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Leach would bring much promise but also reason for pause

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.

"When they reach down to grab their popcorn, they might miss two plays, they might miss a touchdown," said Riley, who now runs the offense as the coordinator at East Carolina, which Maryland beat last week in the Military Bowl. "It's fast-paced. The ball's in the air a lot. It's a very aggressive offense by nature. We're always kind of the attacker. People like to see you being aggressive and taking shots down the field."

Riley recalls how the interest in Texas Tech football swelled under Leach.

"They had to expand the stadium three times in 10 years," Riley said.

But questions linger about Leach's departure from Lubbock last year. He is a complex coach who does not come out of the same cookie-cutter mold as most in his profession. He'd rather talk about pirates than punt coverage, read about Geronimo rather than Joe Paterno, wear flip-flops rather than Ferragamo's.

There are also questions about Leach's lack of tact. He once said at a post-game press conference that his players should stop listening to "their fat little girlfriends" instead of the coaches. Some worry, too, that he has been characterized as a mediocre recruiter who believes that defense is just the time needed for his offensive players to get a second, third or fourth-wind.

Even those who say they like Leach admit diplomacy is not his strong suit.

"What you see is what you get. He's sure not pretentious in any way — he's Mike," said Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and a former coach at Baylor who has known Leach since his days working for Mumme.

Said Riley, "He's different, but a lot of people like different. A lot of people don't like someone who spits out clichés all the time. He's not that guy. I think the fans are going to like him because he's not something you'll see every day. He's kind of a down-to-earth guy, too. He'll go in and talk to anybody."

Leach's tumultuous exit

That in-your-face approach — not only with players but with Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers (who recently announced his retirement) and university president Guy Bailey — eventually cost Leach his job a year ago.

At the end of a 9-4 season that many, including Leach, considered a disappointment, James claimed that Leach put him in a pitch-black shed after the backup receiver was diagnosed with a concussion. Leach, who told ESPN that he tired of Craig James' telephone calls complaining about his son's lack of playing time as well as the younger James' alleged sense of entitlement, refused to apologize.

Suspended for the team's Alamo Bowl game against Michigan State, Leach showed up in San Antonio, and threatened to sue. On the verge of receiving an $800,000 bonus that was part of a five-year, $12.8 million deal he had signed in February of that year, Leach was fired. Leach, who has a law degree from Pepperdine, filed suit against the university for wrongful termination, libel and slander.

He would also sue Craig James, ESPN and a public relations firm James had hired to publicize his son's situation, for defamation. Both suits are currently in litigation.

While some of the Texas Tech players were upset with the way James was treated and didn't seem disappointed that Leach was fired — "I have no complaints about this decision," defensive lineman Chris Perry said in a story that appeared on ESPN.com. right before the Alamo Bowl — many of his former players came immediately to his defense.

"There are always two sides of the story," Hodges said recently. "He's a great coach to play for; you can use the term 'player's coach.' "

Mumme knows Leach as well as anybody. The two spent countless hours driving from Iowa Wesleyan to Brigham Young, where they studied the offensive formations of longtime Cougars coach LaVell Edwards. Those conversations continued in the years they spent together at Valdosta State and Kentucky, where Leach lasted two years before going to Oklahoma for one season as offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops and then to Texas Tech.

"He's a pretty eclectic guy. He's going to do some things other coaches are not going to do," said Mumme, now the head coach at Division III McMurray University in Abilene, Tex. "You get him talking about offense, he'll say it's a tool for the players to do their job, it's kind of like being a pirate using a sword.

"Another one he's big on is Geronimo and the Indians. When we were at Valdosta State, all of players loved him because they'd go by his office and sometimes he was so captivating talking about historical stuff that I had guys miss class because they'd be listening to Leach lecture about Geronimo."

The roots of Leach's penchant for pirates, like his offense, can be found at Iowa Wesleyan.

"He and I used to drive around when we were at Iowa Wesleyan and when it would get really cold, we'd head South to recruit, and one year I said, 'We need to go to Florida' because we looked out our basement window well and it was full of snow," recalled Mumme.

"I gave Mike the task — and he was going to do it to the hilt — of finding a kid in Florida to recruit so we had an excuse to get out of the cold and he found me one in Key West. It kind of eventuated into that whole Caribbean lifestyle. Pirates are a big part of that."

Leach retreated this fall, with his wife Sharon and their four children, to Key West to get away from Lubbock after the first lawsuit was filed. According to attorneys for both sides, the case is now being appealed after a judge ruled in Texas Tech's favor in six of the seven actions and in Leach's favor in one.

The suit against ESPN, James and Spaeth Communications was filed in November.

Waiting for another chance

Leach stayed in touch with the game this fall as an analyst for CBS College Sports and by doing a radio show with SIRIUS XM.

Roger Twibell, the veteran sports announcer who became Leach's broadcast partner, said that he saw a coach-in-waiting at every stop. Calling Leach "a very nice guy with a dry sense of humor", Twibell saw Leach interact with college football fans each week.

"Every place we went people would say, 'I wish you were coaching here.'," Twibell said "Social situations you find out about people and I thought he handled himself very well."

Ted Liggett, a Lubbock personal injury attorney who has represented Leach since he arrived in town, declined to speculate whether the suits have impacted Leach's job search but added that no schools have stipulated that the suits be dropped in order to secure an interview.

"No one has floated that," Liggett said.

But Leach, despite his success at Texas Tech, remained out of coaching when jobs at Miami, Florida, Pittsburgh and Colorado opened and when offensive coordinator jobs were available at Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. (Leach had previously interviewed with the Hurricanes in 2006 when Randy Shannon was hired as well as at UCLA, Washington and Illinois, but never received any offers.)

In an interview with the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, Leach talked of the mindset he thinks has prevented schools from giving him a chance to interview for those respective openings.

"Now it's like, 'Well, it's difficult to hire him because he's in litigation,' " Leach said of his year-long absence from coaching. "They accuse me of something I didn't do, something that never happened because I never mistreated a student-athlete. If I ignore it and don't clear my name, then they assume I'm guilty and I can't get a job. If I take steps to clear my name, I can't get a job because I'm in litigation. …Hopefully, there's folks out there with a broad enough vision and understanding of things."

As Leach recently told a columnist in Austin, Texas, "I'll talk to anybody. I've talked to everybody from the famous to the unheard of."

When Leach showed up in Lubbock a decade ago, there were questions that followed him from Norman, Okla., where he had been the offensive coordinator for only one year under Bob Stoops. The Air Raid offense went from novelty act to nationally-recognized and the Red Raiders became a factor in the consistently tough Big 12, albeit without ever winning a conference title.

Mumme thinks there are similarities to what Leach would inherit at Maryland.

"He took over from Spike Dykes, who had been pretty successful and had been to a bunch of bowl games," Mumme said. "Maryland has done well here the last few years. Ralph's done quite well. What Mike will bring to the table is that he's going to give you national recognition with some recruits that you wouldn't normally get."

Though Texas Tech never played in a BCS bowl game — which could be much easier to do in the ACC — the Red Raiders always seemed on the verge.

"He got them really close," Hodges said. "Nobody ever mentioned the term BSC bowl and Tech in the same sentence before Mike got there."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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