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December 4, 2010

Exclusive:The Interview Mike Leach Craves So Badly

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There is one football coach out there who could unquestionably energize the Miami Hurricanes fan base and captivate the South Florida sports market. He is a guy talented and creative enough to hang 50, 60 even 70 points on some of the top names in the Big 12, a guy whose name just won't go away, who teases the imagination, but who would take a University President like Donna Shalala and an athletic director like Kirby Hocutt to a dark place where they almost certainly wouldn't dare roam.

"I've tried," Mike Leach said Friday morning. "I've tried making calls. I've tried sending emails."

He wakes up every morning and sees the sun rise over Key West and all he thinks about these days is Miami.

"We would win national championships," Leach says.

If only Miami would think of him and his Air Raid offense that was such a colorful part of college football over the past decade.

If only he could get a meeting and chance to clear his name, smeared by his controversial exit from Texas Tech last fall in an entangled mess with football/broadcast legend Craig James and his son Adam, who alleged that Leach locked him in an electrical closet for several hours.

If only he could explain why he has sued Texas Tech and ESPN and why he is obsessed with clearing his name and becoming appealing again to a school like Miami.

The accusation is that Adam James was not allowed to sit down in the closet and that a "guard" was posted outside the door. James subsequently released footage of the closet interior that he took with his cell-phone camera and the James family filed the complaint that led to Leach's termination.

Leach said the truth is that Adam James was a team attitude problem who showed up late for practice that day in street clothes when he was supposed to be on time and in workout gear. He said he told his trainer to take James to a safe, dark place, because the paramount considerations when a player suffers a concussion are light sensitivity and the risk of an additional blow to the head. He says the "electrical closet" was in fact a "sports medicine garage," in which James could receive fluids and remain out of the light. The "guard" was a trainer who checked on James every fifteen minutes.

"If I was in the business of mistreating student athletes, why would I pick a kid who played five plays a game with the richest dad there was and someone who has a microphone," Leach said. "Sure it's fun to win games and get first downs and score. But let's not worry about that. Let's just be unfair to Adam James. Think about the absurdity of that. It's inexplicable."

You could go on for hours and hours, weed through all the legal paperwork, and try to decipher this mess. The dispute has been in litigation for months and Leach expects to win.

But things won't be reconciled in time for the opportunity he sees up the road in Coral Gables, the job he flirted with four years ago before Randy Shannon was hired, when people tried to say he showed up for a meeting with former Athletic Director Paul Dee in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and that he had been drinking.

"No, no, nothing like that," Dee told the Palm Beach Post. "Mike's a fine guy, an interesting guy, but we just didn't get the sense that he was as interested as we had been led to believe. We were serious about him, though. We wouldn't have interviewed anybody we weren't seriously thinking about."

"It was the Waldorf Astoria. Middle of the day," Leach said. "I wore a suit and tie. It wasn't really an interview. We threw ideas across the table.

"I've never met Donna Shalala. I have always wanted to meet her because of what she did at Wisconsin and how she built that program. I told them I needed to bring in my own staff and they weren't planning on releasing the whole staff. I felt I had a good team and to be effective I needed my staff and couldn't leave them hanging in Lubbock. I was making more money at Texas Tech than they were looking to pay. But I told them I really wanted to work at Miami and would do it for less. We left the meeting and I am not sure they realized how interested I was in the job. We never spoke again."

This time around, Leach probably won't get a return call from Shalala or Hocutt. He likely will watch as Missisippi State Coach Dan Mullen or Tommy Tuberville, the guy who replaced him at Texas Tech, gets the job.

Maybe the sweepstakes winner will have a resume as sexy and complete as his, but probably not. It will eat at Leach like you wouldn't believe. But universities simply don't talk to folks who are involved in litigation with other universities or are this controversial, even if he had an 84-43 record at Texas Tech.

"Look, it's very easy to find the truth," Leach said. "The depositions and court records vindicate me and the Adam James allegations are proven to be false. I never mistreated a student athlete. But if I fight the false allegations to clear my name, which is the purpose of the litigation, people say I can't get a job because I am in litigation. Well what do they suggest?"

So Leach gets lost from his desperation in the peace that is Key West. He jumps on his bicycle and thinks about the tantalizing possibilities if he ever could get Shalala and Hocutt's attention, ever could get The U to see his side of the story, and convince the University power structure that he really isn't the massive gamble that he is perceived to be. That quest has brought him right here, to this exclusive interview with CaneSport.

"Miami has great athletes. Miami has always been personified by wide-open offense," Leach said. "They aren't about double right and power right and power left. Miami is about the stuff that I run that revolutionized football. You can get all the skill players in Florida and get them the football and let them run.

"Have I thought about what great potential there would be if I ever had the opportunity to do that job and get my guys in there? Yeah. We could do big things, no question. Look what we did at Texas Tech. We won more games and bowl games than they did in the entire history of the school. And we never got the first pick on recruits the way we would do at Miami."

Leach thinks the impact he would have at Miami goes beyond just wins and losses.

We talked for an hour. At times it almost sounded like it was like a rehearsal for a job interview.

Leach clearly was playing to win, like this conversation was his national title game. And in a way it was because he has fallen in love with South Florida. He came down to Key West for a seven-day vacation to get his family away from the mess that was his departure at Texas Tech. He ended up enrolling his kids in school in Key West after Day 4.

"The other candidates out there haven't accomplished what I have accomplished," he said. "If I just had the chance to present my side of the story and let them see the depositions and set my name straight.

"I am a guy about truth, a guy about right and reputation who stands for the right thing. I would continue the great standards that Randy Shannon established with academics. When I got to Texas Tech, they were on academic probation. We became a school with one of the top graduation rates in the country."

But on top of the James controversy, Texas Tech also grew tired of Leach's steady flirtations with other jobs. There were bitter contract negotiations the school had to go through to keep him even though he insists money isn't his driving force in life and he has always felt he would take less money if that needed to be the case to get the job at Miami.

So as the UM coaching derby marches onward in search of the right man to take Miami football to the next level, Leach will be riding his bicycle around Key West, three hours from Greentree Practice field. His only connection to football these days comes in those three hours a day that he fires up some equipment in his island bungalow and does a talk show on the Sirius Satellite radio network.

In the meantime, a newspaper clipping sits on the desk of Miami President Donna Shalala. The headline screams: `Shannon fired after shocking loss.' The story is covered by a handwritten letter.

"Dear Donna," Donald Trump began. "You made a big mistake when you did not take my advice and hire Mike Leach of Texas Tech. Look what's happened to them since he left……Hire Coach Leach and you will be #1. Best wishes. Donald."

The Donald had one more parting thought.

"P.S. And you can now get him for the right price. Best wishes. Donald."

Those close to Leach talk about what a great guy he is, how smart and educationally-minded that he is, how he has a law degree from Pepperdine University. They talk about how as a football coach he made Texas Tech relevant, the same challenge facing the next coach at Miami.

I asked him how a guy who sounds so normal and intelligent can be publicly perceived as so eccentric and different.

"I don't have any idea," Leach said. "I'm too close to the fire to say. Come on down to Key West and hang out for a while. Can you imagine the resistance that the caveman who invented the wheel got or the guy who invented fire?

"I've never noticed any dramatic differences between me and everyone else. I'm just interested in finding all the things that life has to offer."

He has found many of them on the island oasis that is Key West. The airport provides him two direct flights a day to Miami and Atlanta, and others to Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Charlotte so that if he has to leave he can get to where he needs to go. But he would drive to Hocutt's office at the Hecht Athletic Center. He knows how long it would take him to get there -- about three hours.

"I like it very much down here. I have had the chance to do some things I never had the chance to do," Leach said. "But if I could go back and coach at a place like Miami we would win and win big, national championships and ACC championships. At Texas Tech, even in the place where we were in recruiting in Texas, our record against Nebraska was 5-1 and we beat Oklahoma three of the last five years and we beat Texas A&M eight out of 10 times.

"If you look at the guys on NFL rosters, in the Big 12 Texas has 32, Oklahoma has 29, Nebraska has 28 and Texas Tech has nine. Yet we won 29 games in the last three years. Now you imagine what we could do at a place like Miami."

Leach remains insanely popular. Team Leach on Facebook has 65,000 members. Go on the message boards at CaneSport.com and Miami fans are talking about him day and night.

"They want people in the seats? We will fill them. I have an exciting brand of football and I'll bring them an exciting identity," Leach said. "If they want to hire someone who will create a legacy and be there for a decade or two, I am their guy.

"I am three hours down the road. I just want to meet with them. This thing with Texas Tech and Adam James will pass in a couple months. Nobody will win as many games or have a better graduation rate. Who would be better to work for than the President who laid the foundation at Wisconsin and one of the best athletic directors in the country? I just need them to call me."

Before we ended, Leach left me with a few parting words.

"Miami needs an identity," he said. "And I bring that."

For Donna and Kirby, that might just be the hangup, why Mike Leach will probably be left sitting there in his bungalow in Key West, waiting for the telephone to ring, day-dreaming about what could have been at The U.




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