Mark Story: Mike Leach, who is still looking for a second chance, is coming to Lexington

Mike Leach coming to Lexington to sign book

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2011 

Stop the presses. Mike Leach is coming to Lexington.

Not for the reason those disgruntled Kentucky football fans launching Internet petitions to hire the ex-Texas Tech head coach to replace Joker Phillips would hope. Instead, Leach will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green on Monday night at 7, signing copies of his book, Swing Your Sword.

"I fly in Sunday," Leach said Friday, via the phone. "I'm definitely looking forward to it."

Bear with me, Cats fans with wandering eyes, I did ask Leach what his interest would be in Kentucky if the head football coaching job were open.

For Leach, 50, coming to Lexington is a trip back into his past. For two seasons (1997 and '98), he coached wide receivers at UK for Hal Mumme.

I have two primary memories of Leach from those days.

If you needed to interview him, it was wise to block off a goodly amount of time. Back then, Leach would talk your ear off.

Two, I would sometimes see Leach out roller blading.

"When I lived there in Lexington, I had a regular route around my neighborhood," Leach recalled. "I'd go three times in one direction, then three times in the other. That way I wore my blades down evenly. It was a great way to stay in shape. I always thought jogging was boring."

Even as his coaching star rose over the years, Leach says he's stayed in touch with some of the players, Tim Couch, Craig Yeast, Kio Sanford, Lance Mickelsen and Grayson Smith, among them, that he coached at UK.

As for his book, Leach says the origins go back to 2005, when Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, wrote a memorable article on Leach — at the time, the coach was heavily fascinated with pirates — for The New York Times Magazine.

"After that, people were always saying to me, 'You ought to write a book,'" Leach said.

He wound up with much time to do a book (with longtime college football writer Bruce Feldman) since Leach isn't coaching. The reason one of the most creative offensive minds in football at any level is not working is covered in the book.

In spite of presiding over the modern golden era of Texas Tech football, Leach was fired by the school. His dismissal came after wide receiver Adam James, the son of former SMU star and current ESPN college football analyst Craig James, alleged the coach ordered him into an electrical closet during a practice as a punishment at a time when the player said he was suffering from a concussion.

"I'm not the type of person to overlook an elephant in the room. So I deal with what happened and why," Leach said. "And I use the words of the people accusing me, their own emails, to show that what they said happened isn't what really happened. I never ordered anybody into an electrical closet."

We're not going to give away the book, but Leach portrays Craig James as a meddling "Little League parent" who can't accept that his son is not playing more at Tech. He depicts Adam James as a player "who thought politics and influence should dictate playing time, not hard work in practice."

Kent Hance, the Texas Tech University System chancellor who ultimately fired Leach, was "still upset about a contract negotiation they'd gone through with me the year before that I won," Leach says.

After his ouster, Leach filed two lawsuits, one against Texas Tech over unpaid wages, the other a libel suit against ESPN and a public relations firm that he says "Craig James hired to smear my name nationally."

Many think the litigation, more so than the controversy over whatever did or didn't happen with Adam James, explains why Mike Leach has not coached since his 2009 firing.

"I think it's had a chilling effect, there's no question," Leach said Friday of the suits. "In 2008, I was National Coach of the Year."

After last season, it appeared that Maryland was going to hire Leach. From a distance, he certainly appeared to be who the Terrapins fans wanted.

At the last moment, the school chose to go with Connecticut head man Randy Edsall, a solid coach but one who lacks both Leach's personal pizzazz and his entertaining offensive system.

"I don't know what happened," Leach says. "I was never given any explanation. I assume they found a coach who fit the direction they wanted to go better than me."

The reasons so many fan bases, if not college administrators, seem to be hankering to see their schools hire Leach are obvious.

In 10 years at Texas Tech, a school that has historically struggled against more established football titans like Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, Leach never had a losing record. His Tech teams won nine games or more in a season four times, including an 11-2 mark in 2008.

Leach's teams light up scoreboards, employing the pass-happy offensive system the coach learned with Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and UK.

Unlike Gamblin' Hal, who tended to treat his defense and special teams as if their use were a personal affront, Leach understood a head coach can't win with offense alone.

"I want to get back to coaching," Leach says. "These should be my best coaching years and I want to get back."

OK, carping Cats fans, here's your question. If the UK job were vacant, would Leach be interested?

"That's difficult to say. I really like Joker and some of the guys on that staff. I wish them the best," Leach said. "But the Kentucky job, I think it's one that any coach would be interested in if it were open. I'm sure the people making decisions at Kentucky know the direction they want to go. Like I said, I hope it works out for the best for Joker and his guys."

In the meantime, Mike Leach is for sure coming to Lexington — to sign his book Monday night.

Says Leach: "I'm looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, and hearing from the UK fans and seeing what they've got to say."

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

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