If you needed any further evidence that Washington State head coach Mike Leach is on the outside looking in at the college football establishment, the University of Tennessee delivered.
Athletic director John Currie flew to Los Angeles on the last day of November to meet with Leach. Tennessee didn't offer Leach a job, didn't ask to meet with him again, didn't thank him publicly and move on to another candidate. Instead, Tennessee fired Currie after he spoke with Leach.
To review: Currie had inquired about or talked to Chip Kelly, Dan Mullen, Matt Campbell, Greg Schiano, David Cutcliffe, Mike Gundy, Dave Doeren and Kevin Sumlin -- basically, every coach short of the late Gen. Neyland -- and no one squawked. But once Currie spoke to Leach, Currie didn't last another 24 hours. That sets some sort of record.
That doesn't preclude Leach from a high-profile job -- Oregon could be a possibility -- but it does bring up questions that have been percolating in my head over the second half of the season. Will Mike Leach ever be offered and accept a high-profile job? Is he destined to carve a career out of coaching have-nots?
Since Leach took over at Texas Tech in 2000, his mixture of offensive wizardry, offbeat intellect and deadpan sense of humor has given him a profile larger than his record has earned. He has coached 16 seasons at two FBS outposts: Texas Tech, literally on the outskirts of the Big 12; and, for the past six seasons in Pullman, which makes Lubbock look cosmopolitan. Leach has done pretty well at those two perennial ne'er-do-wells. He has won three of every five games (122-80, .604). He has nurtured a healthy coaching tree, with branches spreading from West Virginia (Dana Holgorsen) to UCF (Josh Heupel) to North Texas (Seth Littrell) to Texas Tech (Kliff Kingsbury) to the College Football Playoff (Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma).
Which means that Riley has gone where Leach has not. Forget the playoff -- what he hasn't done in those 16 seasons is win a conference championship.
"We're getting in there," Leach said of falling one game short. "We're getting closer and closer. You just worry about doing the best you can. ... I don't think anybody in America would have bet that Washington State is in the middle of it the last three years."
Technically, Leach's 2008 Red Raiders tied for the Big 12 South with Texas and Oklahoma. But when the undefeated, No. 2 Red Raiders played the No. 5 Sooners, with the division and a front-runner's spot in the BCS race at stake, Oklahoma won 65-21, and it wasn't that close.
In the past two seasons, Washington State has come within a victory over archrival Washington of winning the Pac-12 North. Last year, at home, the No. 23 Cougars lost to the No. 6 Huskies 45-17. Last month, the No. 13 Cougars lost to the No. 17 Huskies 41-14.
That's three late-season games, everything on the line, and Leach's teams have lost by 44, 28 and 27 points. When the moments got big, his teams did not.
After the Apple Cup last month, Leach referred to his team as "anxious," "geeked-up" and "frantic." When Leach says that, he is doing what he is known for, speaking aloud what others only think. But what Leach is describing is a team that choked.
"I thought our entire team played poorly," Leach said. "Somehow as coaches we weren't able to get the anxiety out of their head and get the best performance out of them."
Leach also said Washington had better players, which gets back to Washington State being an outpost. You can make a compelling argument that Leach is doing more with less, that the talent he can attract to a Texas Tech or a Washington State will never equal the talent signing with the bell-cow state schools.
In 16 seasons, Leach has coached two first-round draft choices (Red Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Cougars defensive back Deone Bucannon), and he may have a third this season in senior defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa. Three, in 16 years. Urban Meyer had eight first-round draft choices in the past two years.
After the Apple Cup, a senior guard named B.J. Salmonson came into the interview room. Salmonson is a fifth-year player who started all 12 games this season. That brought his career total of starts to 13. Seemed like a nice guy. He was appropriately disconsolate. But if Salmonson is the 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, at which he is listed on the depth chart, then I am engaged to Meghan Markle.
Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg question. Has Leach failed to win a championship because he has taken jobs at schools that don't have the resources to win championships? Is he more comfortable at those schools without championship expectations? Are those schools the only ones who will hire a guy this unconventional?
Hasn't he at least thought about what it would be like to coach a have instead of spending his career with have-nots?
"Not that I can comment on," Leach said. "C'mon, now. What are you trying to do to me here?"
Whether Leach could survive, much less thrive, in the buttoned-up atmosphere of the SEC demands a vision that absolutely escapes me. The Pac-12 is not buttoned-up. A football coach in the Pac-12 is just a football coach. In the SEC, especially at a flagship state university, the football coach is a public, high-profile, quasi-political figure.
Leach's tenure at Texas Tech ended badly, with Leach being fired for player mistreatment. He responded by suing the university, demanding nearly $2.5 million that Tech didn't pay him after his firing. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the suit five years ago, yet Leach continues to press his case in public. As recently as October, he had a website set up -- paycoachleach.com -- with an online petition that has been signed by nearly 1,900 supporters.
You can admire Leach's determination to air his grievance while at the same time recognizing that behavior may scare away potential employers. But then Leach has never struck me as a man who wants the close scrutiny of a bell-cow job. Texas Tech and Washington State are outliers, both on the map and in the consciousness of college football. When Leach bounces his unusual takes off the wall in Pullman, when he walks several miles from his home to the Cougar football building and back, when he disappears from campus for weeks at a time to live at his home in Key West, no one at Washington State thinks twice.
Knoxville, as we have learned the past week, is not an outpost. Mississippi State, the SEC's answer to Washington State, has hired a new coach. The craziest coaching carousel in years is coming to a stop without quite engaging Leach. He remained, as is his wont, on the outside looking in.