Analysis of the Reasoning Behind the Firings of Mike Leach and Jim Leavitt

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

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, 2009).

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). …