The University of Tennessee’s meandering, self-destructive and captivating coaching search took another remarkable turn late Thursday night. The Vols have locked in on Mike Leach as the latest top target to be their next coach, according to multiple sources.
Leach, 56, was in the Los Angeles area on Thursday, a source told Yahoo Sports, where it appears he met with Tennessee officials. Reporter Bruce Feldman, who co-wrote a book with Leach, reported that the meeting between Leach and Tennessee officials went “very well.”
The potential hiring of Leach, a notable eccentric and defiant non-conformist, would perhaps offer a fitting end to one of the strangest and most scrutinized coaching searches in the history of college football.
The Leach hire was not official or approved as of late Thursday night. There’s been tension between athletic director John Currie and university administrators, as the search has been lampooned all week. Tennessee’s reliance on the opinion of its fan base has been a looming factor in this search, and that could end up pushing Leach home as the candidate. (The early reaction to Leach has been resoundingly positive among the Tennessee fan base.)
It’s unknown what type of future Currie faces if the deal gets done, as he and university officials haven’t been in sync all week since the hiring of Greg Schiano blew up in spectacular fashion on Sunday. (In an ironic twist, Tennessee would be hiring a coach from a school run by Currie’s former boss at Kansas State, Washington State president Kirk Schulz.)
Since university officials caved to public pressure and reneged on Schiano after fan protests, coaches have lined up to decline interest. They included Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. The candidacy of Purdue coach Jeff Brohm also broke down. (Florida’s Dan Mullen had picked the Gators over Tennessee prior to the weekend).
The Doeren rejection on Thursday proved especially galling, as Tennessee waited nearly 24 hours to get turned down by a coach with a 15-25 ACC record. Doeren’s own administration appeared milquetoast in their conviction to keep him, but Doeren ended Thursday with N.C. State announcing a contract extension.
The fallout after the public nature of the Schiano backlash and the high-profile rejections painted the Tennessee athletic and university administrators as underprepared and overwhelmed. As Tennessee criss-crossed the country to provide opposing coaches with pay raises and ratchet up the university’s humiliation with each rejection, the school became the subject of relentless mockery.
Would a Leach hire be a savior? It’s hard to say, as he brings a career record of 122-80 and is regarded as one of the most innovative offensive minds in this generation of college football. Leach has revived Washington State from 3-9 his first season there in 2012 to 9-3 this season. Quarterback Luke Falk is his latest productive protégé, as the former walk-on has thrown for 14,481 yards over four seasons.
Leach also led Texas Tech to 10 consecutive bowl seasons as the head coach there from 2000-2009, but left under controversial circumstances that still linger. Leach was fired from Texas Tech while the university investigated Leach’s handling of a player with a concussion.
The player’s accusations ended up being refuted by witnesses, but there’s still lingering bitterness and questions over money Leach said he’s owed.
Leach told USA Today Sports in June: “It’ll never go away until this thing is settled. And it should be settled, because why should the future generation bear the black eye and the cloud that their university cheated their most successful coach in history?”
Leach isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Neither, as we’ve seen, are Tennessee fans. We’ll soon find out if Tennessee officials have finally found a match.
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