This is going to get ugly.
In the hours after the news broke late Monday afternoon that Texas Tech had suspended coach Mike Leach for Saturday's Alamo Bowl against Michigan State, as details of the allegations against him came to light, followed by the identity of Leach's celebrity accuser, it became apparent that we're headed for an all-out Lone Star showdown.
In one corner, we have the revered and ever-controversial coach of a Big 12 program. In the other, a perturbed father who happens to be one of the most celebrated college players in the state's history and a highly visible television personality. It's Mike Leach's word vs. CraigJames' word, with both men's considerable reputations on the line.
Let the lawyers' fees fly.
Leach's suspension and ongoing investigation are the result of allegations made by the family of sophomore receiver Adam James -- whose father, Craig, is the former star SMU running back and current ESPN analyst -- claiming Leach mistreated the player for missing practice with a mild concussion.
According to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, on Dec. 17, Leach "ordered James to stand in a dark shed at the Tech football practice facility because he thought James was faking a concussion he'd suffered during practice the previous day. Leach had him watched, and when James sat down, Leach had things removed from the shed so he could not sit. Two days later, Leach forced James to stand in a dark room for three hours."
The description sounds horrific.
However, according to the paper, Leach "did not dispute the facts, but did not believe he had done anything wrong." According to Leach's attorney, Ted Liggett, who plans to take legal steps to get the coach reinstated, the building James was sent to was not a shed, and it was cooler than on the practice field. (According to a source with knowledge of Tech's facilities, the room in question is the size of a garage.)
"Because of the fact that he had a concussion and he was extremely limited in the physical activity he could undergo, Mike felt like that was the best place for him and still be close to and part of the team,'' Liggett told the paper. "There's much, much more than meets the eye. The diagnosing doctor has signed a note stating that Adam James was in no way injured by the actions coach Leach took. In fact, he was better off in the building than he would have been outside."
As for the player, Liggett told the AP: "I believe that [Adam James] was a disgruntled student athlete that like many were not happy with their playing time." (James finished the regular season 10th on the team in receptions, with 17.) The Avalanche Journal reported that "Leach also told officials James was a slacker, and his father was always calling and acting like a Little League dad."
Regardless of whose side you take, this does not look good for Leach. If his intent was to punish and/or humiliate a concussed player, he sure picked the wrong year to do it. Thanks to Tim Tebow, Malcolm Gladwell and Roger Goodell, among others, the treatment of concussions has become a hot-button issue in 2009.
"Over the past year, there has been a greatly enhanced recognition of the dangers of concussions and the potential for long-term physical damage to players," said a statement released by James' family in supporting why they chose to report Leach to the university.
But one should always approach with caution the allegations of a disgruntled parent, whose perspective is often understandably skewed. In this particular case, the disgruntled parent happens to be one of the most visible personalities in the sport -- which is probably why this issue accelerated as quickly as it did.
You may recall the recent story of South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, who, according to a stunning FanHouse story, "grabbed a player by the throat then struck him twice in the face" during halftime of a game. Despite corroborating accounts from five witnesses, despite the player's father telling the reporter "You do something like that [on the street], you put them in jail," and despite the school's pledge to "review the matter promptly," Leavitt has yet to be reprimanded in any way, and the player in question, walk-on Joel Miller, claims his story was "misrepresented."
The battle between the architect of USF's program -- who, according to FanHouse, made a point of reminding Miller: "Before you say anything, just know I am the most powerful man in this building" -- and a walk-on's father was a mismatch of epic proportions.
Texas Tech could have done the same thing. It's a common PR tactic: launch an open-ended investigation, wait for the storm to pass and, most importantly, stand behind your $2.5 million coach.
The fact that the school suspended Leach before completing an investigation seems the product of a perfect storm: The presence of a particularly notable accuser; the sensitive nature of anything concussion-related; and, most likely, Leach's strained relationship with his employer. (Leach and AD Gerald Myers waged a very public standoff last summer over his contract renegotiations.)
Leach's blunt personality and unconventional methods have long made ripe fodder for fans and media conditioned to strait-laced, cookie-cutter coaches. Last year, as the Red Raiders streaked to a 10-0 start and knocked off top-ranked Texas, Leach's Churchill quotes and affinity for pirates made for great copy. This year, as Tech endured a more modest 8-4 finish, his players' brief Twitter mutiny and his bizarre "fat little girlfiend comments" didn't seem quite so cute.
Now, facing undeniably disturbing accusations, many will jump to the conclusion that Leach's days in Lubbock are numbered. It won't be that simple. If anything, we may be at the very beginning of a long, protracted fight.
Leach's reputation is on the line. So is his coaching future. His lawyer sounds ready to battle his accuser and the school on the coach's behalf.
Just as notably, Craig James' reputation is on the line. ESPN has dealt with no shortage of controversies over the years involving its on-air personalities, and with the exception of those who were egregiously wronged (like Erin Andrews), the network usually attempts to distance itself from potentially negative PR. It's already had to pull James from his Alamo Bowl assignment. Whether or not James' son was wronged, ESPN can't be thrilled to have one of its most visible college football faces directly involved in a college football scandal.
This is going to get ugly. Somebody's career could soon be jeopardized.
But which one will it be?