Game Time: Texas Tech Just Wasn't That Into You, Mike Leach Era
In the end, Ruffin McNeill never had a chance.
Despite an Alamo Bowl week where he managed to keep his team focused and united amidst the most bizarre circumstances and an Alamo Bowl game where he made some gutsy calls to get Texas Tech past a frisky, albeit depleted Michigan State squad, replacing Mike Leach was never about how Texas Tech felt about Ruffin McNeill's chops as a head coach.
In the end, replacing Mike Leach was about replacing every facet, idiosyncrasy and remembrance of Mike Leach. And unfortunately for McNeill, there are no scraps in the scrapbook of Kent Hance, Gerald Myers, and Jim Sowell.
When Leach's suspension and then eventual termination went down a couple weeks ago, I compared it to a couple getting one of those "it's just a matter of time" divorces:
...The symptoms were there all along, and the divorce is merely a result of varying dysfunction in both sides of the partnership. It goes like this -- there's usually a realization somewhere that both sides are together for the wrong reasons (Leach's contract renegotiation in early 2009), some sort of event that bubbles all of the marital dirty laundry to the surface (hello Adam James), a weak attempt to try and Super Glue it together one more time (Texas Tech's attempt to get Mike Leach to apologize to the James family), and then finally the axe comes down (start packing, Mike).
Well, like any divorce, both sides eventually need to pick up the pieces and move on, and if you're looking for an example where sports imitates the psychology of real life relationships, look no further than Lubbock the last ten days. As Mike Leach was busy filing lawsuits against the school and maintaining his status as a top-ten trending topic on Twitter, Tech fans were wringing their hands over the crumbling empire Leach left behind.
A vaunted recruiting class, maybe the best in the history of the school, all of a sudden was a collection of high school free agents again. They, like the Tech fan base, were (and probably still are) fearful that the Air Raid spread offense would become a thing of the past. A coaching staff ready to keep the foundation from crumbling was held in limbo while Jim Sowell presumably pulled all the puppet strings on Kent Hance and Gerald Myers to find a replacement for Leach.
The easy thing to do in the short term would have been to promote McNeill...and if the Tech brass thought it was the right thing to do, it would have happened within two days of the end of the season. For McNeill, that call never came, and we shouldn't be surprised.
Because after any acrimonious breakup, the next step is to rid yourself of any reminders of that partnership gone awry. Unfortunately for McNeill and whatever other Leach assistants are soon surfing monster.com, they were the pictures on the wall reminding Hance, Myers, and Sowell of their ten-year relationship with Mike Leach. The only thing missing is the three Tech honchos splitting a bottle of red wine and playing a Keith Urban CD. Simply put, Texas Tech's leaders weren't that into you, Mike Leach Era. Not any more.
So in much the same way that my ex-wife will ultimately settle on someone who is humorless and illiterate (and presumably with a full head of hair), Texas Tech did what you do after a failed marriage -- they went out and landed someone the exact opposite of their "ex." Indeed, they replaced the quirky, informal, aloof, offensive-minded part-time attorney in Leach with a dignified, tie-wearing, defensive-minded Southern gentleman in Tuberville.
The stark contrast between the two head coaches started with Tuberville's introductory press conference when the coach actually showed up a few minutes early. (Unlike Leach's alleged tardiness to team meetings, no players on hand Tweeted about Tuberville's punctuality.) By accounts of those there, Leach's rambling, meandering press conference answers were replaced with calm, focused coachspeak from Tuberville, complete with the requisite references to a more "aggressive" defensive approach, keeping the streak intact of twelve jillion introductory pressers where the new coach says he plans to be more aggressive than the previous regime.
Make no mistake, in terms of resume and accomplishments, Tech was not going to do any better than Tuberville. If he's not a home run, then he is clearly a two run standup double. In 2004, he led Auburn to a 13-0 record, and was left out of the national championship game (which five years later, given all of the blind love today for the SEC, is about as surreal as it sounds). Perhaps more importantly, he knocked off rival Alabama six straight times and was a renowned big-game coach.
In short, Tuberville is a good hire.
And for that Hance, Myers, and Sowell should send Leach an engraved thank you and go ahead and scratch out whatever the check is for their tab on his firing, because without the ten straight bowl games, without the eleven-win season in 2008, without 39-33, without the exemplary graduation rate, Texas Tech doesn't get Tommy Tuberville.
That said, the hire of Tuberville should come with a warning label. Ask the folks at Ole Miss, Tuberville's first employer as a head coach. Two days after saying he'd have to be carried out of Oxford in a pine box, he was being introduced as the head coach at Auburn. In 2008, he decided to bring in spread offense guru Tony Franklin and turn his offensive philosophy upside down; this metamorphosis lasted all of six weeks into what became a 5-7 season in his last year at Auburn.
Tuberville is saying all the right things right now, in particular about keeping the Air Raid intact, but past behavior should make Tech fans cautious. What if the offense stagnates early in the season? Bigger picture, what if Tuberville does win nine or ten games in one of the next couple seasons and, say, Texas A&M fires Mike Sherman? A very specific "what if," I know, but point being is Tuberville a Tech guy for the long haul?
Worrying about keeping a coach, in some ways, is a good problem to have. Other schools don't come calling on 6-6 coaches. They come calling on winners. In this case, a winner (Tuberville) practically came calling on Tech, as he made no bones about his desire to become head coach in Lubbock from the minute Leach was let go.
Rumor had it that Tuberville secured his own transportation to Lubbock; funny that the infamous string of emails between Sowell, Hance and Myers from last year where they trashed Leach left and right mentioned what a sham Leach's candidacy for the Washington job was, in part because he paid his own way to Seattle. When you're coming off a breakup, sometimes the traits you hated in your ex get rationalized into positives for your new meat.
Now Gerald Myers and company need to hope that Tuberville and Leach share another common accomplishment -- winning football games at Texas Tech.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 PM weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.