With the recent firing of Ron Zook, Fighting Illini football is on the hunt for a new coach. This is an important inflection point for the football team; the Fighting Illini have finished with a .500 or better record in consecutive seasons for the first time since the ’94 and ’95 seasons, and will likely go to a bowl game in consecutive years for the first time since ’91 and ’92.
In the coming days, we will be examining possible candidates for the Illinois football head coaching position. This is a list compiled both from an examination of AD Mike Thomas’s past hiring tendencies as well as likely candidates due to regional status and Illinois ties.
Our first candidate is the Pirate, Mike Leach. Leach was a highly successful coach at Texas Tech before he was unceremoniously terminated after a run-in with Craig James’s son. Craig James used the mighty bullhorn of his status as an ESPN commentator to call for Leach’s dismissal after James’s son was allegedly mistreated after suffering a concussion. This firing was not without controversy, as Leach alleged that TTU wanted to get rid of him after a contentious contract negotiation resulted in a large raise for the coach. Indeed, Leach was fired just 2 days before an $800,000 retention bonus was due to be paid. This is not to say that Leach was angelic in his treatment of players; news articles shortly after the firing indicated that several players felt that Leach was a bit too hard on them. The aftermath of this firing is marked by litigation; Leach has sued ESPN and Texas Tech for their roles in the outcome.
Controversy aside, let’s look at Leach’s record at Texas Tech:
Overall: 84-43 .643 SRS: 9.34. (The SRS is the Simple Rating System, a measure of relative team strength available at sports-reference.com)
Conference: 47-33 .588, 1 shared division title
Leach’s teams posted the 3rd most conference wins during his tenure in the Big 12. Texas Tech beat the teams it should beat and sprung the occasional upset over Texas and Oklahoma, the dominant Big 12 South programs during his career. In his best year, 2008, Leach’s Red Raiders beat the #1 ranked Longhorns before losing to Oklahoma to tie for the division title. Their ranking peaked at #2 before the loss to the Sooners.
How do these records compare to TTU’s historical expectations? TTU had compiled a .504 overall winning percentage and a .491 conference winning percentage since joining the Southwest Conference in 1960. Leach’s performance over his 10 years in Lubbock places him 20 games over the historical expectation at Texas Tech overall and about 8 games better in conference play. This would be a more than career at Illinois.