Mike Leach, the quirky head coach of Texas Tech, has been fired following a wild few days of accusations, suspension, and a lawsuit over his alleged mistreatment of Craig James’s son, Adam James. Others closer to the program will have to chime in, but my sense is that Adam James was a problem player (see these emails on CBS’s website from former players and various coaches), and that as a result a frustrated Leach set out to embarrass Adam James (who showed up to practice wearing sunglasses) by telling him to stand in the dark during practice rather than skip out completely. It clearly was an error in judgment on Leach’s part: Players may act up, but as long as you’re the head coach, you have to take the higher road. Although I honestly doubt whether this would have happened were it not for the volatile mixture of Leach, Adam and his father Craig James, and the acrimonious state of Leach’s and the athletic director’s relationship, Leach opened the door by making an example of the player.
So that’s how we got to the point where Leach is no longer the head coach. The lingering question is whether Tech had grounds to fire him “for cause,” as is being reported. If Tech fired him without cause, it would be required to pay him $1.6 million ($400,000 for the four remaining years on his contract) as a lump sum. (Leach’s camp claims that he will be entitled to the $800k owed to him if he were still the coach on December 31, citing the language in the contract about 10 days. I’m not so sure: that language allows the coach to “cure” violations that can be cured within 10 days, before firing him. Instead, he has already been fired. But that’s a negotiating point, which I’ll address in a moment.)
Leach’s contract is interesting on a number of levels — it is heavily incentive oriented, and has a variety of non-traditional terms — but it works like most college head coaching contracts in that there are separate outcomes if the coach is fired “for cause” or “without cause.”
“Cause” is defined as “Coach’s violation of any material provision of this Agreement (with specific reference to Article IV.” “Article IV” lays out most of the duties and restrictions put on the coach, and is worded very broadly and vaguely. It directs Leach to “conduct himself at all times in a manner consistent with his position as an instructor of students” (the Mike Price provision), to “follow all applicable University policies and procedures,” and to “devote his entire time, labor, effort and attention, in good faith, to conduct and perform the duties commensurate with the position of Head Football Coach.”
I don’t think the University will focus on those. Instead I anticipate them to focus on this clause: “Coach shall assure the fair and responsible treatment of student-athletes in relation to their health, welfare and discipline.” Did he not give Adam James fair treatment? That’s unclear. Adam James claimed to suffer from a concussion, and, contrary to Craig James’s assertions, there is nothing detrimental to a player’s health about being isolated in a dark equipment shed or media room. Yet it does sound something akin to punishing an injured player, and I expect the University to take the position that Leach was trying to deter injured players from coming forward or not participating. That might have some weight.
The other side of the coin is obviously that Leach seemed not to really believe Adam James; that he was reputed to be lazy; and that Leach’s policy was that if you are injured you must still participate in practice and cannot simply go back to your dorm room. Interestingly (or tellingly, for both sides) I’ve yet to see an official report from a trainer or anyone besides the James family that said James was not cleared to play, and I’ve heard mixed things coming from Texas Tech — both that he was cleared to play and Leach was just playing along, or that he wasn’t and so Leach didn’t make him practice but did make him stand in the shed and media room.
The contract also states that violations of these provisions must be either “willful or through negligence,” which means two things: Leach did not have to intentionally try to harm or damage James, but they must show that his conduct was actually detrimental to him in some way. I take it that their argument will be that Leach, even if he didn’t think what he was doing was wrong, sent the wrong message to James and the rest of the team that injuries and concussions won’t be taken seriously and that they should rush back to practice. Leach will dispute that and say he did nothing wrong to James at all, and in any event under the circumstances (James’s history and reputation especially), he acted reasonably.
In the end, you assert that you’re firing someone “for cause” because why wouldn’t you? If you say without cause at the outset, you automatically have to pay. (Note too that it sounds like the University tried to get Leach to sign an “apology” letter that quoted from the contract, which would have been used against him as an admission as having violated it and thus giving them permission to fire him for cause.) But that doesn’t mean you always fight it out to the end. My guess is that the University will pay Leach something but it will be less than the $1.6 million they initially said they owed him. This is not a Mark Mangino case where a lot of people came out in favor of firing the coach, nor is it a situation where the coach did something disreputable in his personal life or committed NCAA infractions. If Tech wants Leach gone — and many in the athletic department clearly do — they have a right to, but I’d be surprised if Leach got nothing. He’ll just get a lot less than he was set to make a week ago.