neuheisel or Mike Price, who were both fired in 2003 for off-campus issues (gambling and allegations of indecent behavior with a stripper, respectively), the two recent examples point to coaching techniques that verge on cruelty.
"I think it's almost comical, if it weren't so serious, that too many parents and too many coaches kind of treat players and children like dirt during the week, and then on the weekend when the game comes up, they tell them, 'Okay, now go out and be great,' " Fred Akers, the former Texas Longhorns coach, told the Washington Post last month.
Modern players both in college and, to a greater degree, professional sports have changed, and many are less willing to take the tough, confrontational style epitomized by the late Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, who often berated players for perceived weaknesses. Yet coaching, too, is exhibiting a personally vindictive turn, some say.
“Whatever happened to extra running as motivation to play better, or punishment for missing assignments?" writes Fanhouse’s senior national columnist, Kevin Blackistone. “Are the stadium stairs no longer available at the end of practice?"
“This isn't about not being able to do it the way old coaches did it,” Blackistone adds. “No, this is about abject stupidity, and there shouldn't be any quarter for it in institutions of higher learning. Abuse isn't a part of pedagogy any more than it is a part of anything else.”
The case of Bob Knight
Ironically, Texas Tech was also involved in perhaps the most well-known example of an elite college coach getting the sack for being abusive toward his players.
Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight threw chairs and upbraided players for years, but it was not until a player accused Knight of choking him that Knight was put on zero-tolerance probation by the university in 2000. When Knight grabbed another player by the arm to lecture him about respect later that year, university president Myles Brand fired him for "a continued pattern of unacceptable behavior." Knight went on to coach another eight years at Texas Tech.
Four years after firing Knight, Brand was president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and instituted a strategic plan that mandates that "individuals at all levels of intercollegiate athletics will be accountable to the highest standards of behavior." Brand’s reaction came partly in response to growing concerns about player abuse, exploitation, and rising personal and financial stakes in the amateur game.
In Leach's case, however, swift justice could mean the absence of a full hearing. Leach has defended himself by saying the player was in the air-conditioned equipment garage for his own protection. Leach’s lawyer says he has evidence to show that Monday’s suspension, which led to Wednesday’s firing, is without merit.
"We can guarantee that the fight has just begun," Ted Liggett, Leach’s laywer, said.
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