How quickly can things change for a college football coach? A look at the 2008 season for three programs on the rise:
On a Friday night in September, the 13th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks and No. 19 South Florida Bulls squared off in primetime at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. A year earlier, both teams had worked their way up to No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings. And after both schools staged a thrilling showdown — South Florida won 37-34 — it appeared they weren't going anywhere.
On a Saturday night in November, the unbeaten Texas Longhorns took their No. 1 ranking into Lubbock, Texas, for a shootout with the unbeaten Texas Tech Red Raiders. ABC commentator Brent Musberger deemed it "the biggest game in Texas Tech history." In the finish of the year, a Tech touchdown pass from Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree with one second left upended the Longhorns 39-33 and vaulted the Red Raiders to No. 2 in the BCS standings.
In 2008, no coach in the country could have appeared more secure in his job than Texas Tech's Mike Leach, Kansas' Mark Mangino and South Florida's Jim Leavitt. All three had brought their programs unprecedented success. Heck, Leavitt started his program from scratch in a trailer. Leach and Mangino took floundering Big 12 programs and made them relevant. Both were chosen national coach of the year.
One season later, they were all gone, sent packing for the same reason: Allegations of player mistreatment. Not since Ohio State's Woody Hayes had clocked a Clemson player on the sidelines in the 1978 Gator Bowl had a coach's behavior toward players created such a stir. And now there were three incidents in the same season?
It was Coaches Gone Wild.
"That they all came to fruition in this particular year, that's what the phenomenal thing was about it," said Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "You go back and check the history, that occurrence has never happened. I dare say, as you look to the future, it won't happen again. It's extraordinary."
As college football begins another season, three of its finest coaches will not be on the sidelines. Leach will be in the booth broadcasting games for CBS College Sports, and Mangino and Leavitt appear to be laying low. In their places are the gentlemanly Tommy Tuberville at Tech, Turner Gill at KU and Skip Holtz at South Florida.
What does it mean for coaches around the country who prefer to sprinkle a little more spice into their player interactions? Well, they might want to watch their back.
To this day, Leach, Leavitt and Mangino have not shown any regret.
Mangino's last words to the public, in the moments after KU's loss to Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium, were "I may be one of the more pleasant people to deal with in college football. Trust me." Earlier, Mangino defended himself by saying, "I'd rather die standing up than live on my knees."
The three coaches certainly have one thing in common: They aren't going to apologize for who they are.
Of Leavitt, former South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe said, "He'll never change. When I was a freshman coming in, he told us that from Day 1: 'I'll never change. I am who I am.' He always stuck by that. I heard that 30 times a year."
The evidence that change may be necessary started coming out on Nov. 17, when KU athletic director Lew Perkins confirmed that he had met with the football team and opened up an investigation into Mangino's treatment of players. Mangino had poked a player in the chest with his finger during a pregame walkthrough earlier in the season at Colorado, an incident that kicked off the investigation and led to more allegations.
The floodgates were suddenly open on Mangino's eight seasons in Lawrence. Published reports contained everything from Mangino ordering players to bear crawl across artificial turf that was hot enough to burn the skin off one player's hand to Mangino using racial stereotypes to demean his players verbally.
Mangino was being tried in the court of public opinion, and it didn't help that the Jayhawks lost their last seven games, ruining a promising season. Mangino resigned and reached a settlement with KU, which would pay him $3 million. The findings of the university's internal review were sealed. The man who led KU to a 12-1 season in 2007 and its first back-to-back bowl appearances in 2008 disappeared into a cold December night.
Weeks later, Leavitt, one of Mangino's former colleagues at Kansas State from 1991-95, would come under similar fire when a report surfaced that Leavitt had grabbed the throat of a player and struck him during halftime of a Nov. 21 game against Louisville. The player had made a mistake on special teams during the first half.
"Everything happened so quickly," said Grothe, who did not see the incident. "There were reports coming out that stuff has happened. Two or three weeks later, he's gone."
Leavitt was fired Jan. 8 after a school investigation concluded he struck the player. Leavitt denied the allegations and sued South Florida for wrongful termination in March.
Grothe said he loved playing for Leavitt, who left K-State to start the South Florida program in 1996.
"He's wild, and he's very passionate about what he does," Grothe said. "He was a great guy, and he made the game fun."
The same things were often said about Mike Leach, who without a doubt had the weirdest exit of the three. Leach came under fire in late December for allegedly ordering a player with a concussion to stand inside a dark shed during practice. The player, Adam James, was the son of ESPN college football analyst Craig James, a former star running back at SMU.
Accusations were made back and forth between Leach and the James family, but ultimately, Tech chancellor Kent Hance sided with James. Leach was fired because his actions increased the risk of physical harm to a player, despite the fact that the team doctor told university officials that James was at no physical risk by being in the shed.
Leach had gone 84-43 in 10 seasons and brought Tech to national prominence. His ouster was never popular among fans and former players and still isn't accepted.
"Deep down I think it was a lot more than the James kid being put in a nice room for a couple hours," said Rex Richards, who started on the offensive line for Leach from 2000-02. "I'll tell you, the couple times I got caught skipping class, I wish they would have put me in an air-conditioned room for a few hours instead of running me until I was sick."
Richards described Leach's rule regarding injured players at practice: They are supposed to wear their uniform and continue doing proper workouts in a designated area. If a player has injured his upper body, than he works out his lower body.
Reports said that James showed up to practice wearing street clothes and sunglasses, which made Richards question James' devotion to Tech.
"It's a major university," Richards said. "There's a million kids out there that would take that spot in an instant. It doesn't matter who you are. You have to mind the rules."
Still, in the face of a player mistreatment charge, Leach was sent packing. He is suing Tech for a breach of contract. The hearing in the Texas Court of Appeals is set for Oct. 7.
So what's next, for the three coaches in question and for college football?
Leach has said that he wants to coach again, and, odds are, Leavitt and Mangino will also attempt to resurface. Has too much damage been done, or will athletic directors be unable to ignore the success they've had?
"I'm sure it's a question that each one of those coaches are asking a lot of people that they trust," Teaff said, "as to what is the best avenue for me to reemerge in this profession? And like their personalities, reemergence will be different for all three of them. It's a real challenge, because of the circumstances in which they happened, but they're all three proven, successful football coaches."
And what about the proven, successful football coaches that still have jobs? Have they taken notice of how three coaches on the fast track had their careers derailed last December?
"Coaches are very astute," Teaff said, "and I think one of the things coaches have the ability to do is learn from their own mistakes and others' mistakes. It's a wake-up call obviously for everybody."