Sometimes, life robs us of opportunities to make right what we should. Other times, it’s our own ego that is the culprit. In the case of former Texas Tech football head coach Mike Leach, who passed away in December, and the powers that be at Texas Tech University, it was both, and that unfortunate reality is one that we have to confront again this week.
Wednesday, it was announced that Leach would be one of eight people inducted into the Texas Tech Hall of Fame or Hall of Honor in 2023 (the Hall of Fame is designated for former athletes while the Hall of Honor recognizes non-athletes who made significant contributions to the athletic department…why we can’t just combine the two into one entity is puzzling but that is the way it is) and while it is a great gesture by the university to posthumously honor the school’s all-time winningest head football coach, one can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in the fact that the long-running riff between Leach and Tech was never put to bed, at least not while Leach was alive.
Where you stand on the Leach vs. the Texas Tech administration issue is irrelevant now. But for years, the fact that Leach was never paid his full 2009 salary in the wake of his abrupt and controversial firing in December (Leach claimed that was still owed around $2 million, a sum he was never paid given that the university’s claim that he was fired for cause) was a sword that “the Pirate” was willing to swing at any opportunity to try to sway public opinion in his favor in hopes of getting what he rightfully believed he owed.
"“They are outright crooks at Texas Tech,” Leach once said during a press conference when he was the head coach at Washington State some eight years after his time in Lubbock had come to an end. “Are there crooks there? Yeah. I mean, like, felons. They ought to put them in jail.”"
Despite lawsuits that took Leach to the Texas Capitol, social media campaigns, and even billboards erected in Lubbock supporting his cause, Leach was stymied at every turn by state laws that protected the university. Thus, the bitterness towards some at Texas Tech never faded for the man that put Red Raider football on the national map in a way no one else ever has.
I don’t know what the right answer was in that squabble. Not smart enough to wade into legal tussles and offer an informed opinion and not privileged enough to know fact from fiction in the whole Leach vs. Adam James mess, I never found myself able to take a side on the issue. Rather, I just wanted it to go away. I wanted the university I loved and the football coach who gave me so much joy during my time as a student and who was more responsible than any other person for turning me into a rabid Texas Tech football fan to make up so that Leach could eventually be celebrated for the amazing feats he accomplished in his 10-year run on the South Plains.
We got a little bit of closure in the 2021 Liberty Bowl when the Red Raiders pummeled Leach and his Mississippi State Bulldogs 37-7 in Memphis. While that memorable night helped many Red Raider fans move on from the Leach debate, Leach’s sudden heart attack and his untimely passing just a year later would prevent Tech and Leach from ever burying the hatchet and coming together to celebrate a man who not only changed the course of Texas Tech football but the game of football in general given his revolutionary passing attack which is still influencing the sport across the country from flag football games in the local park to the NFL.
For what he accomplished at Tech, Leach should have eventually earned a conquering hero’s welcome. There should have been a public celebration of his contributions to a program that had neither before nor has since tasted the success that it did during his tenure.
Alas, it was never meant to be. Of course, Tech wasn’t going to be able to fully honor Leach while he was still coaching another university. That’s just not how it works.
So even if the decision-makers at Tech would have wanted to bring Leach back and put him in the Hall of Honor prior to now, it would not have happened. Only because of Leach’s untimely passing is Tech now in a place to rightfully pay tribute to the man who meant so much to so many Red Raiders and doing so as soon as possible is the right move by the university.
However, it’s a shame that the cloud of the tabloid-worthy firing and the subsequent contract dispute will forever hang over the Leach-Texas Tech relationship. While the former coach repeatedly said he felt nothing but appreciation for the Red Raider fan base, his feelings toward the university and its leadership were crystal clear.
I don’t know how the Leach family feels about Texas Tech now. Do they still feel cheated out of a substantial sum of money or have they let bygones be bygones? Will they embrace this honor from Texas Tech or will there be an awkwardness surrounding Leach’s induction? Will they even show up to the ceremony in the fall? Whatever the answer is, it’s just a shame that those questions have to be asked.
I’ll forever love Texas Tech and I’ll forever love Mike Leach. Still, both the university and the man were complicit in the drama that ensued in the years following his firing and both could have come together to try to make amends had the motivation been there on both sides.
However, egos of that magnitude often get in the way of what should happen and then, sometimes life intervenes before the glacier of bitterness can fully thaw. That’s what happened when Leach lost his life six months ago and as a result, he and Texas Tech never got to celebrate together what was one of the most special periods in the history of the university. That’s a damn shame.