Multiple reports surfaced Thursday night that WSU football coach Mike Leach had interviewed with Tennessee, but it's by no means a done deal, and if WSU plays its cards right, Leach could still end up in Pullman next season.
Update: As of 6:58 a.m. Friday morning, Chynna Green, a Knoxville-based TV reporter, is reporting that Tennessee AD John Currie has been fired. ESPN’s national college football reporter, Chris Low, confirmed Green’s report a few minutes later.
Brett McMurphy, formerly of ESPN, also reported Friday morning that Currie was “prepared to hire” Leach after their meeting but that other officials at Tennessee were sabotaging the coaching search to get Currie fired.
I was not surprised to hear Thursday night that Washington State coach Mike Leach had interviewed for a job over a lunch meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon.
Football coaches shop all the time. It’s part of the business, plus, Leach’s long-term future in Pullman has been a question mark ever since the man who hired him, Bill Moos, left WSU to become Nebraska’s athletic director on Oct. 15.
But I was stunned by the news of who Leach had reportedly interviewed with: Tennessee.
Whichever way you cut this one, the slipper doesn’t seem to fit.
Tennessee, mind you, has, in the last week, become the laughing stock of the college football world as its quest to replace the fired Butch Jones quickly turned into a soap opera.
Tennessee athletic director John Currie’s first choice for his coaching vacancy was Greg Schiano. But fierce backlash from Vols fans – who protested the hire citing Schiano’s alleged knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children while he was an assistant at Penn State in the early 90s – alarmed Currie, and he dissolved the memorandum of understanding between Tennessee and Schiano on Sunday.
Since then, the Tennessee search has become the stuff of internet memes. The list of coaches to decline the Vols’ overtures reportedly includes Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren.
Leach’s name has floated around for two weeks as a candidate Currie has been interested in, but things came to a head Thursday evening, when Tennessee football blog A to Z Sports Nashville reported that Leach met with Currie about the job while in Los Angeles on a recruiting trip.
SI.com reporter Bruce Feldman, a reputable source with longstanding ties to Leach, tweeted Thursday night that the meeting between Currie and Leach went “very well.”
Momentum picked up, “Mike Leach” trended on Twitter, and at one point, reports surfaced that Leach and Tennessee could come to an agreement as early as Friday.
But things started to calm down late Thursday night, when ESPN reported that while Leach’s interview with Tennessee had gone well, the two sides had not negotiated and a deal was not imminent.
My gut feeling is that Tennessee’s search will not stop here. This whole situation just feels wrong.
Like any other head football coach, Leach has an ego, and the idea that he would accept an offer that has been declined by half of dozen of his peers – some of whom, arguably, rank lower in terms of national reputation and overall celebrity, doesn’t fit.
Also, there’s the matter of Tennessee’s unsettled leadership situation.
Currie has botched this coaching search and turned Tennessee into a laughing stock. Whether or not the Vols retain him at the end of this saga remains to be seen. But at this point, my sense is that Tennessee’s next head coach will likely be a well-regarded up-and-coming coordinator who is out to prove himself in his first head coaching job.
Leach prizes a stable leadership situation above all else. That, if you may recall, was the biggest reason behind his decision to accept Moos’ offer at WSU in 2011, and also the biggest reason people started to wonder this fall if he might follow Moos out the door.
Leach been vocal about his distaste for the multilayered, micromanaging administration he was saddled with at Texas Tech, and equally vocal about how much he enjoyed working for Moos – who by all accounts, was a great supervisor who gave his coaches the resources, support and space to do their jobs.
So why would he agree to take a job at Tennessee, with its messy situation and uncertainty about Currie’s future? Tennessee, let us not forget, is a school with inflated expectations in the deadly SEC. It’s the school that fired the much-beloved Phil Fulmer two years after he led the Vols to a 10-4 finish and an SEC East Division title, and it’s churned through three different coaches – Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones – since 2008.
It’s not exactly a place an established coach would go if his priorities are job security and a stable, supportive administration with realistic expectations.
This feels to me like Leach is playing poker. By all accounts, he’s been happy in Pullman. Turning a program around is not an easy task, and after six years, he’s only just started to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He has a good recruiting class coming in that’s headlined by four-star quarterback Camm Cooper, and he’s openly expressed his desire to stay at WSU, with the caveat that the Cougars hire an athletic director he gets along with and feels good about working for.
In Leach’s six years at WSU, he’s dug the Cougars out of the Pac-12 basement and turned the program around. He’s the first WSU coach to lead the Cougars to three bowl games in his first five seasons, and he has them positioned for a fourth bowl in the next month.
With Moos, his biggest supporter, now at Nebraska, Leach is sending the message that he’s delivered success at a place where it’s always been difficult to win, and he expects to be taken care of.
Using another job offer as leverage to get a raise is the oldest trick in any employee’s playbook, and it’s a tactic Leach reportedly employed at Texas Tech in 2008, when he interviewed at UW after Tyrone Willingham was fired.
Leach is currently on a five-year contract at WSU worth a little over $3 million per year. Per USA Today’s coaching salary database, he’s the 38th highest-paid head coach in FBS football, and the sixth highest-paid in the Pac-12 now that Arizona State has fired Todd Graham.
Tennessee was reportedly ready to double Gundy’s $4.2 million annual salary, so it’s no secret that the Vols have much deeper pockets than the cash-strapped Cougars.
That level of compensation is attractive and would merit consideration, but Leach has never struck me as a guy whose first priority in life is money.
After all, this is the guy who went to law school, incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, then went out on a limb and took a low-paying assistant coaching job to try and turn his coaching dream into reality.
WSU President Kirk Schulz tweeted this week that he understands the importance of retaining Leach and will do everything in his power to keep him.
Now, the question is, with WSU’s limited budget, how much of a raise can the Cougars afford? And what other incentives they could offer Leach to try to keep him in Pullman?
“What does Leach want?” you ask.
A stable situation at WSU, with an administration that will back him to the hilt. If the Cougars can give him assurance of a long-term deal, a good-faith raise for himself and his assistant coaches, and some real clout in the AD search, he might just decide to stick around.
So, don’t buy into the Leach-to-Tennessee trope quite yet. My sense is that this is far from a done deal. The Vols have been integral in helping several coaches get raises and long term deals this week. Why should Leach be any exception?
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Leach might not turn down the Vols and then turn around and seek out another, more attractive and more lucrative opportunity if he doesn’t get what he wants from WSU.
His record at WSU and at Texas Tech speaks for itself, and he should remain a hot commodity as the coaching carousel continues to turn.
Leach flew back to Pullman from Los Angeles late Thursday night, but did not answer Tennessee-related questions from a reporter who met his arriving flight at the Pullman Airport.
If WSU does manage to retain him, I would expect some sort of raise and contract extension to be announced in the next week or so.
Otherwise, well, there are other suitors out there.