Leach would bring much promise but also reason for pause

Controversy followed offensive pioneer when he left Texas Tech last winter

January 01, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

The lasting impression of Mike Leach left after his 10 seasons at Texas Tech is not only of the Red Raiders scoring touchdowns as if they were in a video game. It is also the controversy that surrounded Leach as he was being fired last December, on the eve of his team's 10th straight bowl game.

Now, Leach is a serious candidate to become Ralph Friedgen's successor at Maryland. If he does emerge from his exile in Key West, Fla. another image may come into focus: that of a straight-shooting, point-producing perfectionist who could create an excitement in College Park that not even a 9-4 season could rekindle.

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson is expected to hire a new coach by Jan. 4, the day coaches are again allowed on the road to recruit. Leach is a serious enough candidate to have met with university president Wallace Loh and members of the search committee.

Leach, 49, was the only candidate named by Anderson — in response to a media question — during his announcement that Friedgen wouldn't return in 2011.

A high-wire 'Air Raid' offense that helped produce an 84-43 record and eight seasons with at least eight wins — including 11-2 in 2008, when Leach was named national coach of the year — was only part of Leach's success in Lubbock. During his tenure, Texas Tech had among the highest graduation rates of any football team in the Big 12 at nearly 80 percent.

But controversies that included an incident involving Adam James (the son of ESPN analyst Craig James) as well as an expletive-filled lock room tirade after a seven-point win over Baylor — captured on video and posted on the internet — have become viral vitriol for Leach's detractors. There are also lawsuits filed by leach that followed him into his forced sabbatical this fall

The coach who gave Leach his first college job and one of Leach's former quarterbacks see it differently.

"Sometimes kids get so used to coaches who are political and when you run into someone like Mike who's going to be brutally honest, it doesn't sit well with 'em," said Hal Mumme, who hired Leach as the offensive line coach at little Iowa Wesleyan in 1989 and took Leach with him to Valdosta State and Kentucky as his offensive coordinator.

"If you can't play, he's going to tell 'em he can't play," he said. "He does things his own way and he's been successful. He's not into appeasement."

Former Texas Tech quarterback Cody Hodges said that while Leach is not an easy guy to play for, he "never had a problem" with anything Leach did during his five years in Lubbock.

"Coach Leach was someone I enjoyed playing for and if I was a high school kid now and I was being recruited, I would feel comfortable with coach Leach," said Hodges, who is a motivational speaker. "He expects greatness. Even as a redshirt quarterback when I was third or fourth string on scout team, he expected me to be great in practice."

Hodges said that those expectations extended off the field.

"It's not just on the football field, he expects you to be great off the field," Hodges said. "You are going to go to class, you are going to graduate. A lot of guys who didn't go to the next level (the NFL) have jobs and are successful off the field because of the expectations put on them while they were at Texas Tech."

Rallying the fan base

Leach, who has declined repeated interview requests from The Sun, told a newspaper in West Palm Beach, Fla. during Miami's coaching search to replace Randy Shannon, "They could hire me and we'd have one decade after another of success with students that graduate and don't get into trouble or they can hire somebody else."

Leach did tell The Baltimore Sun on his SIRIUS XM radio show that he has long known he wanted to coach again.

"I always figured I would," he said. "I always planned to."

Despite the baggage left over from his decade in Lubbock, Leach could help put Maryland in the national spotlight and, more importantly, fill seats at Byrd Stadium, where attendance had dropped steadily in recent years. Season ticket sales have slipped from 28,661 in 2005 to below 20,000 this season and prior to the season nearly a third of the 66 luxury suites had not been leased.

Since Anderson called not bringing back Friedgen, this season's ACC coach of the year, for the final year of his contract a "business decision," it seemed likely that Leach would be contacted. He is one of the few "name" coaches — able to ignite the fan base just by arriving on campus — available.

Former Texas Tech player and Leach assistant Lincoln Riley said that Maryland fans are in store for a thrill-a-minute offense if his former coach and boss comes to College Park.

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