Mike Leach to Tennessee now unlikely, but how long will he stay at WSU?

Mike Leach to Tennessee now unlikely, but how long will he stay at WSU?

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The sordid Tennessee coaching saga touched close to home Thursday night, dragging none other than Washington State’s Mike Leach into the melodrama. And suddenly, the Cougar faithful must be wondering what it all means for the football program that Leach has resurrected.

The comically bungled Tennessee coaching search was a real hoot to watch from afar, you’ve got to admit.

When Lane Kiffin, a one-year occupant of that job before bolting for USC, tweeted a picture of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un photoshopped wearing Vols gear, with the caption that even he had “turned down the Tennessee job,” it officially jumped the shark from sports story to The Onion parody.

But then, out of the blue, the whole sordid saga touched close to home Thursday night, dragging none other than Washington State coach Mike Leach into the melodrama. And suddenly, it wasn’t quite so funny to Cougar faithful who now have to be wondering what it all means for the football program that Leach has resurrected.

Washington State coach Mike Leach walks onto the field to do the handshake after the Washington State University Cougars take on the University of Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Saturday November 11, 2017. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

It’s a valid question. It seems indisputable that Leach and Tennessee athletic director John Currie met in Los Angeles on Thursday. By many reports, including one from the co-author of Leach’s biography, Bruce Feldman of FOX, the WSU coach had “genuine interest” in the Tennessee job. Others went even further, reporting that Leach and Currie had worked out the parameters of a deal that would be announced Friday.

That all blew up when Currie was abruptly called back to Knoxville and summarily “suspended” Friday, the latest macabre twist to a story that has done immeasurable damage to Tennessee’s already waning football reputation. It seems that Currie had gone rogue by pursuing Leach without the approval of his bosses, complicated by the apparent sabotage by former Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer, who desperately wanted the AD job himself and, voila, now has it.

I’m telling you, the 30-for-30 documentary that will one day be produced on all this will be riveting. “What if I told you … that Greg Schiano was fired at Tennessee before he was even hired because of a vigilante backlash by Vols fans ostensibly outraged by his connections to the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse case but probably more motivated by his 68-67 record at Rutgers?”

But back to Leach, whose flirtation with Tennessee no doubt ended the instant that Currie was ousted. Now he’ll resume his Cougars job laden with the baggage that the world knows he may have been on the verge of bolting.

That doesn’t have to be crippling. Successful coaches check out new positions all the time, sometimes to coax a pay raise out of their current bosses, sometimes to stroke their ego and sometimes because they wouldn’t mind a new challenge.

In Leach’s case, it might be a combination of all three, with the added element of the uncertainty surrounding the WSU athletic department after the abrupt departure of AD Bill Moos to Nebraska in mid-October. Leach and Moos had a great working relationship, but by most accounts Moos didn’t click with new WSU president Kirk Schulz — yes, the same Kirk Schulz who once hired Currie to be his athletic director at Kansas State.

One spin gaining steam is that Leach actually was in L.A. to size up Currie for WSU’s athletic-director position — an opening he hopes to have input in filling. That seems a stretch. Besides, one has to wonder if Currie’s connection to the Tennessee stench might put the kibosh on his job search for a while, regardless of the connection with Schulz.

Leach may well continue to have a wandering eye, now that he’s established he’s open to wooing. Arkansas, for instance, has a coaching vacancy, and Feldman wrote that they have interest in Leach. He’s certainly entitled to poke around, having successfully transformed a Cougar program that was 9-40 in the four years before he got there. Leach went 12-25 in his first three years, 26-12 in the next three.

In other words, he’s done what he was hired to do. This isn’t a dine-and-dash situation like, say, Kiffin, who amazingly is being touted by some as a Tennessee candidate once again after alienating the fan base by leaving for USC.

We all know by now that in college sports, coaches have far more leeway to pick up and leave than the players do. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, but it’s the way it is. Willie Taggart is already being touted, after just one year at Oregon, as a leading candidate at Florida State to replace Jimbo Fisher, who left for Texas A&M.

You might have caught the video of an irked Seminoles fan asking Fisher during his coaches show this week about how he implored the fan base to stay true to the program during their struggles this season, and wondering where Fisher’s loyalty was. Legitimate question, yet the questioner was practically thrown off the premises. Fisher quit FSU two days later to take a 10-year, $75 million deal with Texas A&M, largest in college football history.

That’s the nature of the business. It’s unrealistic to think a coach of Leach’s caliber — and he’s close to a genuine savant, quirks and all — would end his career at Washington State, particularly with their budget limitations.

Leach’s departure might not happen this year after all, and it almost certainly won’t be to Tennessee. But now we’ve found out that the Pirate is at least open to the idea of walking the Pullman plank.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry
By Larry Stone

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