Commentary

Players refuse to succumb to adversity

Updated: January 29, 2010, 12:06 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

SAN ANTONIO -- How often do we see so-called adults acting like children and genuine heart, desire and determination coming from the young men we all too often want to pass off as "just kids"?

The dispiriting Texas Tech debacle of the past four days played out at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio late Saturday night in what should have been a roundly celebrated conclusion to a hard-fought season.

Instead, the tumultuous week included the firing of the most successful coach Texas Tech has known, repugnant comments from Tech fans trying to make a scapegoat out of a bench-warming receiver and the division of a fan base. Not to mention the possible total unraveling of all Tech has done, including funneling tens of millions of dollars into its football program to compete not only in the Big 12 but also on the national stage.

But on the Alamodome turf, where the kids finally took center stage Saturday night, a different storyline played out -- one of sweat, tears, perseverance, guts and even innocence. The young men caught in the middle of an ugly situation shoved the upheaval aside and courageously rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat an equally game Michigan State squad that was dealing with its own drama of 14 suspended players.

The Wizard of the West Plains wasn't on the sideline, but Mike Leach's spread passing attack, directed by receivers coach Lincoln Riley on this night, still whizzed and purred for 579 total yards -- 460 through the air -- in the Red Raiders' 41-31 victory.

Starting quarterback Taylor Potts threw for 372 yards before getting dinged up just enough in the fourth quarter for Riley to go with backup Steven Sheffield. The junior promptly led an eight-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to take a 34-31 lead with 5:03 to play.

Sheffield added another touchdown drive with 2:08 left to slam the door on the Spartans, converting two critical fourth downs and completing 9 of 11 throws in all for 88 yards.

Of course, the game, as thrilling as it was, took a backseat to the stunning news of Leach's firing and the nasty fallout.

"Why is everyone always so serious in here all the time? Why is that?" Sheffield asked during the postgame interview session. "I'm not going to be that serious. I don't want to answer any questions about Coach Leach and Adam James. We can talk about the game."

With multiple chances to succumb to the adversity of the week and this game, in which the Red Raiders trailed twice in the second half, they refused. The players instead fought to the end and earned a ninth win in a season they surely will never forget.

Ruffin McNeill, Tech's defensive coordinator who took over as interim coach after Leach's firing Wednesday, saw his defense come up with big fourth-quarter stops once Michigan State took a 31-27 lead with 8:05 to play. He later enjoyed a Gatorade shower. He hugged players, embracing each one individually, rubbed their heads and patted them on the back. He even might have had to hold back a tear or two.

Ruffin McNeill
AP Photo/Eric Gay Interim coach Ruffin McNeill celebrates with his players after Texas Tech's 41-31 victory in the Alamo Bowl.

"This was the most challenging week I've had in my 29 years of coaching," McNeill said. "It was a fun challenge, though, and this is the most rewarding night I've had in my coaching career. I love those players."

Although the night ended in fairy-tale fashion, the days leading up to the Alamo Bowl and the game itself had their ugly moments. A throng of Texas Tech fans seated above the tunnel to the locker room that the team used at halftime stood up and angrily booed and jeered James as he walked with several other Red Raiders who were not on the active roster for the game but watched from the sideline in their jerseys. Fans thrust their arms in his direction, pointed fingers at him and screamed obscenities at him.

"That's unfortunate," Tech athletic director Gerald Myers said before quickly changing the subject.

Tech players, perhaps to some of their own fans' surprise, had James' back and defended him more than their former coach. Some players described Leach as having grown larger than the program and losing touch with the players.

"We stay together as a family. I mean Adam James, it wasn't all him that did it. There were things leading up to it, and we're going to stick behind him 100 percent," senior cornerback Jamar Wall said. "As long as we're together and we're still winning, we should have our fan base."

That fan base appears to be more fractured than the team, which moved on quickly from the news of Leach's firing and closed ranks under McNeill's guidance.

Tech fans fear the unknown. They have come to expect exciting and competitive football teams. Without their quirky coach who brought a wide-open passing attack to the land of power football, Red Raiders backers -- many of whom held signs that read "Team Leach" and other niceties -- are afraid of a rapid decline after 10 years of Fun 'n' Gun with the pirate-loving Leach.

Falls are far more fun in Lubbock when the football is good. Tech fans believe those days are in jeopardy.

So, too, might be Leach's top-25 recruiting class, the primary reason Myers is hopeful for a quick hire to replace him. "That is an issue," Myers said. "We're going to try to get it done as quickly as possible."

The Tech administration has other reasons to fret. Leach brought the athletic department considerable revenue, and the department reinvested a large percentage of it into the football program. His oddball personality, a curve from the typical brand of football personalities, brought Tech considerable notoriety such as a piece on "60 Minutes" and an extensive feature in the New York Times Magazine.

Attendance under Leach was just one gauge of his success. When he took over in 2000, Tech averaged 42,020 fans per home game. In 2003, with the program trending up, Tech averaged 49,608. For the next six seasons, including 2009, attendance topped 50,000. At no other time in Tech football history did it average 50,000 or really even come close.

Six of the top 10 all-time attendance marks in Jones AT&T Stadium's 62-year history have come during Leach's tenure. Next season will see the opening of an $84 million renovation project that includes additional seating on the east side of the stadium and additional luxury suites that will push capacity beyond 60,000.

Texas Tech will expect to fill those seats. Had Leach returned for an 11th season, they would have. Now it will be up to a new coach to soothe tensions by keeping up the prosperity.

"I think the best thing for Tech and for Tech fans right now is just to move on," junior running back Baron Batch said. "I looked up in the stands and I saw 'Team Leach' and 'Bring Back Leach' [signs], and Leach ain't coming back. That's how it is. We got what we got. We got the coaches we've got. We got the players we've got. The best thing right now is to move on and understand we're still a very good football team with good players and good coaches."

Sound advice from a wise, young man.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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