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Was the Mad Scientist Mistreated?

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Photo of Mike Leach, former Texas Tech University head football coachPhoto of Mike Leach, former Texas Tech University head football coach

One year removed from being named coach of the year by his peers, Texas Tech University head football coach Mike Leach is out. Today, Tech fired the man who "60 Minutes" - on the heels of the Red Raiders' 11-1 2008 regular season - labeled "unorthodox and successful." As CBS correspondent and Tech alum Scott Pelley pointed out, sportswriters had taken to calling Leach the "mad scientist of football."

Well, Leach's latest experiment appears to have blown up in his face. According to widespread reports, the coach twice forced one of his players, Adam James, to stand in a dark, confined space known as "The Shed," a building housing electrical equipment that is located adjacent to practice fields, during team workouts two weeks ago. On Monday, the university suspended Leach, who then sought a court injunction in the hopes of coaching the 8-4 Red Raiders against Michigan State in Satuday's Valero Alamo Bowl.

James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James, alleges he had suffered a concussion and was subsequently mistreated by Leach - the rare coach who never played college football himself (he's a trained lawyer). As inevitably happens (Leach represents the second Big 12 coach this season to lose his job over student-athlete treatment), several players and coaches came to Leach's defense, portraying James as short on Division I ability or just plain soft. In fact, one former wide receivers coach says he disagreed with Leach over offering the lightly recruited James a scholarship in the first place. Others expressed relief upon learning of the coach's dismissal.

Whether Leach was too hard on James is sure to be the subject of future debate (the coach's attorney promises "the fight has just begun"), but I can't help but wonder whether universities are being too hard on today's coaches. I'm reminded of a book I gave my dad for Christmas many years ago. It was written by Jack Conner, who played for Frank Leahy at Notre Dame during the 1940s. In Leahy's Lads, Conner recounts how Irish players looked forward to Saturdays, given that game day represented a welcome break from practice week. Conditioning and contact were emphasized constantly during Leahy's workouts, where quarterbacks took snaps until their hands bled. You can question such extreme measures, but the results speak for themselves: Leahy, who had played for the legendary Knute Rockne, led Notre Dame to national championships in 1943, '46, '47 and '49 - the most successful stretch in the school's storied gridiron history.

Coaches today - whether in South Bend, Ind., or Lubbock, Texas - face undeniable pressure to win, and their compensation packages invariably reflect that. But schools have shown recently that they're willing to cut their losses, too. Earlier this month, the University of Kansas reportedly paid 2007 national football coach of the year Mark Mangino $3 million to make him and the allegations of player abuse swirling around him go away. Back in February, Texas Tech signed Leach to a five-year, $12.7 million contract. In a statement, Leach claims that his firing is in part related to lingering animosity resulting from last year's contract negotiations. That deal included the provision that Leach be paid a bonus if he remained at the school as of Dec. 31, so the university saves $800,000 in the short term, at least.

Tech can expect a lawsuit "soon," according to Leach attorney Ted Liggett. Maybe one day we'll know who was truly mistreated this season in Lubbock - James or his head coach.

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