This paper is a thematic analysis of press coverage surrounding the firings of coaches Mike Leach and Jim Leavitt from the 2010. In an effort to understand
the rationale behind their dismissals, this quantitative research uses attribution theory as the basis of the analysis. While the schools stated the firings were
due to the way these two coaches questionably handled a player, the press coverage displayed other reasons. This paper contextualizes the rationale behind their
firings in an effort to explain the current high stakes of major college football.
There are very few professionals with less job security than major college football coaches. Entering the 2010 season, there were 24 new coaches in the
Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). That turnover represented 20% of all FBS programs. Two of the 24 coaches who lost their jobs following the 2009
season generated national attention from their relatively regional programs. Both Mike Leach of Texas Tech and Jim Leavitt from South Florida lost their
jobs amid controversy and intensive media coverage centering on their off-field actions with some of their players. Prior to the firings, both coaches were
hailed as successful leaders. Issues surrounding their departures cast doubt upon the official reasons stated by the universities. When perceived reality
contradicts public discourse, there is a tremendous opportunity for public relations scholarship. This paper uses thematic analysis of news coverage to demonstrate
how the meanings the universities tried to construct for these firings were essentially refuted in the sports press.
Relevance of Research
The rationale behind the firings of these coaches, beyond what was publicly stated by their employers, is an important topic for researchers
to analyze for multiple reasons. First, as it relates to the growing field of sport communication, it provides content that focuses on the expansive growth
of the college football industry, the salaries provided to coaches, and the overall investment schools are willing to make to be successful on the football
field. Additionally, this research is an important topic as it relates to the fields of mass media, public relations, and journalism. College football is
at such a prominent level in terms of revenue, advertising, and marketing that it shares an escalating symbiotic relationship with the mass media. This media
coverage helps raise the financial stakes of those schools participating at the highest level of college football. The sport has always had this relationship
but since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998, the monetary rewards have risen exponentially. The BCS is the system that selects 12 schools
that participate in the top six post-season bowl games. Those 12 slots are highly coveted since they bring the most money and media attention to the participating
schools (Dunnavant, 2004). The power of the BCS has escalated to a point where politicians are now questioning its possible violation of anti-trust laws (Staples,
2010). This past bowl season, the six conferences that received an automatic bid to a BCS game garnered $145.2 million in revenue from the BCS. That sum
is compared to the $24.7 million awarded to the five conferences that didn’t receive an automatic BCS bid (Murphy, 2011). The manner in which college football
has become such an integral part of the mass media landscape makes any controversy that occurs in the industry worthy of address by academic researchers (Oriard,
College Football and Higher Education
The rise in college sports, in terms of revenue and media prominence, creates a public relations conundrum. Under the traditional educational perspective,
still touted in their marketing materials, colleges and universities have the primary mission of educating young people and preparing them for adult life.
For the select few student-athletes competing in the high-visibility sports at the Division I level, athletics is still presented as just another outlet
that prepares them physically and mentally for adulthood. However, the financial investments schools are making in their sports programs put this traditional
model in jeopardy. Now, athletes are more than students; they are necessary participants in the school’s profit motives (Sperber, 2000).
The role of the coach is also different in the evolving collegiate sports model. With the amount of money major colleges invest in football and the turnover
rate for head coaches, it is difficult to argue that winning isn’t the coach’s first priority (Stein, 2004). Because the multi-year contracts top coaches command
typically do not permit termination just for losing, a pretext may be needed to fire a coach. While schools are often forced to fire losing coaches because
of disgruntled fan bases, it remains a difficult financial decision. For an academic institution, it would appear that firing a coach for breaking rules
should be an easy decision to make. However, there are a number of college coaches who blatantly violated university or NCAA rules but still kept their jobs. Having
a rule-breaking coach remain on staff appears to violate the principles of an institution of higher learning. Yet, on the football and basketball sidelines
there remain a number of coaches almost impervious to being fired. There must be an underlying reason some schools are willing to be more lenient with rule-breaking
From a theoretical perspective, research into the rationale behind the firings of Leach and Leavitt relates to attribution theory. An expert in attribution
theory, Bernard Weiner (1985), often wrote about the human characteristic in which people have a driving need to search for the cause of events. This theory
relates to the persuasive messages used to explain how people account for the actions of others (Woodward & Denton, 2009). Attribution theory is storytelling
and the belief that a persuader tries to figure out how certain behaviors or messages will be perceived by others. The resulting story communicated by persuaders
best suits their needs and goals (Coombs, 2007). Attribution theory relates to public relations and crises communication since responses made by an organization
during the time of crisis will frame the public perception and impact its overall reputation (Heath, Toth & Waymer, 2009). After researching the influence
Word of Mouth Communication (WMOC) has on brand recognition, Laczniak; DeCarlo and Ramaswami (2001) concluded that poor WMOC significantly devalues the public’s
perception of the brand.
Even though there is a relationship between attribution theory and crisis communications, scholarly analysis connecting the theory to sports-related issues is almost
non-existent. In fact, there is almost no academic research into the broad topic of sports coaches being fired. Most of the literature deals with the impact,
in terms of wins and losses when a coach is dismissed during the season (Koning, 2003; Frick, Barros & Prinz 2010; White, Persad & Gee, 2007). One case
addressed by a scholar was the dismissal of basketball coach Jim Valvano by North Carolina State University in 1990. Michael Selvaggi (1993) used legal
analysis to examine the lawsuit filed by the university asserting that it had proper grounds to fire Valvano because of the poor academic progress of his
players. This research determined that this was the first time a school had fired a coach because of a stipulation in his contract regarding players’
Legal scholar Martin J. Greenberg (1991) noted that there is no other business in which contracts are broken more often than the sports industry. Since there
is so much at stake in terms of revenue and publicity, colleges and universities are in a precarious situation when administering punishment for coaches and
players who break rules. Keeping a coach or player out of action because of a violation could endanger a school’s chance of winning a game. That in
turn would lead to economic ramifications (Stangel, 2000).
Based on the cases of Leach and Leavitt and the possibility that they were both fired for other reasons than stated by their employers, this paper will
look to connect attribution theory to each controversy. Based on the research of Laczniak; DeCarlo and Ramaswami (2001), these controversial cases impacted
the overall brand value for both Texas Tech and South Florida. The following research questions will be used to better rationalize the firings of Leach and
RQ1: Were there other reasons for the firings of Leach and Leavitt besides the rationale provided by their employers?
RQ2: How do the cases of Leach and Leavitt compare to other BCS coaches who kept their jobs after violating NCAA rules during the same time frame?
This qualitative research paper is a case study of the firings of both Leach and Leavitt in an effort to better explain the reasoning behind their dismissals.
A case study is expected to “catch the complexity of a single case” by “coming to understand its activity within important circumstances”
(Patton, 2002, p. 297). By using thematic analysis of press accounts, this paper will argue that the universities reasons for the firings of Leach and Leavitt
were not entirely supported by the media reports.
Since college football is still predominantly a regional sport, as noted by Cave and Crandall (2001), this research paper relies heavily upon the relevant
local media outlets that cover Texas Tech and South Florida football in-depth. Those outlets include the Dallas Morning News, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and
Tampa Tribune. In order to present a national perspective to this analysis, stories from noted publications such as ESPN.com, USA Today, Sports Illustrated
and The New York Times were also used. These media outlets in particular cover college football in depth and often include critical coverage of off-the-field
issues. Also, these media outlets are highly regarded as the premier sources of national sports journalism.
The research obtained for this paper was a result of a thorough LexisNexis search using the terms Mike Leach, Jim Leavitt, Texas Tech football, and South
Florida football. Due to the fact that both coaches received little national media attention for their programs prior to the 2008 season, the search was
limited to the time frame from 2008 to early 2010. This allowed for the collection of press accounts that detailed the rise of both coaches and then the ensuing
fallout from their crises that occurred in early 2010.
The resulting press accounts served as the data for a thematic analysis of the crises surrounding Leach and Leavitt. This method of collecting data enables
researchers to combine and catalogue related patterns into sub-themes (Aronson, 1994). This method enables researchers to search through data to identify any
recurrent patterns. Themes are then linked together to find similar meetings and patterns. Anne Golden (2003) also utilized a thematic analysis of the sports
media when she examined the differences in the press coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 2002 Winter Paralympics. Relating to the method used for this
research, Mirca Madianou (2002) conducted a thematic analysis of television news coverage to investigate the coverage of how Greeks are identified in the
To contextualize possible motives underlying the schools’ decision-making, this paper will also compare the cases of Leach and Leavitt to four other contemporary
coaches who broke rules (during the same time frame as the incidents surrounding Leach and Leavitt) established by their employers and the National Collegiate
Athletic Association (NCAA). The four coaches examined in this research: Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, and Nick Saban are universally regarded by
the sports media as the top college coaches in the country. Through the use of media reports, this element of the thematic analysis will exhibit the reasons
that these other rule-breaking coaches were able to maintain their employment during the time frame of the study.
Mike Leach was the Texas Tech head football coach from 2000 to 2009. His Red Raiders went 84-34 with nine bowl game appearances (5-4) because of their pass-centric
offense that featured the 11 offensive players on the field lining up further apart from each other than what was commonly used by other coaches. Leach’s
success culminated with the 2008 campaign which brought the school its first ever 11-1 season that included a win over top-ranked Texas and a share of the
Big 12 Conference South division title. He was named Co-Coach of the Year in the Big 12, but the Red Raiders were left out of a BCS bowl berth because of
a little known tie-breaking rule. Texas and Oklahoma represented the Big 12 in the BCS while Texas Tech played in the lesser Cotton Bowl, where it lost
Oklahoma wound up losing the National Championship Bowl against Florida. Not making a BCS bowl game is a major issue since the Big 12, like the Big East
where South Florida resides, gives a bigger share of the game’s profit to the schools that appear in one of the top post-season games. Other conferences
divide BCS bowl money evenly among all members. This is not the case for the Big 12 and Big East. Therefore, there is a tremendous financial incentive to
be a conference representative in a BCS bowl game for a Big 12 and Big East squad (Warmbroad, 2004).
During his career in Lubbock, Leach’s name was often mentioned with coaching vacancies at other larger programs. Leach stayed with the Red Raiders as he
received a pair of contract extensions. In 2008, he signed a five-year extension worth $12.7 million. This contract gave Leach unprecedented clout at the school
Crisis: Leach places player in shed
Leach’s crisis began in late December 2009 when Texas Tech suspended him after allegations arose that earlier in the month he had an injured player
sent to an equipment shed as a form of punishment. The player, Adam James, the son of ESPN announcer and former NFL running back Craig James, had suffered
a concussion and was unable to practice. This unconventional move by Leach became a newsworthy topic both locally in Texas and nationally (Dodd, 2009). The ensuing
media hype continued to rise when Leach refused to apologize for his actions and James became the spotlight of local and national sports media (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,
2009). In just a matter of one season, in the eyes of the national and local media, Texas Tech went from being the upstart program that played a compelling
wide-open offense to the school that employed a coach who humiliated an injured player. This forced the school into an on-going crisis communication phase.
Ultimately, the organization’s crisis communication management would use public relations techniques to attempt to protect the institution’s reputation.
Texas Tech officially fired Leach on December 30th. The firing came one day before Leach was due a substantial $800,000 bonus and a guaranteed $1.7 million
salary for the upcoming season (ESPN, 2009). The amount of money paid to Leach was far more than Texas Tech had spent on coaches in the past. However, it is
similar to the salaries of the major national coaches also in the Big 12. For example, Mack Brown of Texas received $5 million per year and Bob Stoops of
Oklahoma received $4.2 million per year (Rohode, 2010).
After Leach was fired he went on the media offensive criticizing the school and its athletic department. He claimed that the school “conspired”
to fire him because of the $800,000 bonus he was due. In court documents, his lawyers argued “TTU would obtain the benefits of Leach’s performance
but chisel him out of his compensation” (Associated Press, 2010). He also said the animosity between him and the school was a result of the contract negotiations
he went through the previous year (Evans and Thamel 2009). Since Texas Tech had such a productive 2008 season going 11-2, Leach’s name was constantly
attached to openings at large programs including Auburn and Washington. Subsequently, in an effort to keep Leach in Lubbock, Texas Tech was forced to renegotiate
the coach’s contract. Larger football schools must commonly increase incentives in order to keep a head coach if he wins. Texas Tech was essentially in an unfamiliar
situation from a financial perspective to be bidding against itself to keep Leach.
Leach said of his relationship with Texas Tech administrators, “It’s shocking to me that there’s people working together that were trying to
get me fired last year after an 11-1 regular season,” Leach said. He added: “I believe in everybody working together and that together we could all
accomplish great things together, but then I discover that’s not the case and that the very foundation is crumbling out from under me. Betrayal’s
really hard” (Evans and Thamel, 2010). Providing support to Leach’s claims that the school’s top administrators did not want him running the
program regardless of the James situation, the Dallas Morning News acquired internal emails from 2008 to 2010 between Tech administrators, primarily Chancellor
Kent Hance and athletic director Gerald Myers, and athletic booster Jim Sowell of Dallas during Leach’s contract negotiations. The emails display a general
lack of support for Leach even though the school was going to offer him a major pay raise. One message had Sowell recommending to Hance and Myers that Tech
should stand firm in its negotiations with the coach. “You should sign a contract that would not cost us too much to fire him,” Sowell wrote.
“He has to have a big buyout. He has shown no loyalty” (Dallas Morning News, 2010). Leach’s attorney also stated that reports show that Hance
informed an attorney investigating James’ claims against Leach that they were “too milk toast” and “too mild” (USA Today, 2010).
Leach also contended that the celebrity status awarded to James because of his father’s NFL career and status as an ESPN commentator accelerated
the firing process. (Evans and Thamel, 2010). Texas Tech officials denied these claims and fired Leach with cause because of his insubordination and lack of
assistance during the James situation and the resulting investigation (Carver, 2010). The back-and-forth claims eventually led Leach to sue the university
on a number of claims. A district judge ruled that Leach could sue on one count of breach of contract. To date both sides are still entangled in a legal battle
Leach and Texas Tech’s national rise almost paralleled that of Jim Leavitt and the University of South Florida. Leavitt was ostensibly the godfather of
Bulls football. He coached at the school from 1997 to 2009. Beginning in 1997, South Florida was a I-AA program that eventually joined I-A’s Conference
USA in 2003. After just two seasons in the conference, South Florida made another significant jump, this time to the Big East and its BCS conference status. Once
again Leavitt was at the helm as the USF program grew and won simultaneously. South Florida made five straight post-season games from 2005 to 2009.
The peak of Leavitt’s career and the height of South Florida football came in September 2007 when the program made its first-ever appearance in the
Top 25. As the Bulls kept winning that season, they made it to No.2 in the BCS rankings. Only Ohio State had a better position than the Bulls. South Florida
lasted in that spot only one week as it fell to conference rival Rutgers in a nationally televised contest. Two more losses came in ensuing games as Leavitt’s
squad eventually dropped out of the rankings. The Bulls finished the season 9-4 with a loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl.
Even with the late season dry spell, Leavitt was rewarded with a contract extension that would pay him $12.6 million from 2008 to 2014 (USA Today, 2010). Much like
Leach, other major programs also courted Leavitt prior to his signing this contract extension. Schools such as Alabama, Arizona State, Kansas State, and Miami were
reportedly interested in Leavitt’s services (Donahue, 2006). Leavitt often cited his allegiance to the university as the main reason he stayed in Tampa.
His allegiance was rewarded with a new contract, an uncommon policy for the school that only a few years prior had become a Division I program.
Crisis: Leavitt has altercation with player
The Jim Leavitt case mirrors Leach in many ways. Leavitt coached USF from 1997 to 2009 to a 94-57 record. Like Texas Tech, USF never made a BCS bowl appearance
even though it came very close. To stay competitive in an extremely difficult market, USF gave Leavitt a raise to keep him as its football coach. This raise
came just before a controversial incident, as was the case with Leach. On November 21, 2009, during halftime of a game against Louisville, Leavitt apparently struck
one his players, sophomore Joel Miller, a claim that Leavitt denied to school officials. Fanhouse.com first reported the story of the halftime incident (McMurphy,
2010). Afterwards, Leavitt responded: “It’s absolutely not true. It’s so wrong. It’s so far out there. I’m very disappointed something like this would
be written” (Auman, 2009). Leavitt contended that he was trying to raise the spirits of an upset player.
When first contacted by the media following the breaking story, South Florida representatives neither supported nor criticized Leavitt. “The University
of South Florida is aware of the story and will review the matter promptly,” said Michael Hoad, USF vice president for communications. “We’re committed
to ensuring due process for everyone involved. To ensure fairness, the university doesn’t comment during a review” (Auman, 2009).
An investigation followed and it was concluded that Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat, slapped him in the face and then lied about it (ESPN.com, 2010).
USF made the findings first known to the media through a press release. The investigation conducted by the school also revealed that Leavitt lied to investigators
and had encouraged players and coaches to do likewise. In the wake of the report, Leavitt said he did not hit the player or ask others to lie on his behalf. USF
President Judy Genshaft and athletic director Doug Woolard asked Leavitt to admit to the incident as a result of his momentary loss of control. The coach
refused to do so, saying he was “sticking to his guns.” Just hours after he refused to admit to his misbehavior as stated in the investigation
to the school’s top administrators, Leavitt was fired on January 8, 2010 (Peterson, 2010). In a press conference announcing the firing, “neither
Genshaft nor Woolard took questions and specifics about Leavitt were not discussed” (Fox Sports, 2010).
Financial considerations were also present in the Leavitt firing. ESPN.com reported in January 2010: “Leavitt just finished the second season of
a seven-year, $12.6 million contract extension that calls for a base salary of $800,000 in 2010. The terms of the contract stipulate that if fired with
cause Leavitt is entitled to one month’s base pay, in this case $66,667. If fired without cause, the university would owe him 75 percent of what he’s owed
for the remainder of the contract.”
Table 1. Themes of press coverage surrounding firings of Mike Leach and Jim
|Themes of Press Coverage of Leach and Leavitt|
|1. Coaches are praised for putting their programs on the national stage.2. For the first time, Texas Tech and USF must keep renegotiating contracts
3. Texas Tech and USF get close to BCS game but fail to make it.
4. Focus on Leach and Leavitt immediately goes from praise to their scandals.
5. Firings become national stories as journalists look to explain the situations.
6. Both schools attribute the firings to just the incidents in question.
7. Both coaches were due raises but were fired before they were paid.
Even though both Texas Tech and USF in their press conferences and reports to the media stated that the firings were a result of the way the two coaches
handled the players in questions, other motives clearly emerged in the press. The amount of national media coverage regarding these two regionally based coaches
indicates journalists were in search of deeper meanings behind their dismissals. To answer RQ1, the other reasons appear to be financially motivated, along with
administrators from both schools growing discontented with the coaches’ behaviors.
In the Leach case, there is an email trail that clearly displays the displeasure Texas Tech administrators had with giving Leach so much money and prestige.
If Leach brought BCS riches, it’s likely the school would maintain its relationship with him despite its displeasure. Since Leach did not provide the
school with its ultimate goal of being in a BCS game, Texas Tech was unable to take the national criticism it received as a result of Leach’s actions
(Jonsson, 2009). Spencer Hall (2009) wrote” It makes sense in a world where Leach, an oddball among oddballs, finally reaches the limit of tolerance
both on his part and on the part of his bosses in the TTU administration. Leach’s contract negotiations were, to put it politely, contentious. His flirtations
with other jobs were brazen. The university’s patience with his high-profile antics was running low.” The idea that there was more to Leach’s
firing than just his behavior with James was further supported by Magary (2009), “Just last year, he was nearly dropped by the school in the wake of contentious
negotiations. Just as the James saga was likely the last straw for the school to keep Leach around.” Based on attribution theory, Texas Tech explained
Leach’s firing for just one reason, not for the multiple reasons as stated in the media.
This rationale also holds true for Leavitt, a coach without a BCS bowl game to his credit who got a big pay raise right before a controversial incident.
South Florida was unwilling to tolerate national criticism created by a high paid coach that did not deliver the school the coveted BCS prize. As deplorable
as it is for a coach to hit a player, conflicting stories about the incident, including statements by Miller, make Leavitt’s abrupt firing questionable
in its motives (Schad, 2009). Even though Leavitt listened to other job offers, it does not appear that the ill will between him and the school ran as deep
as it did between Texas Tech and Leach. Rather, Leavitt’s biggest mistake was not winning a conference championship prior to the incident with Miller.
"If his team was coming off a Big East title he might be able to survive this (for right or wrong), but when his teams routinely fizzled over the second halves of seasons, and with the way his team was a disaster in the classroom (with one of the nation’s worst rankings according to the Academic Progress Report), this wasn’t that tough a call for the university” (College Football News, 2010)."
Richard Cirminello echoed these sentiments with
"Leavitt had become a caricature in recent years, racing around the field as if he was that team trainer with less than all of his faculties. While it was a cute act when USF was climbing up the ladder in the early days, it stopped being endearing when the program stopped improving. The Bulls peaked in October of 2007, rising to No. 2 in the country. Since then, they’ve gone just 16-14, slipping into the middle of the Big East pack. As a program builder, Leavitt had an epic run. As a program elevator, he appeared increasingly out of his league. The incident involving Miller may have been just the ideal opening the administration needed in order to make a change” (College Football News, 2010)."
This “ideal opening” correlates with attribution theory since it allowed USF to tell a particular persuasive story about Leavitt’s firing
that was in the best interest of its stakeholders.
Comparison of Leach and Leavitt with BCS winning coaches
Around the same time Leach and Leavitt faced intense scrutiny from their employers; several other major coaches were also found to have violated rules. The coaches
used for comparison to address RQ2 are Pete Carroll (USC), Jim Tressel (Ohio State), Urban Meyer (Florida), and Nick Saban (Alabama). The media coverage
of these four coaches demonstrates each repeatedly violated NCAA rules and regulations. However, unlike Leach and Leavitt, these four coaches had success in bringing
their schools to BCS games. Also, these coaches did not lose their jobs after breaking the rules. Based on the research, as it relates to RQ2, there appears
to be a double standard for college football coaches. Winning coaches can withstand a crisis or rules violation unlike those coaches without the same BCS success.
For example, Carroll, the former coach of USC, was able to maintain his job from 2001 to 2009 even though he presided over the program that committed a
number of major NCAA violations. So much so, that in June 2010 the NCAA put USC on a two-year post-season ban while also forcing the program to eliminate
30 scholarships and forfeit a number of wins from 2004 to 2006 (Klein and Wharton, 2010). Most of the illegality of Carroll’s program came during the recruitment
of Reggie Bush.
Noted Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke (2009) criticized Carroll’s tenure and his knowledge of the recruiting illegalities by writing “he
goes from saint to scallywag. Carroll says he didn’t know about the Bush violations. That now seems impossible… …he made $33 million from violations that will
cost his old school its reputation, and folks here will never look at him the same.” Carroll was able to keep his job during a period of time the NCAA
was “troubled” by “the campus environment” that he created at USC (Lev, 2010). The NCAA also criticized USC for disregarding Carroll’s
blatant use of allowing influential visitors access to his team by stating in a critical report of the school “”the institution’s failure to regulate
access to practices and facilities” (Gardner, 2010). Clearly, Carroll’s BCS accomplishments helped insulate him from the immediate and harsh punishment
given to Leach and Leavitt.
Ohio State’s Tressel guided his team to three BCS championships, winning one, during his 10 years in Columbus. Those impressive numbers included five
straight Big 10 conference titles. Because of this success, he was one of the top paid coaches in the country with an annual salary that eclipses $3.7 million
(Berkowitz, 2010). However, Tressel faced scandals several times during his Ohio State tenure. Longman (2007) wrote that both his career first at Youngstown
State and then OSU have been tarnished by a number of issues. “At both colleges, his top quarterback took money from boosters in violation of NCAA
rules. Maurice Clarett, the running back who played a vital role in Ohio State’s national championship in 2002, sits in prison after a sad descent. A number
of other Ohio State players have encountered legal or disciplinary problems since Tressel became head coach in 2001, and his academic record, while improving,
remains mixed.” Longman (2007) also wrote that Ohio State’s athletic director was a “staunch ally” of Tressel. As it relates to Leach,
he certainly was not an ally of top Texas Tech officials.
There was a similar relationship at Florida between Meyer and athletic director Jeremy Foley. Meyer was the recipient in 2005 of a seven-year contract worth
$14 million handed out by Foley (Low, 2009). This salary was a result of Meyer’s two national championships and the highest winning percentage in the BCS. However,
during this time in Gainesville, 27 of Meyer’s players were arrested. The charges varied from larceny, stalking, to assault. The arrests forced Meyer
to defend himself by saying “it’s not a dirty program” (Associated Press, 2010). Tressel was fired by OSU in 2011 and Meyer retired in late 2010.
Alabama’s Saban, a winner of three BCS games and a national championship, encountered scandal in the summer of 2010 when a number of his players were
involved with illegal dealing with agents (Mandel, 2010). Saban did his best to distance himself from the issue, but this followed another scandal where
a number of Alabama players were caught in unauthorized selling of their free textbooks as a result of their scholarships (Miasel and Schlabach, 2010). During
his time at Alabama, Saban has dealt with “text book scandals and felonies” (Brizendine, 2008). While Alabama was forced to vacate 21 wins and placed on
three years-probation, Saban’s job was not in jeopardy as a result (Hooper, 2009).
The one-dimensional storytelling via the media conducted by both Texas Tech and South Florida regarding the firings of Leach and Leavitt has a direct relationship
with attribution theory. Since these schools omitted other relevant and significant factors, such as disputes with administrators, uneasiness about renegotiating
contracts, general odd behavior, and poor academic performance by the players, their messages to the media suggest they were doing so to protect themselves
and their stakeholders. These other factors were well documented by journalists.
For Texas Tech and USF, this protection was a manifestation of attribution theory in action. The rationale behind the firings of Leach and Leavitt was
public relations and marketing driven. Texas Tech and South Florida did not want to expand publicly on these other issues and instead focused their messages
on the intolerant behaviors Leach and Leavitt displayed in an effort to perpetuate the image that the schools are institutions of higher learning, not just football
academies. Also, by crafting a public story focused just on the singular activities of Leach and Leavitt, it gave the schools the rationale of firing a coach for
just cause. Texas Tech and South Florida called upon the persuasion techniques of attribution theory to create a story that would have fans, and some journalists,
believe the outcomes of the events were solely a result of the singular actions of both Leach and Leavitt.
These two schools were able to employ their crisis communication techniques of creating a favorable story line because so many media outlets were willing
to carry their message in an effort to gain more content and programming. The addition of ESPN’s Craig James into the story generated even more media
attention. Most of the coverage about the other issues surrounding the firings came from the national outlets. This finding is noteworthy as it underscores
the symbiotic relationship the local Texas and Florida news outlets share with Texas Tech and South Florida. The local media outlets may have shown restraint
in creating critical coverage of these two universities. The exception was the Lubbock Avalanche- Journal that did run a number of pieces illustrating the
problems between Texas Tech administrators and Leach.
In the context of this research, there appears to be a double standard within the highest ranks of college football. Coaches with BCS wins apparently can
withstand a crisis and receive greater support from their employer than those coaches without BCS wins. Unfortunately for Leach and Leavitt, they didn’t
have the same success as the likes of Carroll, Tressel, Meyer and Saban. Relating to the concepts of the attribution theory, a school is unlikely to make public
statements that a coach was able to keep his job because he won BCS games. The school would instead provide other reasons that supported its status as an institution
of higher learning.
The media coverage surrounding Leach and Leavitt in wake of their scandals demonstrates that the worst action a college coach can do is simply not win
enough. Universities, using the application of attribution theory, are not likely to publicly state this as it would tarnish their overall reputation. However,
it can serve as the foundation for a firing based on another incident that otherwise might not seem related. This idea of using an alternative rationale brings relevance
to this paper’s topic and attribution theory. As part of a school’s crisis communication plan, it might tell a public story that best serves itself
and its stakeholders.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
This paper expanded the literature of sport communication to include attribution theory. As previously stated in this paper, attribution theory is not often
included in sports media literature. This paper is one of the few works to introduce attribution theory to sports public relations. A better understanding of this
theory as it relates to sports crisis communication will benefit both academic scholars and professional journalists looking to interpret and contextualize
the issues surrounding the firing of a major college coach. Since schools have so much money riding on the success of their teams, they will continue to dismiss
coaches who do not win enough games in efforts of finding someone who will. Such competition in the industry of higher education that is supposed to both
educate young people and profit from athletic investments will continue to create a constant flow of financial, ethical, and media issues worthy of deeper analysis.
Even though both Texas Tech and South Florida scaled back the amount of money invested in their football coaches, other schools are still pouring millions
of dollars into their programs in search of BCS riches. However, there only a select few games and only half the teams participating in those games can
prevail as the winner. So, there will continue to be more schools that fail in their BCS quest than win. This financial arms race and the adjoining media
coverage should continue to create worthy areas of academic exploration for future researchers. This paper could lead other researchers into examining the
rationale of how and why a football coach was fired by a college or university. As college basketball continues to expand in popularity, similar research could
evolve with that sport as well.
David Dewberry, Yun Xia, Cheryl Moore, Eliot Emert
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